Charlie Morton’s Dilemma

Last year, Charlie Morton had an ERA of 7.57, had a stint on the disabled list, and was bounced from the Pirates rotation and ended up back in Triple-A. This year, he has a 1.64 ERA, is averaging better than seven innings pitched per start, and is one of the main reasons the Pirates are a .500 team, only a game out of first place in the NL Central. He’s an early season success story, and credit is being given to his new Roy Halladay-esque delivery and the decision to lower his arm slot.

But at the risk of being a wet blanket, I’m going to suggest that Morton’s success so far is actually problematic long term, and it might just be in his best interests to get torched by the Marlins tomorrow.

There’s no doubt that Morton is a markedly different pitcher this year than he was last year. In addition to the delivery and arm angle changes that have been noted, he’s also dramatically altered his pitch selection. Last year, Morton was your standard 60% fastball/30% breaking ball/10% change-up guy, mixing four pitches and trying to throw strikes with most of them. His walk rate and strikeout rate were just about average, but because he posted crazy high totals in BABIP (.353) and HR/FB rate (18.4%), his results did not match his process.

The perceived failure has led to him ditching his secondary pitches this year and trying something entirely new. In his first three starts, he’s thrown 89% fastballs – mostly two-seamers – and basically scrapped the slider and change-up, using only his curveball as an alternative pitch. Take a look at his Pitch F/x plot for the season:

There’s a half dozen changeups in there and a few sliders, but as you can see, it’s mostly just one giant blob of blue, which is Morton’s sinker, and it’s essentially the only pitch he’s throwing right now. He hasĀ also decided that he’s going to use it to pound one location over and over.

As you can see from the two strike-zone plots above, Morton is aiming for the area of the strike zone that is down and in to right-handed batters and down and away from left-handed hitters. There’s a little more deviation against RHBs, where he’s been willing to climb the ladder a bit, but against LHBs, everything is down and away with few exceptions.

The results of this change? The highest GB% in baseball (68.7%), but at the cost of a big uptick in his walk rate (4.91 BB/9) and a Mark Buehrle-esque strikeout rate (2.45 K/9). Morton has the lowest rate of swinging strikes of any starting pitcher in the majors, and it’s not even particularly close. His decision to live in one particular part of the strike zone with one pitch has resulted in the outcome of nearly every at-bat being either a walk or a ground ball.

Unfortunately for Morton, that’s just not a long-term recipe for success. Ground balls are great, especially if you also never walk anyone, but Morton’s succeeding right now on the back of a .164 BABIP. There’s a good chance that this isn’t all “luck,” but instead is the residue of hitters not being prepared for his new arm slot and approach. Any hitter watching video of Morton last year to prepare for his at-bats against him this year is essentially watching video of another pitcher entirely, and the plan that he’s going up there with won’t help him at all.

It won’t take long for teams to get current video on Morton, though, and for hitters to start making adjustments to this new version. And when they do, Morton is going to have to adjust as well. He won’t keep getting hitters out frequently enough with just one pitch in one location. Put simply, this is not a sustainable result based on how he has been pitching.

It’s weird to say that a guy with a 1.64 ERA needs to make some changes, and it’s pretty likely that he wouldn’t agree with that based on the early returns, but this just isn’t going to work as a long-term strategy. Struggling through a few starts might be just what he needs to make some alterations to his approach and see if he can find a happy middle ground – one where his lower arm slot can still lead to a lot of ground balls, but where he can also throw strikes and get strikeouts when he needs them.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Interesting take, Dave. One question, though: Do you think Morton has the stuff to consistently outpitch his peripherals every year, a la Matt Cain, or is he going to regress big-time and really struggle?

I agree that he isn’t a sub-2.5 ERA pitcher, but I’m not sure he can’t be a good #2 or #3 if he just gets his strikeouts up a little bit and controls the walks. Hitters have been getting a whole lot of nothing out of their contact off him; if you watch each start, very few balls have been hit with any authority.

11 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I think that the extremeness of his K/BB rates are just a byproduct of the small sample size. He’ll never rack up strikeouts and he’ll always walk a few too many hitters, but I’d be surprised if his K/BB stays under 1.

Brad Johnsonmember
11 years ago
Reply to  Kirsh

Another guy you can look at as an upside comp is Joel Piniero. This could evolve into something interesting to watch over the course of the season. I’m curious to see how he adjusts.