Sunday Notes: Charlie Morton Is Different (and Better)

Charlie Morton had a career year. In his first season with the Houston Astros, the 33-year-old right-hander is heading into October baseball with a record of 14-7 and a 3.62 ERA. The win total is a personal best, as are his 3.46 FIP and his 7.7 H/9.

Especially notable are his 10 strikeouts per nine innings and his 51.8% ground ball rate. The former is by far his highest, and the latter is by far his lowest. Morton was not only good during the regular season, he was also not the same pitcher he was in Pittsburgh.

“My stuff is different this year,” Morton told me on Thursday. “It’s not sinking as much — it’s harder, but it’s not sinking as much. My curve isn’t as vertical as it usually is; it’s not moving as much.

“When I was with the Pirates, from 2009-2015, I was a heavy sinker guy. I was over 60%, sinkers, and this year, against lefties, I might throw five sinkers in the whole game. My two-seam control has suffered a little bit, because I’m not throwing it as much. I’m four-seam, curveball, cutter, changeup — more of a mix. So really… it’s a balance of your identity, and of what you’re trying to do.”

It’s also a matter of what the team he plays for wants him to do. Formerly under the tutelage of Ray Searage, he’s now under the watchful eye of Brent Strom. Going from one highly-respected pitching coach to another, and from one forward-thinking organization to another, has impacted his attack plan.

“The way (the Astros) want me to pitch is a little different,” said Morton, whose fastball has been averaging 96 MPH. “They’re not really big into contact. They want more swing and miss. The idea is that if hitters don’t put the ball in play, there is less of a chance to get on. When I was in Pittsburgh, it was, ‘If you put the ball on the ground, there is less of a chance for it to be hit in a gap or over a fence.’ I get both. Really, the way my stuff is this year, what I’d like to do is get righties out in three pitches or less, and strike lefties out.”

The numbers bear that out. Morton has fanned 94 of the 287 batters who have come to the plate against him. Of the 330 right-handed hitters he’s faced, 69 have gone down on strikes.

Morton’s pitching identity has changed, but in at least one respect it’s remained the same. While his stuff is different, it’s what he relies on.

“I need movement or I need speed,” explained Morton. “I’ve never been a great pitcher. I’ve been a good thrower. I need stuff to get outs.”

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Pittsburgh rookie Steven Brault pitched effectively against the Brewers in back-to-back starts. Over 11 innings, he allowed just five hits and a pair of runs. In the first of the two contests, Brault threw 92 pitches, and 67 of them were four-seam fastballs that averaged a nothing-special 92.6 MPH.

Prior to the second outing, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell commented on the southpaw, and compared him to two of his own.

“He threw a lot of fastballs,” said Counsell. “It wasn’t a secret as to what was coming. He’s got a sneaky fastball. Look, we’ve seen… we have pitchers who rely on sneaky fastballs. There’s Brent Suter on one end of it and there is Josh Hader on the other end of it. You can rely on that pitch, and be effective.”

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It’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of Josh Hader’s fastball, which he’s thrown 80% of the time this season. The 23-year-old lefty has allowed just 25 hits in 47-and-two-thirds big-league innings, and he’s fanned 68 batters. Strikeouts are a primary goal. When I asked Hader if he’s out there trying to miss bats, he answered in the affirmative.

“The less contact you can get, the more you’re in control,” said the rookie hurler. “Once you throw the ball, everything else is out of your control. But if you can miss bats, you’re in control.”

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In late August, Buck Showalter took umbrage at my suggestion that a mediocre team is in line to make it to the postseason. At the time, the Minnesota Twins held the American League’s second wild card spot with a record of 66-63 (and a minus-33 run differential). In the opinion of the Orioles skipper, a team that is “four or five games over .500 is not mediocre.”

Showalter concluded his rebuttal with the following words:

Trying to close out a season as a divisional champion, or trying to catch up… September is an eternity. I keep trying to tell our guys this. Each day there will be a different angle, so you try to keep reality in mind.

How did reality play out for the teams that were then in contention for the AL’s second wildcard? Here are their September records, from best to worst:

Kansas City 15-14; Minnesota 14-14; Tampa Bay 12-14; Seattle 12-15; Texas 12-16; Anaheim 10-17; Baltimore 7-20.

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Joey Votto is slashing .321/.455/.578 and he leads National League hitters in OBP, OPS, walks, wRC+, and wOBA. He’s fourth in batting average and WAR, fifth in home runs and total bases, sixth in SLG and runs scored, and eighth in RBI. He was also reliable. Votto played in every Cincinnati Reds game this season.

In my opinion, Joey Votto deserves to be named NL MVP.

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There will be at least two new managers next season, as Brad Ausmus won’t be returning in Detroit, and Pete Mackanin will be moving into a different role in Philadelphia. Don’t be surprised if one or both is replaced by a person of color. MLB wants more diversity, and qualified minority candidates abound.

Alex Cora — currently the bench coach in Houston — is among those who will be considered. In the opinion of baseball insiders I’ve spoken to recently, Cora belongs on any team’s short list.

Other well-deserving candidates include, but are not limited to: Manny Acta. Sandy Alomar, Chili Davis, Fredi Gonzalez. DeMarlo Hale, Dave Martinez, and Bo Porter. Ozzie Guillen and Ron Washington are also intriguing possibilities, as are Torii Hunter and Raul Ibanez.

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Not only do the Cleveland Indians have the best record in the American League, they also have some of the best press notes (take a bow, Bart Swain and staff). Yesterday’s notes included the following This Date in Music factoid:

1977: BBC Radio 1, the UK’s first national pop station was launched in an effort to overtake pirate radio stations, which had been forced off- air by the government.

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Tony Kemp is listed at 5-foot-6, but just like his even-more-vertically-challenged Houston Astros teammate, he doesn’t come up short in the hitting category. Before being called up in early September, the 25-year-old second baseman-outfielder slashed .329/.375/.470 for the Fresno Grizzlies. Much as Jose Altuve leads the American League in hits, Kemp led all of Triple-A in hits.

In the opinion of the former fifth-round pick, size is relative.

“Sometimes you need to give a good shout-out to the guys who are short,” said Kemp. “In baseball, height doesn’t matter. I mean, you see what Jose Altuve does, and I think I qualify as an example of that as well. So, to the guys out there who are short and want to continue their career, don’t listen to the outside noise. Silence that noise. Play with a chip on your shoulder.

“Going into the (2013) draft, a lot of teams were skeptical of me because of my size, but being short doesn’t mean you can’t make it to the big leagues. If you’re undersized, or undervalued, just continue to bring it.”

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The Brewers have the most stolen bases in the National League, and 10 of them have come from Travis Shaw. I asked Milwaukee skipper Craig Counsell why the not-exactly-fast corner infielder has been able to garner as many as he has.

“He’s picking appropriate spots, and being disciplined,” responded Counsell. “For guys who don’t have that true base-stealing speed, it’s usually about the discipline of when you do it.”

Is that discipline based more on his instincts, or more on scouting reports and suggestions to run?

“I can’t tell you that,” said Counsell. “I’d have to put you down.”

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SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER TIDBITS

The Detroit Tigers have expanded their analytics department by hiring Danny Vargovick, Drew Jordan and Shane Piesik as analysts in baseball operations. Sam Menzin, previously the director of baseball operations, has been promoted to director of baseball operations and professional scouting.

Going into the last day of the season, hitters have combined for 8,343 doubles and 6,080 home runs this season. In 2014, hitters combined for 8,137 doubles and 4,186 home runs.

Oakland’s Matt Olson has 24 home runs and two doubles. Texas’s Joey Gallo has 32 singles and 41 home runs.

Going into the weekend, Dodger hitters had already established a franchise record for extra-base hits (546). Their 777 singles are currently the fifth fewest in franchise history.

Hunter Renfroe set a San Diego Padres rookie record on Tuesday when he hit his 25th home run of the season. Nate Colbert hit 24 home runs as a rookie in 1969.

On Friday, Nicholas Castellanos became the 10th player in Detroit Tigers history to have a 100-RBI season at age 25 or younger.

Jonathan Schoop’s 105 RBI are the most ever for a Baltimore Orioles second baseman. Roberto Alomar had 94 RBI in 1996.

The Atlanta Braves lead MLB with nine pinch-hit home runs. Their 50 pinch-hit RBI also lead the majors.

Pirates rookie left-hander Steven Brault has 21 big league plate appearances and has yet to strike out. He has five hits.

Earlier this month, Dusty Baker became the 12th manager in MLB history to win 90 or more games in 10 or more seasons.

With their win on Friday, the San Francisco Giants avoided the possibility of having a 100-loss season for the second time in franchise history. The 1985 Giants went 62-100.

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Are “juiced” baseballs behind the record number of home runs hit in MLB this season? No one seems to know for sure, but a player I spoke to recently presented anecdotal evidence that it very well may be the case. He saw some Triple-A time this summer, and based on his observations a big-league ball travels “probably 20 feet farther” than a minor-league ball hit with the same launch angle and exit velocity.

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Vince Cotroneo has been broadcasting professional baseball for three-plus decades, so he’s see a lot of home runs. One of the most memorable came in 1985, when he was calling games for Milwaukee’s Double-A affiliate, the El Paso Diablos.

Joey Meyer was a big, slugging Hawaiian, and he hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen,” recalled Cotroneo, who has spent the last 12 years in the Oakland A’s radio booth. “We played the Cardinals, in Little Rock, at Ray Winder Field. They had a 30-foot-high wall, plus another 20-to-30-foot chain-link fence, to protect the highway that ran behind the stadium. Joe Boever, who got to the big leagues and played for a few clubs, was pitching. Joey hit one to dead center, not only over the wall, but about three quarters of the way up the chain-link fence. They didn’t have launch angles or exit velocity back then, but I can tell you this: I’ve never seen a longer one.”

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ESPN’s Marly Rivera is helping raise money for recovery efforts in her native Puerto Rico. If you’d like to help, information can be found here.

I caught up with my friend Marly at Fenway Park yesterday — she was doing the Red Sox Spanish-language broadcast with Uri Berenguer— and asked if she could share a few words on what people on the islands are experiencing. Here is what she told me:

It’s been an extremely difficult 10 days for not only the over three million U.S. citizens that reside in Puerto Rico but also for all of us that live in the United States and have been unable to learn the fate of our family members after Hurricane Maria became the first Category 4 storm to strike the island directly since 1932. It took me over a week to find out that my parents and my siblings were safe, even though they had suffered extensive property damage. They have no electricity and no running water, and no prospects of things getting better any time this season. And I still haven’t heard from most of my extended family. It’s simply heartbreaking to see the devastation that Maria has left in its path, and especially feeling so powerless.

Rivera recently interviewed Carlos Beltran about the situation in Puerto Rico. Here are his words.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

A San Diego summit helped propel the Minnesota Twins to a post-season berth, and Mike Berardino told us all about it at The Pioneer Press.

At The Sporting News, Graham Womack wrote about how Vida Blue thinks Marvin Miller and Buck O’Neil (among others) belong in the Hall of Fame.

Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller caught up with Carl Crawford, who is no longer playing but still getting paid.

Over at The Los Angeles Times, Dylan Hernandez opined that Shohei Otani has the kind of extraordinary talent that could change the sport.

Kevin Cremin is retiring after 35 years as the producer-engineer for Mariners’ radio broadcasts. Larry Stone of The Seattle Times paid tribute to Cremin’s career.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Giancarlo Stanton has 59 home runs, and 117 other players have 20 or more. When Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs in 1921, five other players hit 20 or more. When Ruth hit 54 in 1920, no other players hit 20 or more.

In 1916, Detroit Tigers shortstop Donie Bush had 14 extra-base hits — five doubles and nine triples — in 657 plate appearances.

Dave Kingman hit 35 of his 442 career home runs in his final season. The last of them came on this date in 1986.

On September 30, 1972, Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente recorded the 3,000 hit of his career. As fate would have it, it was also his last.

On October 2, 1976, Detroit’s Mark Fidrych allowed one run over nine innings and finished his rookie season with a record of 19-9. He went on to win just 10 more games.

On October 4, 2002, in a game played at the Minneapolis Metrodome, Oakland’s Ray Durham led off ALDS Game 3 with an inside-the-park home run off of Twins righty Rick Reed. Scott Hatteberg followed with a conventional home run.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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JimmieFoXX
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JimmieFoXX

Looking forward to your interview with Pete Mackanin.

This Phillies F.O. rivals the incompetency only previously seen under Omar Minaya.