As a Braves fan, I’ve always had a keen interest in Charlie Morton. Drafted in the third round of the 2002 draft, Morton had all the makings of a mid-to-upper rotation pitcher, but there were immediate concerns about his demeanor on the mound. Usually I dismiss such claims, but when you look at his minor-league numbers, his performance never matched his stuff. After a little over four years and a forced promotion to High-A after failing twice in Low-A, the Braves finally moved Morton to the AA bullpen in 2007. Better results would earn him a promotion to AAA Richmond in 2008. Seeing a re-birth of confidence and results, the Braves gave Morton one more chance to start, and he took off.
Morton dominated AAA. In 79 innings, he struck out 72 while only walking 27 (the resulting 3.1 BB/9 was his lowest ever by over a batter per inning), and when the Braves suffered a series of injuries in 2008, the renewed Morton received a promotion. His debut was fine—6 innings, 3 runs, 4 Ks, 1 BB—and certainly enough for the Braves to keep him out there. Then July 1st happened—5 runs in 2 innings. Then July 6th happened—6 runs in 6 innings. Then July 22nd happened—4 runs and 4 walks in 5 innings. Then July 28th happened—8 runs in 3.2 innings. Then August 13th happened—4 runs in 2 innings. Then August 22nd happened—4 runs in 1.1 innings. Finally, September 2nd happened—7 runs in 3.1 innings—and the Braves had to take him out of the rotation. A rookie campaign with a 6.15 ERA was enough to tell the Braves that, while he had the stuff, the make-up issues seemed to actually be a problem. In June of 2009, Morton was sent along to Pittsburgh in the trade for Nate McLouth, but in his first season and a half, he wouldn’t endear himself to Pirates fans anymore than he had to Braves fans, including a whopping 7.57 ERA in 79 innings last season.
But Charlie Morton appears to be fighting back. After years of failure, Morton has been rebuilt, using the same essential parts but with a new, upgraded program. In 6 starts, he has amassed a 3-1 record and a 3.52 record, but is he becoming the pitcher everyone hoped he would be?
As you can see, his release point has changed a little. Instead of his overhand approach, he has dropped his arm slot just a bit, with most of the dots coming in around the 6-foot mark instead of 6.5. The Pirates mentioned that they had been working on this, and it appears Morton has taken to it.
Well, now let’s look at movement. If he has a different arm slot, we would expect different movement. Again, looking at these Pitch F/X charts, Morton’s movement and pitch selection has changed.
The yellow triangles are sinkers/two-seamers, and because this view is from the catcher’s perspective, you can see how much more sink and tail his two-seamer has than it did last season. He’s also throwing it a lot more. Why do we care? A two-seamer generally gets more ground balls, and ground balls have been integral to Morton’s success so far this season. His GB/FB rate of 3.35 (more than 3 ground balls per flyball put in play) is second in the majors to Brett Anderson. Ground balls, at this rate, are awesome to have because they won’t go out of the park, generally don’t turn into other extra-base hits, and can get you two outs if you’ve allowed a hit or walk. Morton, after years of being a slight ground-ball pitcher (1.25 is the average GB/FB rate, and Morton was around 1.50 for his career), has completely changed into a ground-ball specialist by throwing his sinker/two-seamer 73% of the time, instead of 33% last season. Cool.
But we’re very concerned about performance here, and just a month into the season, the 3.52 ERA can be misleading. Looking at FIP (Fielding-Indepent Pitching, which is a statistic that eliminates factors such as defense and happenstance to focus on K, BB, and HR), Morton’s is a run higher (4.43) than his ERA. This because of his atrocious K/BB rate of 0.83. Pitchers usually need a K/BB rate of 2 to be somewhat successful, but a K/BB rate under 1 will not do over the course of an entire season. His ground-ball tendencies will help off-set some of those problems, but it won’t do everything.
But is Morton going to go back to being the Charlie Morton of old? I don’t know. His new approach seems to have given him some confidence, and at this point, his attitude may just be one of “What do I have to lose?” The ratios in walks and strikeouts may also be a little misleading this early on because Morton has not fully accustomed himself to his new approach—it takes time for repetition to help with command and control, getting used to the movement, and figuring out how best to use it—and it may just take a few months to get fully righted. In either case, a 4.43 FIP is perfectly average (remember average is not “common” and is quite valuable) and much better than the slop he threw up during his past seasons. If there is one thing for Morton supporters and Pirates fans to take heart in, it’s that Morton does have a drastically different approach, and it is getting results. Now, it’s just up to Morton to repeat that delivery to avoid the walks and make any adjustments the league is about to make to this new approach. It’s Charlie Morton’s War, and we’re all just fighting in it.