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Charlie Morton’s Transformation

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It’s a compelling narrative: Charlie Morton, an underachieving former top prospect who entered the year with a major league ERA that only Boeing could love, totally revamps his pitching approach and emerges as a key cog in the Pirates’ rotation.

Since lowering his arm slot, adopting a Roy Halladay-esque delivery and eschewing his breaking stuff in favor of a sinker, Morton has sent many a batter back to the dugout mumbling after they chopped his new weapon into the dirt.

Through seven starts and 46 innings pitched, Morton’s 3.07 ERA leads the Bucs’ rotation and ranks in the top 20 in the National League among qualified starting pitchers. Has the erstwhile Atlanta Braves farmhand, acquired in the June 2009 Nate McLouth deal, truly been reborn as a top-flight pitcher? A closer look reveals some cracks in that narrative. Morton’s getting ground balls like no one’s business, but a lack of whiffs, wavering control and a change in mood from the baseball gods figure to bump up his ERA in the months to come.

There is no doubt that Morton is a changed man on the mound. According to Fangraphs.com, the 27-year-old righty has thrown his fastball a whopping 82 percent of the time this year, compared to 63 percent in stints with Atlanta and Pittsburgh from 2008 to 2010. New York’s Bartolo Colon is the only starter to rely upon his fastball more frequently this season.

Morton’s sinker-centric approach has produced grounders by the bushel. His 62.2 percent ground ball rate is third-highest among major league starters and is leaps and bounds above the 44 percent MLB average. Those grounders are leading to lots of twin-killings and few home runs. Morton’s double play rate (the percentage of the time he’s getting a DP with a runner on first base and less than two outs) is 28 percent, while the MLB average is 11 percent. Morton’s serving up just 0.39 home runs per nine innings this year, too.

Ample double plays for the Bucs and limited trots around the bases for the opposition– what’s not to like? Well, Morton’s new pitching style comes with some less desirable tradeoffs, and he has also benefited from some favorable bounces thus far.

Morton has fooled few batters this year – his swinging strike rate (the percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed) is 5.7 percent, well below the 8.4 percent MLB average. That helps explain his strikeout rate of 4.7 per nine innings, far south of the 7.1 big league average.

That Morton is missing little lumber isn’t surprising. Fastballs get fewer whiffs than breaking and off speed stuff, and pitches thrown low in the zone generally get fewer swings and misses and more worm-burners. Low-strikeout pitchers who get ground balls can succeed, if they also hit their spots consistently. On that front, however, Morton has plenty of work to do.

He has thrown a first-pitch strike just 52.8 percent of the time in 2011, compared to the 59 percent MLB average. Falling behind the hitter has led to Morton issuing 4.7 walks per nine frames. The big league average, by contrast, is 3.3.

Morton has also had some good fortune when batters put the ball in play against him. While it might seem strange at first, a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has very little year-to-year correlation. That means that preventing hits on balls put in play is much less of a skill and more subject to luck than other pitcher metrics like strikeouts and walks. Pitchers who have very high or low BABIP marks tend to see those figures regress toward the average.

So far, Morton has a .269 batting average in balls in play that is below the .296 average for N.L. starters. Odds are, Morton is going to see more bloops and bleeders fall in for hits against him going forward. That means more base runners and, ultimately, more runs for the visitors.

Fielding Independent Pitching, a stat that evaluates pitchers based on the events that they most directly control (strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and homers), suggests that Morton’s ERA should be about 4.00 this season. The average N.L. ERA for starters? 4.02.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with an average starting pitcher, particularly one like Morton who makes little more than the major league minimum salary. And who knows, he may show better control as he becomes more comfortable with his mechanics and the movement on his sinker. Or, he could make progress with a secondary pitch capable of getting swings and misses, like the split-finger changeup that he has been tinkering with.

Morton’s fast start has been a source of joy for Pirates fans who watched him suffer through quick hooks, injuries and Triple-A demotions during the 2010 season. That he has solidified his place in the Pirates’ rotation after such travails is a testament both to Morton’s perseverance and management’s refusal to make knee-jerk reactions about its players.

That said, the “Morton as ace” storyline doesn’t hold up under closer inspection. With his current skill set, Morton is more cost-effective, mid-rotation starter than fledgling star.

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