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Split Personality

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A few weeks ago, I chronicled Charlie Morton's transformation from Charlie Brown to "Ground Chuck," an earth-scorching sinkerball pitcher who ranks second in the majors with a ground ball rate of nearly 63 percent.

Refresh your memory here.

Morton's sinker-centric approach has produced a Jekyll/Hyde side effect, however. Depending upon which side of the plate that the batter swings from, the Pirates' starter is either dominant or dumbfounded.

Morton, a right-hander, is eviscerating right-handed hitters. He has limited righty batters to a .172 batting average, a .236 on-base percentage and a .207 slugging percentage so far in 2011. Morton's on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) versus right-handed batters is 66 percent better than the average righty pitcher when facing a same-handed hitter. Basically, he's turning every righty batter that he faces into Brandon Wood.  

Left-handers, by contrast, are batting .341, getting on base at a .446 clip and slugging .476 against Morton. Morton's OPS versus opposite-handed hitters is 52 percent worse than the average right-handed pitcher against left-handed batters. Every lefty that steps to the plate against Morton morphs into vintage Wade Boggs.

The reason righties are flailing against Morton while lefties are raking traces back to the sinker. Sinkers have the largest platoon split of any pitch, meaning that the offering is much more effective against same-handed hitters than it is against opposite-handed batters. Right-handed pitchers show better control and ability to miss bats when throwing the sinker to righties as opposed to lefties. Righty hitters tend to get tied up by the pitch, which tails in on their hands, while lefties can get the bat extended and drive the ball more frequently.

Case in point: Morton has thrown his sinker for a strike about 70 percent of the time against right-handed hitters, while getting whiffs seven percent of the time with the pitch. Righty batters have hit line drives just 13.1 percent of the time that they have put the sinker in play.

Morton's strike percentage with the sinker against lefty hitters is slightly under 60 percent, and his whiff rate is three percent. Left-handers have a near-25 percent line drive rate on sinkers put in play.

Despite the noted issues with tossing sinkers to opposite-handed hitters, Morton has thrown his sinker to lefties about 71 percent of the time this season (78 percent to righties). But Morton does seem to be aware of his need to incorporate his breaking and off-speed stuff against portside hitters, and his start against the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park on May 24 provides a blueprint for how he can keep lefties from lashing him.

Morton still used his sinker 71 percent of the time against the six lefty swingers that were in the Braves' lineup. But he got swings and misses with by going to an upper-70s curveball and a mid-80s split-finger changeup in strikeout situations. He punched out four of Atlanta's lefties and held them to a collective 2-for-16 showing at the dish.

Take, for example, Morton's two whiffs of Braves catcher Brian McCann, one of the better lefty hitters in the league.

In the first inning, Morton engaged in an eight-pitch battle during which McCann fouled off four fastballs. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Morton dropped a curveball into the lower part of the strike zone. McCann took a vicious cut and came up empty.

In the third, McCann fouled off another pair of fastballs to start the at-bat. With an 0-2 count, McCann chased and whiffed at an 85 MPH pitch that plummeted into the dirt in front of home plate.

"I was throwing more off-speed [to left-handed hitters], which I really wasn't used to," Morton said after his start against the Braves. "The approach has to be different, because lefties happen to hit better against [the sinker]."

[Left-handed] hitters were stacked up against him, and that was another good experience for him because that's going to happen again," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "More and more teams are going to try to find a way to do that when they have him."

So far, Morton has enjoyed the platoon advantage against 61 percent of the batters that he has faced (the National League average for righty pitchers is 55.6 percent). But as teams adapt to Morton and his sinker, expect to see more lefties in the opposing lineup card.

For his part, Morton must also adapt by featuring his curveball and split-finger changeup more prominently against left-handers. Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage might want to have a tape of Morton's start versus the Braves handy at all times.

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