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Pirates vs. Mets Preview: Hurdle Wants Morton To Get Aggressive

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If you only look at earned run average, Charlie Morton is off to a poor start this season. That ERA sits at 4.35 entering Wednesday's game against the Mets, about a half-run worse than the average National League starter.

It is also one lone pockmarks on an otherwise effective Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff, one that ranks as having the fifth-lowest ERA in Major League Baseball.


But pretty much every other peripheral stat looks good for Morton. His strikeout rate is still below NL average, but about steady with last year. He is allowing fewer baserunners. And he is drawing the second-most ground balls in the National League, making "Ground Chuck" nickname appropriate. That is all indicative of future effectiveness, and fewer runs.


Perhaps most importantly, he has greatly improved his control and throw strikes. Morton's walk rate last season was one of the highest in baseball, his strike zone percentage one of the lowest. But that was 2011, Morton's first season tinkering with a lower three-quarters delivery. Now he is used to it, and his walk rate has plummeted from 4.0 walks per 9 innings to just 2.3 per 9 innings, the best in the Pirates' rotation.


But the problem for Morton lies, surprisingly, in the long ball. It is unexpected because Charlie Morton gave up the fewest homeruns in baseball last season, just one dinger for every 128 batters he faced.


And that success in limiting homers had a lot to do with the strength of his sinker, Morton's most-thrown pitch. Opposing hitters put his sinker into play 389 times last year, but just 4 of those balls went over the fence.


"The homeruns ran through a short period where the four homers were to right-handed hitters," manager Clint Hurdle noted before Wednesday's game.
 
This season, just 59 sinkers have been put into play, but the same number (4) have flown for homers. It's more than mere coincidence. Morton's sinker has had a 20-percent fly ball rate this season, compared to under 15 percent last year. It's a small sample size in May, especially since Morton started this season late with a hip injury.


The reason for this change cannot easily be seen in the graphs and data of PitchFX, which looks at the trajectory of pitches. The data reflects no noticeable difference in the horizontal or vertical movement of Morton's sinker. If anything, it is dropping a bit more than last year. But this season, Morton is throwing less of his sinker (61% to 43%) and more of his curveball (16% to 26%) and cutter (6% to 19%). None of the pitches appear to be a bugaboo for Morton.


"We want him to be aggressive, get the ball and go, really pitch from the neck down today," Hurdle said.
 
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between 2011 Morton's pitches and 2012 Morton's pitches is the velocity. His four-seam fastball has fallen from 92.8 miles per hour to 91.5 miles per hour, and the two-seam sinker dropped from 91.9 mph to 90.4 mph. It is possible that some of this loss of speed could be remnants of Morton's hip surgery, so that will be something to follow.


The salad days of Morton consistently flashing 94 on radar guns, as he did when he first came to Pittsburgh in 2009, appear to have drifted away. But that doesn't mean he can't continue to be a strong starter in Hurdle's rotation.


"We want to see him establish some rhythm," Hurdle said. "That's the biggest thing. I just think there's a tentative nature about him that we didn't see much of last year, that we need to kick to the curb and eliminate."


Charlie Morton is a different pitcher than the one Mets fans may know from his days in the Atlanta Braves organization. His arm angle is lower, he is drawing more ground balls, and he is allowing fewer walks. The last key might be keeping those batted sinkers inside the field of play.


(Credit for the trajectory statistics to Brooks Baseball, an invaluable resource for pitching data. http://www.brooksbaseball.net/player_cards/player_card.php?player=450203#tab1)


Lineups for Wednesday's game:
Pittsburgh Pirates (20-23)

RF Josh Harrison
LF Gorkys Hernandez
CF Andrew McCutchen
2B Neil Walker
1B Casey McGehee
C Rod Barajas
3B Yamaico Navarro
RHP Charlie Morton


New York Mets (23-20)
LF Mike Baxter
CF Kirk Nieuwenhuis
3B David Wright
RF Lucas Duda
2B Daniel Murphy
1B Ike Davis
SS Ronny Cedeño
C Rob Johnson
LHP Jonathon Niese

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