Is Charlie Morton tipping his pitches from the stretch?

MLB: Pirates vs Giants APR 14

Charlie Morton - ZumaPress

As Pat pointed out a few weeks ago, Charlie Morton has struggled mightily with runners on base this season.

My guess is that it has something to do with how he’s pitching out of the stretch. It’s true that guys are hitting him pretty hard without runners on base (.346/.346/547), but they’re just obliterating him with guys on (.444/.500/.944 with all three home runs of the traditional variety). His line was also a bit worse with runners on base last year as well, holding hitters to a .259/.339/.380 line with bases empty, but getting hit at a .299/.373/.439 rate (including 12 doubles and 3 homers in 186 PAs with runners on, compared to 5 doubles and 4 homers in 230 PAs with bases empty) with runners on. The trend doesn’t appear to extend to the minors, though. Minor League Splits has him down for a lower career minor league FIP with runners on base (3.75) than with bases empty (4.15).

These numbers were from Morton’s first two starts, but the trend has continued to the present. Whether it has been due to bad luck or some other factor, Morton has been abysmal with runners on base.

On Friday, Morton served up a first inning, two-run home run to the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier. The blast came on a decent pitch, 92 MPH with good movement, painting the inside corner. During the next at-bat, FSN color analyst John Wehner reflected on Morton’s good stuff, and how perplexing it is that he has been hit so hard this year. Moments later , the camera cut to the Dodgers dugout, where Ethier was having a discussion with a coach. Did he give us a clue to the mystery?

Ethier

I immediately suspected that Morton was tipping his pitches, and that Ethier was explaining it to someone. For the rest of the game, I focused on Morton’s hands while he pitched from the stretch. Then I incorporated the DVR. Then, I went to the mlb.tv archive. The more I watched, the more convinced I became that Ethier had given us a hint.

First of all, take note of the grip that Morton uses before coming set. That is not his fastball grip.

Morton

Next, watch this clip of Chris Young’s grand slam off Morton on April 9th in Arizona. Focus on Morton’s hands when he comes set.

C. Young GS

As he alters his grip in preparation to throw a fastball, Morton flips his glove a few times. Looking at this clip of James Loney’s home run on Friday (which came on a curveball), Morton does not do this on off-speed pitches. His glove remains very still.

Morton does not do this every time he throws a fastball. During some sequences of pitches, he does not do it all. In fact, he seemed to show little to no movement on Ethier’s home run that originally led me to watch closer. But as I studied video of Morton pitching from the stretch, I was able to accurately guess fastball or off-speed on probably 70% of his pitches. Sometimes he flipped his glove while holding it in place, as he did against Young in Arizona. Sometimes, his hands moved in some other manner as he adjusted his grip. More often than not , when he threw a fastball, there was some sort of hand movement. If the batters are making this same distinction from home plate, it would give them a huge advantage.

It is also possible that I am imagining all of this, because I am desperate to find a reason for Morton’s struggles. So if you are reading this and you expect to watch Morton’s next start, keep an eye on his hands. Try to guess which pitch is coming. See if you are correct. Am I crazy? Or am I on to something?

All screenshots courtesy of mlb.com

Author: Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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  • Christy

    Very astute observations. I (like you) hope this explains why Charlie Morton is getting crushed out there. And this is something he should be able to fix, so lets hope he does it sooner rather than later…

  • Dave

    My question is, why can every other team pick up on this so well, and the Pirates have no idea? I mean, I understand we’re not hitting against him, but shouldn’t someone be looking at tapes for this kind of stuff?

  • BillJ

    Jake at New Bucs said Morton was tipping his fastball two weeks ago. Last night Jake said he had a ‘new found’ belief in Mortron so maybe he knows if Kerrigan figured it out? Jake also said Morton wasn’t the only one tipping.

  • Steve

    Paul Maholm had a major pitch tipping problem as well. If you watch him now, every single time he reaches in his glove to get a grip, he opens and closes his glove multiple times. He used to open and close it on breaking pitches, and so he changed so that he has the habit of doing it on every single delivery so batters can not get a clue from it. It’s a problem that can be fixed. It’s very possible. It is certainly odd how nasty Morton’s stuff (92-95 mph fastball with tail) is that people are still hitting it. Obviously would be much easier if you know it’s coming.

    • Josh

      Its interesting to watch Dempster work because before he releases each pitch he wiggles his glove in such a fashion, almost distracting the hitter before the ball comes and making it difficult to pick up any clues as to the pitch that is coming.

      I know Dempster did not do that a few years ago. Perhaps Charlie should adopt something similar.

    • Matt Bandi

      I originally had a short blurb about Maholm in this article, mentioning that adjustment he made. But right before I posted, I took a quick look at one of his starts from earlier in the year and noticed he wasn’t doing it. He was keeping his hands down at his waist before he delivered, if I remember correctly. Not sure how long he has been doing that.