The Glass is Half Empty in Pittsburgh

Alvarez is off to a slow start this year, which has Pirates fans worried.

Who would have guessed that in his first three starts of the season, Charlie Morton would have a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings?  Who would have guessed he would have a complete game one run outing on the road against the Cincinnati Reds, and a one run, six inning outing on the road against Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals?  Based on his 7.57 ERA in 2010, and the outcry over the idea that he would be in the rotation again this season, I’d say very few, and maybe even no one at all, expected this outcome from Morton’s first three starts.

Now, who is ready to believe his first three starts are legit?  Again, I’d say very few think that Morton is the real deal after half a month of the 2011 season.

It’s not like Morton shouldn’t be viewed under scrutiny.  Heading in to this season he had a career 5.98 ERA in 251.1 innings.  Even with the strong start, he leads the league in walks allowed, with 12 in 22 innings.  To go with those walks, he has six strikeouts.  There’s a good reason for that.  He’s throwing his sinker ball, which is displaying a lot of movement, and leading to two results: pitches outside of the zone, and a lot of ground balls.

Morton has allowed 5.3 hits per nine innings.  To put that in perspective, the league average last year was 8.8.  The league leaders, Jonathan Sanchez and Felix Hernandez, were in the 6.6-7.0 range.  Morton also has a .164 BABIP, when the average for starters is normally around .300.  Simply put, the hits will eventually come with Morton.  At that point, the free passes will start to hurt.  The biggest concern is the lack of strikeouts, since Morton can’t continue to rely on his defense so much.  The more he relies on his defense, the more likely he is of giving up additional hits.

But this isn’t so much about Morton.  I doubt many think he is really this good, based on ten percent of the season, especially when you take a closer look, and factor in his history.  The question is, if we’re not ready to crown Morton with the Cy Young award just yet, then why are people so quick to worry about Pedro Alvarez?

Alvarez is off to a bad start in his first full season, hitting for a .193/.258/.228 line in 57 at-bats.  If we’re not going to say Morton’s start is legit, then why are we worried about Alvarez?

Looking at the situation a bit closer, you could make the argument that Alvarez is a slow starter.  Last April he hit for a .224/.298/.424 line in April in Indianapolis.  He followed that up with a .305/.404/.611 line in May, and a .328/.409/.603 line in June.  It was the same story in 2009.  He started off with a .219/.341/.397 line in April.  He did better the following two months, with a .259/.342/.524 line, and really took off in Altoona after being promoted at the end of June.

It’s too early to say that Alvarez is a slow starter, but it wouldn’t be an uncommon problem.  Ryan Howard is another example of a slow starter.  In his career, the month of April is his slowest month, with a career .803 OPS (every other month is over .900), and a career .254 average (every other month is .259 or greater, and after May it’s .271 or greater).  Mark Teixeira is traditionally a slow starter.  In his career he’s got a .759 OPS in April, and no lower than .905 in any other month.  He has a career .233 average in April, and no lower than .273 in any other month.  And it’s not like Howard or Teixeira have gotten off to slow starts every year, but on average, April is usually their worst month.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing for Alvarez, as long as he doesn’t struggle this much every year, and as long as he limits his struggles to one month out of the year.  However, the main question still remains.  Why are people worried about Alvarez for his bad start, and at the same time, discounting Charlie Morton’s good start?  There could be a number of reasons.

First of all, there’s the history factor.  Morton’s history has been poor, which leaves little reason to trust his current start.  Alvarez doesn’t have much of a history in the majors, so there’s nothing to base his start on, unlike Andrew McCutchen, who also started slow, but had one and a half seasons worth of impressive numbers.

I think the bigger issue is the importance to the team.  Alvarez is one of the most important players on the Pirates, in terms of their chances of future success.  If he doesn’t pan out, the future of the team takes a major blow, especially since Alvarez is one of few players in the system with the potential to hit for power.  At the same time, Morton is also important, as the Pirates need pitching, although he’s currently seen more as a bonus, since no one was counting on this performance out of him.

In each case, it’s an example of how the glass is half empty in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates need Alvarez to anchor the offense for years to come.  For that reason, people worry that his start is just a sign of things to come, and that he won’t live up to his hype.  At the same time, if Morton can continue to put up numbers anywhere remotely close to his first three starts, he would be a huge boost to the rotation.  Since the Pirates need pitching, people worry that Morton isn’t the real deal, and won’t be able to boost the pitching staff.

The tendency is to think that anything bad that can happen to the Pirates, will happen to the Pirates.  There’s good reason behind this thinking.  The Pirates have had their fair share of bad luck over the years, with countless pitchers becoming one hit wonders, tons of top prospects never panning out, and some that struggle for years in Pittsburgh, only to have success after they leave.  Giving credit to Alvarez’s bad start, and discounting Morton’s good start are just two examples of thinking the worst will happen in each case.

Now I’m in no way saying the opposite is true, that Alvarez will be fine, and that Morton is the real deal.  As shown above, I think Morton will see a regression, and while it’s too early to be predicting career trends, I think Alvarez could be a slow starter.  Ultimately we don’t know what will happen in either case.  All we can do is analyze what has happened, why it may have happened, and what it could mean for the future.  That sort of analysis is much better than a half full/half empty approach.  It actually gives you a valid reason for your prediction, rather than just assuming the best/worst in all cases.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    Tim,
    You could not use a better comparison of players than Morton and Alvarez.
    First and foremost it WAY to early in the season to analyze any player,
    let alone these two, which you already stated.
    Morton (2010) was a disaster mentally, physically, and mechanically.
    His 2011 performance to date has been somewhat unexpected and surprising. What will happen when he has a few bad outings — will he have a mental meltdown or rebound? Can he continue his 2011 performance relying on one pitch? Will his new found confidence carry over to him using his other + pitches? Many questions that we cannot answer at this point in time. However, there is hope that he has regained his confidence and corrected his mechanical flaws. Only time will tell… I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope the “Pirates Curse” doesn’t bite him in the ass.

    Alvarez is the 2010 version of Morton — disaster mentally, physically, and mechanically. I disagree in the slow start theory, considering this is his “second” season of MLB pitching. His other quote slow starts were due to the need of making adjustments as he jumped levels in minor league ball. He had “some success in 2010″ making the adjustments and had a strong Sept.. There was absolutely no carryover to this year either in ST or the start of this season. Starting off slow would be acceptable if he would look ” somewhat” comfortable in the box, being “somewhat” aggressive in count, and would give a few good swings on some pitches. He has not displayed any of this…. He is simply LOST! Why? Did Huntington’s concern over his weight cause him to spend valuable time getting in shape instead of working on baseball related activities? When I read Hurdle was spending time alone with Alvarez in ST working on his stroke, a red flag went off in my head! He definitely was struggling in ST…. Did Hurdle know then that something was wrong with Pedro? I don’t know or don’t want to insinuate anything, but the poor guy is not the same person. Hopefully, success on the field will help this young man.
    Pedro needs to regain his confidence and I hope he does it in the majors and not in AAA.

    Is the glass half empty on these two players…. I would like to say NO…
    But, that damn “Pirates Curse” is telling me yes!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely agree with you on the fact that it is too early to judge either of these players. But, I do like what I have seen out of Morton so far. The walks may be a bit high, but I chalk that up to him getting used to his new pitch, the sinker. Another big thing with Morton that nobody is mentioning is his new delivery. After the Reds game (which I was at and was extremely impressed my Morton), some of the players said they had to do a double-take because they thought they were facing Roy Halladay. Now this may sound a bit extreme. But do yourself a favor and check out their deliveries… they are scary similar. As in Morton copied Halladay’s exact delivery. But, I’m not complaining thus far. It has worked up until now. One thing is for sure, Morton wants to get better and he’s doing everything possible to make that happen. I can respect a guy like that.

  • Anonymous

    Until this franchise has some sustained success for a period of time in all fazes of it’s operation people will view everything and everybody with a touch of skepticism.

    There are things that have been done to make people be more hopeful but as in all things with every two steps forward there will come that one step back.

    Lets hope that keep taking those two steps forward.

    • Anonymous

      Tim, I’ve harped on the Sportsline and PG blogs that Morton will become a very good pitcher; he has had the talent and showed flashes of greatness, when we first acquired him and late last summer. His degree of success is surprising, of course, but an astute follower of the game would know that good coaching blended with his natural talent would lead to much success. But WAIT, I ain’t no astute follower of the game! BTW, he DID NOT rely on his 96 mph heater in Cincy.

  • Anonymous

    Those who worry about Pedro would certainly have worried about Roberto Clemente during his rookie season. MANY great players take time to develop. Remember, Pedro had yet to play a full season!

  • Todd Smith

    Same thing happened last year with Pedro. His first 14 games in June, he hit .152 with 0 HRs. Everybody called him a bust. His next 81 games, he hit .272 with 16 HRs.

    Also, I thought Morton did a much better job in cutting down the walks in his last start against the Reds. He did have two walks – but both were to Joey Votto with a man on 2nd and first base open – so those were pretty much intentional walks.

    • Anonymous

      And if Pedro keeps having month-long stretches like this then he won’t be able to drag his numbers up the other months and he WILL be a bit of a bust.
      I think it’s fine to be concerned about Pedro and it’s fine to be optimistic about Charlie. Beyond the numbers, just watch them play and you should be able to figure out why that is. The trouble is that the skeptics get bunched in with the outright negative nancys that say Pedro is already a bust.