One year ago today, Pittsburgh Pirates right handed pitcher Charlie Morton was coming off a disaster of a season. In 79.2 innings he posted a 7.57 ERA, spanning 17 starts. Despite the poor numbers, I wrote about how Morton deserved another shot. I looked at Morton’s 2009 season (good results, minus the one bad start in August), I looked at his 2010 season (poor results up until the final month), I looked at how Joe Kerrigan might not have been much of a help in 2010, and I looked at the mistake the Pirates made when they gave up on Tom Gorzelanny too early. In summary, I felt that the 2010 season, as bad as it was, wasn’t enough to write off Morton.
Morton entered the 2011 season a completely different pitcher. He learned a new sinker grip from Michael Crotta. He learned a new stance and delivery from Jim Benedict and Ray Searage, basically trying to copy Roy Halladay. The approach worked so well that you could put Halladay and Morton side by side, and see an identical delivery. The sinker, on the other hand, was inconsistent throughout the year, which can be expected from a new pitch, but generally effective, which led to his much improved numbers.
Morton put up a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings in 2011, a huge turnaround from his 2010 season. The new pitch caused his ground ball rate to jump from 46.8% to 58.5%. His HR/9 ratio went from 1.69 in 2010 to 0.31 in 2011 (although his HR/FB ratio shows that he was unlucky in 2010 and lucky in 2011). His xFIP, which looks at his secondary ratios to give an idea of what his ERA should have been, was 4.08 in 2011. For reference, it was 4.11 in 2010, despite the much higher ERA.
A year ago today, if I would have predicted that Morton would bounce back with his 2011 numbers, it would have been seen as a crazy statement. That’s generally the trend in the off-season. It’s hard for fans to see the big picture, as too much focus is placed on what happened in the previous season. When you add the “glass is half empty” approach in Pittsburgh, which leads people to believe that the poor results were legit, and the good results were the fluke, you get to the point where a bad season is enough for people to start writing off careers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some guys who might pull a Charlie Morton and bounce back in 2012 after a poor 2011 season.
Pedro Alvarez - Alvarez had 386 plate appearances in 2010, and 262 in 2011. In 2010 he put up a .256 average with a .788 OPS. In 2011 he put up a .191 average with a .561 OPS. Neither result is ideal, but look at any conversation on Alvarez, and the expectation going forward is on his 2011 numbers. There were a few things that stood out about Alvarez in 2011. His K/BB ratios were similar to 2010, but his BABIP was much lower. Digging deeper, he had about 10% more ground balls in 2011, which probably led to the lower BABIP. He saw fewer fastballs in 2011, and more sliders and changeups.
It’s hard to say exactly what needs to be done with Alvarez. There was obviously an adjustment that was made, and he didn’t respond to that adjustment. But we’re only talking about 650 plate appearances here. That’s hardly enough to define a career, and focusing on the most recent 262 plate appearances is hardly a solid sample size. I would say that Alvarez needs to go back to API and get in top shape. It wouldn’t hurt him to get more practice at recognizing off-speed pitches either.
Tony Sanchez - I wrote about Sanchez a month ago, looking at his disappointing season. Sanchez struggled at the plate in his jump to the AA level, but did see some improvements defensively with his game calling, and finally got a full season of playing time under his belt. It’s easy to want to write off any prospect who struggles, but it’s not like Sanchez was the first player to struggle in his initial jump to the AA level. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if he was moved up to AAA next year. The Pirates did something similar with Chase d’Arnaud, who had a .280/.347/.418 line in AAA prior to being called up to the majors this year, after struggling in AA last year. The most important thing for a catcher is defense, and Sanchez has that. I wouldn’t write the offense off either after one bad season.
Rudy Owens - Owens was the pitcher of the year in 2009 and 2010, but struggled in 2011 with a 5.05 ERA in 112.1 innings at the AAA level. His walk rate went up a bit, his strikeout rate dropped, and he started giving up more hits. Owens was dominating in low-A, and then in AA in 2010. He didn’t really see a challenge until he hit the AAA level. Once he started getting hit around for the first time in three years, he struggled to respond. Owens is almost taking a similar approach to the one Brad Lincoln took. Lincoln struggled in his initial jump to the AAA level, with a 4.70 ERA in 61.1 innings. Since then he’s been around a 4.12-4.19 ERA, and saw a bit of success as a starter in the majors at the end of the season this year. Owens has great command of all of his pitches, and a great changeup. Because of that combo, one bad year isn’t enough for me to write him off.