First Pitch: Charlie Morton Should Be the Number Three Playoff Starter

Charlie Morton is the number three starter in the Pirates rotation right now. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Charlie Morton is the number three starter in the Pirates rotation right now. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

It’s hard to believe that it was only about three weeks ago that I was arguing for Charlie Morton to stay in the rotation. At the time, Morton was coming off a horrible start where he gave up five runs on ten hits in six innings, sending the Pirates to a brutal loss against St. Louis. That outing raised his ERA to a 4.07 mark, which for some reason was completely unacceptable for some Pirates fans.

Morton bounced back in his next start, but people still wanted him gone, so I pointed out how Morton would start for almost every team in baseball today. A few things have happened since that article:

**Wandy Rodriguez suffered a setback, and will be visiting Dr. James Andrews.

**Gerrit Cole has started to fade and has passed his 2012 innings totals.

**Jeff Locke has been hit hard in his last two starts and is regressing.

**Charlie Morton continues to pitch well, putting up a 2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings over his last four starts.

All of that combined points to one thing: Charlie Morton is the best option to be the #3 starter in the playoff rotation. And that’s not a bad thing.

Sure, if you were one of the people three weeks ago that felt Morton shouldn’t even be on the team, you’ll think it’s a bad thing. Maybe you’re coming around on Morton, but don’t fully trust him yet. Maybe you’re hoping the Pirates had someone just like Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett for that third spot, and maybe even for the fourth spot. That would be great, but very few teams have that luxury.

Morton isn’t a bad option for that third spot. I don’t have any beliefs that he can be consistently as good as he has been in the last four outings. The key word there is “consistently”, because I think Morton has the stuff to dominate in any one of his starts. There’s a reason he gets the #ElectricStuff hashtag. His stuff is the stuff of a top of the rotation pitcher. But as I mentioned in those previous articles, if you don’t have consistency to go with that stuff, you won’t be a top of the rotation starter.

The question isn’t whether Morton is a top of the rotation starter. The question is whether he is one of the top three starters for the Pirates right now. I think he is, and once again, that’s not a bad thing. Morton’s stuff is living up to the “Electric Stuff” nickname. His sinker/curveball combo are un-hittable when they’re on. So far this year he has a 66% ground ball rate. That means two out of every three balls hit into play are on the ground. No other pitcher with 70+ innings is over 60%. Only 11 other pitchers are above 55%. It’s safe to say right now that Charlie Morton is the best ground ball pitcher in baseball. Combine that with the defensive shifts and the strong defense behind him, and he should continue to have regular success.

The problems for Morton last month were that he had lapses with his command. Over and over we heard that command was the last thing to come back following Tommy John surgery. It looks like his command is back in his recent starts. He doesn’t look like the pitcher that combined for 19 hits in 11 innings over two starts against Miami and St. Louis. His command of his pitches, and the movement and placement of those pitches in the last few starts has been excellent. Could all of this be due to the recovery from Tommy John, and the fact that he can finally command a few pitches that have a ton of movement and are extremely hard to command?

It’s hard to argue against Charlie Morton right now. He’s got top of the rotation stuff, he’s a ground ball machine, and the only thing keeping him from being a top of the rotation starter is that he hasn’t shown the consistency needed for that label. But anything can happen in one game. Morton might have a bad start, but he also might come out and dominate in any given game, just like his start tonight. It’s for that reason that he looks fine as a potential playoff starter for the Pirates. He doesn’t provide you with the comfort you’d get from Liriano or Burnett, but he has the chance to provide the Pirates with the same upside in one individual start.

Links and Notes

**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Heredia Throws Five Shutout; Cumpton Slowing Down?

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates2 Can Clinch Playoffs on Friday.

**Minor League Schedule: Doubleheaders For Altoona and West Virginia Today.

Pirates

**Clint Barmes’ Three-Run Homer Supports Morton in 3-1 Pirates Win.

**Looking at the Rotation Depth With Cole and Locke Struggling Lately.

**Pirates Notebook: Taking San Francisco’s Championship Atmosphere Home.

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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  • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

    It depends who the playoff opponent is. Against the Reds, no, too many LH bats. Against the Cards, for sure.

    • Kevin_Young

      Could not agree with this any more. I do believe that Charlie is our 3rd best starter, but his platoon split needs to be factored into the matchups

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Morton has always had success against the Reds. He threw 5.1 shutout innings in Cincinnati earlier this year. The starts last year weren’t good, but he also wasn’t healthy. In 2011 the numbers:

      9 IP, 1 ER
      9 IP, 0 ER
      5 IP, 0 ER
      6 IP, 2 ER

      That 2011 Reds team always had plenty of left-handers. For some reason, Morton owns the Reds.

      • Kevin_Young

        Oh…well shoot. Point for Morton still stands, though, that he should start in the playoffs if the matchup dictates it.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          If they’re playing the Cardinals or Reds and Morton is pitching, that’s a good thing. The only way they could play those teams is if:

          1. They were in the WC play-in (and Morton wouldn’t be pitching)
          2. They were in the NLCS

          It’s going to be the Dodgers or Braves if we’re talking about Morton’s first playoff start. I’d start him against either team.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: No argument here. His last 4 starts have been excellent, averaging 7 IP each game with a 2.25 ERA. The “Command is always last” to come back after TJ surgery has been seen in many pitchers and it is hard to argue with that. First back is usually a jump in velocity from before surgery. I mentioned a few times that he has so much velocity that it may be negatively affecting the movement on his 2 seamer, but he seems to be making better pitches, and it sure does not hurt having a Catcher turn in two runners caught stealing as was the case last night. Charlie, along with Francisco and AJ have been just what was needed as Wandy stayed down, Locke has hit the wall, and we are trying to limit the innings on Cole.

    Last night was a key game as the Reds and D’backs both lost, and I hope this puts away the “let’s get Morneau” conversation. The Pirates have enough to win, and they are a team coming together to meet the stretch challenge, not falling apart. It ain’t broke!

    • Bucco_Joe

      You must be Bob Nutting’s financial advisor.

    • buster09

      emjay : + 1. Bucco Joe : can you find anything else to be negative about ?

  • skliesen

    Given CH’s propensity to trust vets more than the young guns, I don’t think there’s any doubt Morton is clear #3 on our staff. Plus his arm will be fresher than Locke or Cole come October. Quite frankly, if Pirates get to NLDS, he may be the key to Pirates success. His ability to match up with Ryu of Dodgers or Medlen of Braves could be difference between winning or losing series.

  • joe g.

    I tweeted a comment to Tim last night saying that Morton should be the no. 3 starter by the end of the season. I thought that he was pitching better, but did not know how much better, which is pointed out in this article. Thanks to Tim for providing great incite. what is Charlie’s contact status and should the Pirates look at extending him?

    Also, should the pirates sit Cole and Locke for a start and give them some mental/ physical rest? we have the minor league depth, why not use it?

  • TonyC17

    I know the article is about Morton and I agree, he is the number 3.

    What I don’t understand is the people who are okay just keeping the offense we have. Pitching has been great, but we can score runs. How is getting morneau a bad thing? Jones can’t hit anything. He looks completely lost. Getting limited production from right field. How is platoon morneau/ Sanchez and jones/tabata/Presley/ Lambo a bad thing? Specially fact morneau has been hot and won’t cost nothing but a C prospect maybe a B.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

      The grass is greener on the other side of the fence right.
      .
      I’m okay with the Pirates not aquireing Morneau because he isn’t a clear upgrade. A slight upgrade, sure, but not a clear one. The likely outcome of the Pirates getting Morneau is that a month afterwards we’ll be complaining that he can’t hit anything.
      .
      Unfortunately for the Pirates and us fans is that there doesn’t appear to be any offensive quick fix and the grass is greener on the other side because there is dog shit everywhere.

      • Bucco_Joe

        Morneau may or may not be an upgrade. If all it takes to acquire him is a B/C level prospect(s) and assuming his remaining salary it is well worth the risk. At least make an attempt to upgrade the roster instead of saying oh well there is nothing we can do.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

          Is that what is happening? The Pirates are saying “oh well, there is nothing we can do”. I was under the impression they were looking for potential upgrades, not lateral moves that won’t help the team just to appease the fans.
          .
          Cause the fan base has an awesome track record of knowing what the team should do.

          • Bucco_Joe

            So Neal is looking for a roster upgrade. Wake us up Jeremy when he finally accomplishes this task.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

            Lol, I don’t even know what that means.
            .
            Bucco_joe, how about you keep sleeping and the rest of us will enjoy the Pirates winning season and the playoffs.

            • Bucco_Joe

              Jermey since you are a Neal apologist it obviously doesn’t bother you that he hasn’t made a move to improve this offense. His goal obviously this year was to have a winning recorrd nothing more. He is afraid of making a move that might boost this team’s chances of not only getting to the playoffs but advancing in them. Please keep hopingt this offense can leahe team through a playoff round The data doesn’t support this, but there is

              • Bucco_Joe

                always hope for fans of Neal.

            • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

              Lol, okay so because I’m not bashing NH for no good reason I’m a “Neal apologist”.
              .
              You’re using straw man arguments now. First, you have no proof that the Pirates only goal is to have a winning record, and all facts point to the Pirates wanting to compete for a WS long term (rebuilt farm system, Martin and Liriano FA signings). Secondly the Pirates are going to make the playoffs but you’re right, the offense likely isn’t good enough to go far. However, I don’t think there is a quick fix. Adding Morneau won’t make a difference to whatever the outcome will be this year.

      • buster09

        Jeremy : not only would fans be complaining if Morneau wouldn’t hit anything,it would cost $ 3 million in salary to find that out.

        • Y2JGQ2

          The fans have come to the park to support the team and give the money to pay for $3mm of Morneau. Fans answered the bell, so IF Morneau would accept the trade, it should be done assuming we aren’t giving away anything we’d miss (ie Bell, Hanson, Glasnow, Kingham)

          • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

            The fans are coming because the team is winning. That’s it. It’s Huntingtons job to help the team increase it’s chances of winning (not make trades just for the sake of it).

    • buster09

      Why not get another LH hitter for that platoon you propose Tony ? That would only give you 4 out of 5 !

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

    Don’t worry Tim, the Charlie haters are still out there. Just like the collapse 3.0 crowd and Nutting is cheap. They are ready to pounce at a moments notice to scream “SALE THE TEAM”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    This is from Bochy’s postgame:

    “That I have a lineup that can’t make a fine but unremarkable pitcher throw more than 83 pitches in nearly eight innings?”

    That sums it up for me. Morton has been pitching well, but, to me, his bubble is gonna burst soon.

    He’s our # 3 by default. But, it could be worse, I guess.

    Foo

    • emjayinTN

      Foo: I disagree – not sure with what I am disagreeing, but here it is – When he first came out and was not able to cut it, I pointed that out. Now he is averaging 7 innings a game at a 2.25 ERA over the past 4 games and I like him a whole lot now. I guess we could have Bedard, or JMAC, or Karstens, or Correia, but instead we have Ground Chuck and I am thrilled – give this team another win and I will like him even more. For me it is all about in which column the results of the game are placed. I will never be a Chuck fan like Tim is, but I do believe in giving credit where it is deserved. And, if his bubble bursts, hopefully we will have somebody who will take up the slack. Remember, we do not get to 19 over .500 before the AS Break without Jeff Locke, and I expect he will be back again before the end of the season. The hitters have adjusted to him and now he has to re-adjust to them.

      • Y2JGQ2

        I wish we had a healthy Karstens……

    • Y2JGQ2

      There aren’t nearly as many foul balls when a sinker ball pitcher is on the mound, so if he is throwing strikes- the pitch count is always going to be low. I think Bochy is a moron

  • buster09

    Lee : Who made out Bochy’s lineup card ? Morton’s stuff is a lot better than what I saw out of Cain Thursday and even Bumgarner last night.I am not sure what Bochy was looking at. Maybe he is just pissed that the genius tag he has been wearing the past few years has been lost down towards LA.

  • CalipariFan506

    Different subject but who takes Coles spot next month? Johnson, Gomez, Cumpton or Pimentel? I can’t help but think Hurdle brought Gomez in early with that big lead in part to start the process of stretching him out.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Check the article in the daily links above.

    • Y2JGQ2

      calipari- that was my feeling too

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD

    It has been well documented that I am not a big Morton fan, but I must confess he has far exceeded my rather low expectations for him in his few starts. I have to admit, he has pitched well – and better than Locke has been of late. As for Cole and Morton, their stats and results have been quite similar – I think you could argue that either one should be #3.

    But, as it relates to the playoffs, this is all very premature. The playoffs – if the Pirates make the playoffs, and I think they will – are still 5-6 weeks away. A lot can change in that time – look at what has happened to Locke in about the same amount of time. I am not hoping that Morton fails, but his history suggests that the possibility of inconsistency is very real. So, I will wait until late September/ early October before anointing him as the #3 starter.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The situation with Locke was that he was getting lucky stranding runners, and now he’s not. There were warning signs that this was coming, so it’s not like it’s a total surprise. There aren’t any warning signs that Morton can’t maintain what he’s doing now.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD

        Tim, not to argue the point….but how do you come to a conclusion regarding Locke that he was “getting lucky stranding runners” versus just pitching well enough and just making good pitches in tough situations?

        How do you separate the two and able to assess whether a guy was lucky versus good? I think most pitchers get lucky at times – having extremely hard hit balls hit right at someone or just foul or someone makes a great catch.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          He had a strand rate around 85%. Pitchers are usually around 70%. The people who can pitch well enough in tough situations to avoid this are the exception. That’s something that needs to be determined over the long-run.

          Also, it doesn’t explain why Locke was putting so many guys on base, then only pitching well when guys reached. Think about what is more likely: that Locke somehow becomes a better pitcher with guys on base, or that he was getting lucky and stranding a small army on the bases.

          Then you add in the fact that his strand rate in the minors was 65-70% on average, and his strand rate in the majors before this year was around 70%.

          It is possible that he could have changed and found a way to pitch better in tough situations. But his history didn’t support this. And watching him in those situations, I felt it was more likely that he wouldn’t sustain his success if he kept putting runners on base at the rate he was going, while relying on his fielders to get outs.

          In short, he had an 83.3% strand rate in the first half. In the second half he’s been at 70.8%, which is in line with all of his other numbers. The first half is the outlier.

  • CalipariFan506

    Thanks Tim. I missed that article somehow.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116899082423235635777 Monsoon Harvard

    Can’t undersand why anyone would be against getting Justin Morneau right now.
    Since the all-star break Morneau is hitting better than he has the past 3 years alone, (which have been riddled with injuries and concussions).

    If indeed Morneau is back to his old slugging ways, which it looks like he is, they could not possibly go wrong bringing him in.

    I’ve seen enough of his slugging this past month to know that he would be an instant, massive upgrade to the Pirates hitting line-up, I don’t care what anybody says.

  • https://profiles.google.com/103644313332172377035 Adam Laffer

    Monsoon, just look at Morneau in July. He batted 175. How can you be sure hes “back” when this is first month of doing well since 2010

  • turfmonster12

    Obviously, Chuck is the third best option right now. But count me as one of the “ready to pounce” doubters. The inconsistency is the fear. When Ground Chuck turns to Line Drive Chuck, it is ugly. I certainly won’t begrudge the Bucs for making him #3. But if he takes the mound in that situation, it will not surprise me at all if he blows up. And it should surprise no one since inconsistency has been his M.O. for awhile now.