When it comes to any player in the majors, you’re going to get a variety of opinions. You’re going to get different opinions on how good a player actually is, and in some cases you’ll have a debate over whether the player is even good at all. There’s one player on the Pirates pitching staff who draws the biggest split in opinions, and that is Charlie Morton.
There are a lot of people who don’t like Morton, and have no intention of changing their opinion of him. All year I’ve heard from these people on a regular basis. When Morton was coming back, the comments were stating that he shouldn’t be in the rotation or even on the team. When Morton came back, it was that he should be the first person bumped from the rotation, rather than Gerrit Cole, when everyone was healthy (and the Pirates never got everyone healthy, so that ended up being a useless debate). And now that Jeanmar Gomez is in the bullpen, and Brandon Cumpton is in Triple-A, the comments are that Morton shouldn’t be in the rotation and should be replaced.
He’s coming off a horrible start tonight, but Morton hasn’t been bad this year. Tonight’s start elevated his ERA from 3.59 to 4.07, although his xFIP stayed about the same, going from 3.71 to 3.66. He’s got a 7.0 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9 ratio this year, showing some good control and a decent strikeout ratio. No one is saying Morton is a top of the rotation guy, or anything close. However, Morton isn’t a bad pitcher. The Pirates have been spoiled this year with great performances, to the point where a 3.66 xFIP is seen as a pitcher who shouldn’t be in the rotation. It’s almost fantasy baseball or video game territory.
There are three main arguments against Morton. All three scratch the surface with an overall look. However, Morton is a complex case that demands a closer look.
The Career Numbers Argument
The biggest argument against Morton is that he has a career ERA close to 5.00. That is down this year to a 4.94, although it was above 5.00 prior to the season. Never mind that Jeanmar Gomez also had an ERA over five coming into the year, and the people against Morton would gladly go with Gomez (although I don’t know if that would change after tonight).
The thing about his career ERA is that it is misleading. From 2008-2010, Morton was a totally different pitcher. He changed his arm slot and converted to a sinkerball pitcher in 2011. Therefore, anything that happened before 2011 wasn’t relevant to the pitcher Morton was after the 2011 season.
He struggled in 2012, but also had an elbow injury that eventually needed Tommy John surgery. It was to the point where he couldn’t throw his sinker or curveball without pain. Those are his two best pitches, and that’s something to consider when evaluating his numbers for the 2012 season.
This year he’s back to throwing all of his pitches, and so far the results are in line with the 2011 season. There is going to be the urge to take an overall look at Morton, but his situation is too complex for that. When you dig deeper, you’ll see that he’s put up results similar to the league average starter since he converted to a sinkerball pitcher, and in the years where he is healthy.
Under-Valuing an Average Pitcher
Average can be seen as an ugly word, but I know of 30 major league teams who would take a league average starting pitcher any day of the week. The Pirates have been fortunate this year to have so many strong pitching numbers. Francisco Liriano (2.16 ERA), A.J. Burnett (2.86), Jeff Locke (2.36), Gerrit Cole (3.56), Brandon Cumpton (2.78), Jeanmar Gomez (3.26), and Wandy Rodriguez (3.59) have all put up amazing numbers this year. Some of those pitchers are legit, and some will regress eventually. Some have small sample sizes (mostly Cumpton). But for the most part people still rely on ERA, and don’t focus on sample sizes, which means you’re going to get people calling for Gomez (who has a lower xFIP than Morton) or Cumpton (who only has 22 innings) over Morton (another small sample size, but good numbers the last time he was healthy with his sinker).
Morton doesn’t have enough innings to qualify, but if he did he would rank 37th overall among 90 qualified starting pitchers with his 3.66 xFIP. Even if you trust the ERA more, that would put him 58th out of 90 qualified starters. If you looked at all starters this year, Morton would rank 65th in xFIP and 119th in ERA, both out of 260 pitchers.
Morton isn’t a great pitcher, but he isn’t a bad pitcher. He’s got better advanced metrics than Jeanmar Gomez, and his stuff is better than Cumpton and Gomez.
He is Inconsistent
Probably the most valid argument against Morton is that he is inconsistent. He’ll have games, such as tonight’s game, where he doesn’t have the best command. But what exactly are we saying when we say Morton is inconsistent?
Consistency is really what leads to a top of the rotation starter. You can have top of the rotation stuff, and still be a #3-4 starter if you aren’t consistent with that stuff. You can have lesser stuff and put up top of the rotation results if you’re consistent every start.
Morton isn’t consistent, but he has “electric stuff”. When it’s on, he looks great. When it isn’t on, he struggles. And all of those average out to give us what we know: that he’s a league average pitcher, rather than a top of the rotation guy.
Again, that’s not a bad thing. Any Pirates fan who thinks Morton doesn’t belong in a major league rotation has either been spoiled by this year’s ERA numbers, or has extremely unrealistic expectations on how a major league starting pitcher should perform.
If you take an honest look at Charlie Morton, you’ll see that he’s one of the top five starting options for the Pirates. An objective approach notes that he has his bad starts, but also has great stuff, which leads to him being a league average pitcher. That’s better than what the alternatives are with Gomez and Cumpton. The non-objective approach focuses only on those bad outings, while ignoring the good outings. That happens far too often. You’ll hear a lot of people calling for Morton to be removed from the rotation after tonight. But in his previous three starts he combined for eight earned runs in 18.2 innings (3.86 ERA) and those starts are seen as the fluke.
Morton isn’t a guy you want pitching in your playoff rotation, but neither are his alternatives. That said, if you’re looking for the best five starters right now, he’s definitely in that group. The only way he’s not in that group is if you’ve got a super rotation full of number three starters or better. But the Pirates don’t have that type of rotation, and the alternatives to Morton won’t change that. Thus, they’ll just have to settle for a league average starting pitcher, which is something every team in the majors would want.
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