Let’s play a game of “Arbitrary Endpoints” to show just how good Charlie Morton has been lately. Today Morton went seven innings, giving up two runs, one earned to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. That marks the sixth straight start that Morton has gone six or more innings with two or fewer runs, dating back to August 7th. That’s a 1.79 ERA in 40.1 innings of work.
To get an idea of how good and how consistent Morton’s performance has been lately, here are the best six game stretches from all of the other starters in the rotation:
Francisco Liriano: 1.75 ERA in 36 innings from May 11th to June 7th. This included a start where Liriano gave up four earned runs in five innings.
A.J. Burnett: 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings from July 7th to August 4th. Burnett actually had a strong performance before this six game stretch, giving up two earned runs in 8.1 innings. However, his final start in this stretch was better, with one run in a complete game. Burnett did have two starts in the middle where he combined for nine runs, although only three were earned.
Jeff Locke: 0.98 ERA in 36.2 innings from May 19th to June 14th. This is the stretch when Locke was actually striking out guys, and had bad but not horrible walk rates (3.93 BB/9).
Gerrit Cole: 3.44 ERA in 36.2 innings from June 21st to July 23rd. Cole is the only guy in the group that hasn’t posted a dominant stretch this year. However, he’s been pretty consistent. In his 14 starts this year he has only given up more than three runs in one outing. Cole is a future ace, but this year he has been a strong fourth or fifth starter for the Pirates.
Every other starter, with the exception of Cole, has had a dominant streak this year. There’s a reason why the Pirates moved into sole possession of first place today, on September 2nd. But the question is whether that can be sustained. Liriano has obviously sustained his dominant performances. He has a bad outing every now and then, but he’s pitching like an ace. Burnett is in the same situation. He’s had a few more bad outings than Liriano, but he’s a top of the rotation guy for the Pirates.
Locke has struggled lately, and that six game stretch was sandwiched in between stretches where he was getting very lucky with strand rates. That stretch wasn’t as much about luck as the others, but it’s clear that he was playing over his head during that stretch.
So is Morton playing over his head right now? Sure. Anyone who puts up an ERA under 2 for a span of a month is playing over his head, unless that person’s name is Clayton Kershaw. It’s just a question of how much.
On the season, Morton has a 3.00 ERA and a 3.62 xFIP. There is some regression there, and it mostly comes from Morton’s 74% strand rate. But Morton’s season totals might not tell the story here. He was coming back from Tommy John surgery in June, and it was pretty well documented that his command was off at times. Command is the last thing to come back when a pitcher is returning from Tommy John, and it looks like Morton’s is coming back. Anyone watching him lately can see that he’s just been filthy with his sinker and curveball, and can throw them both whenever he wants.
In our second run of Arbitrary Endpoints, we’ll look at Morton’s first and second half numbers. In the first half, when he was returning from Tommy John, he had a 3.19 ERA in 31 innings, but a 4.14 xFIP. In the second half, as he’s gotten further from his rehab, he has a 3.12 ERA in 52 innings (not counting today). The ERA is similar to the first half, but the big difference is that Morton has a 3.34 xFIP in the second half. His overall numbers have been consistent all year, but lately those numbers are more a result of his talent than luck.
But you don’t need Arbitrary Endpoints to see that Morton is the third best starter in the rotation right now. Jeff Locke is struggling and needed a few days to take a break. Gerrit Cole has been consistent, but hasn’t shown that he can be this dominant over any stretch. Morton is clearly the third best starter in the rotation, in part because Locke and Cole don’t have a shot at that role. But Morton is also the third best starter right now because he’s putting up numbers that you’d expect to see from a number three starter on the playoff team. He did exactly that today.
Jose Tabata and Neil Walker Lead the Offense
What is it about Jose Tabata that makes him go on an offensive tear after the Pirates add someone? Ever since the Pirates added Justin Morneau, Tabata has gone 5-for-9 at the plate, including three hits today. He came up big with two RBI singles early in the game. The first tied the score at 1-1 in the third, following the one run Milwaukee scored in the second inning. The second RBI single came in the fifth inning, giving the Pirates a one run lead at the time. All of this follows a stretch where Tabata hit for a .310/.363/.488 line in 92 plate appearances in the month of August. For a comparison, here are some other Pirates in the month of August:
Marlon Byrd: .881 OPS in 115 PA
Starling Marte: .867 OPS in 73 PA
Jose Tabata: .851 OPS in 92 PA
Justin Morneau: .836 OPS in 123 PA
Garrett Jones: .636 OPS in 75 PA
Tabata was just as good as his current roster competition in the month of August. He was better than Morneau, and much better than Jones. Until Starling Marte returns, the Pirates won’t have trouble finding a spot for Tabata to get playing time. Justin Morneau can start at first, Marlon Byrd can start at a corner outfield spot, and Tabata or Jones can take the other corner. As long as Tabata keeps playing like this, he should get the advantage over Jones, at least until Jones shows he can rebound.
When Marte returns, playing time will be tough to come by for Tabata. Byrd and Marte will start at the corners, and if Tabata keeps this up, it will be tricky finding him playing time. At the least, the Pirates will finally have a strong bench, with a hot hitter in Tabata as the main option, and the hope that Garrett Jones can provide some power against right-handers.
Tabata was great today, but the Pirates wouldn’t have won without Neil Walker. The second baseman came up in the top of the seventh inning and hit a three run blast, adding some insurance runs off Aldredo Figaro. Those proved to be important, as Morton gave up his second run in the bottom of the inning, and without Walker’s homer, the game would have been tied.
Shark Tank Closes It Down
While we’re playing Arbitrary Endpoints, can you guess who the most valuable Pirates reliever has been in the second half? It’s not Mark Melancon, who threw a shutout ninth inning for his tenth save.
It’s Tony Watson, who set up Melancon with a perfect eighth inning. Watson has an 0.5 WAR in the second half, according to FanGraphs, before his performance today. That is tied for the 11th best value among 170 qualified relievers during that stretch (and Watson ties with 17 other relievers for that mark). The next Pirate on the list is Mark Melancon, with an 0.4 WAR.
Watson’s 0.92 ERA in that stretch ranks 13th out of those 170 qualified relievers. His 1.71 FIP ranks sixth. His 2.83 xFIP ranks 28th, and the difference between that and the FIP is that Watson’s HR/FB rate is normalized to 10% with his xFIP (he currently has no homers allowed in this stretch). Considering he’s a lefty reliever pitching half of his games in PNC Park, I’m not sure I’d assume a 10% HR/FB rate for him, especially since he was at 8.9% for the entire 2012 season.
Bottom line, no matter what you look at, Watson has been one of the best relievers in baseball in the second half.
Cardinals Lose to the Reds
The St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Reds 7-2 today, giving the Pirates a one game lead in the NL Central. The Pirates won game number 80 today, putting them one away from avoiding their first losing season since 1992, and two away from their first winning season in that span.