Charlie Morton’s return from Tommy John surgery in June has without a doubt been a shot in the arm of the Pirates’ rotation, a group that has seen every single one of its starters from Opening Day spend time off the mound due to injury.
Since he made his first start of the season June 13 against the San Francisco Giants, Morton has been one of the most consistent starters for the Pirates. In a recent six-game stretch, Morton went 4-0 and pitched at least six innings in each outing while racking up Game Scores of 60-plus in four of the six outings.
Overall, Morton is 7-4 for the Pirates with a 3.54 ERA and 3.72 FIP.
But last night’s start against the Chicago Cubs brought out one of Morton’s pervading flaws as Chicago manager Dale Sveum inserted six left-handers into his lineup against Morton. Sveum hoped to take advantage of the .333 batting average Morton allowed to left-handers entering the game, as well as an OPS of .878.
In a sense, Sveum’s strategy worked as left-hander Brian Bogusevic hit a two-run home run in the fourth that gave the Cubs a three-run lead. Nate Schierholtz worked a lead-off walk and scored on a fielder’s choice, and left-handed hitters accounted for all three runs scored off Morton Friday.
Clint Hurdle, though, isn’t particularly worried about the start.
“Four hits, five innings, six left-handed guys hitting two through seven. That’s not bad. A couple balls were elevated, it is what it is,” Hurdle said. “He gave up three runs in five innings on four hits.”
Moving forward, Hurdle sees the fix as one based around Morton working with his core pitches.
“The one thing we saw, when the numbers started going where they go, he tried adding pitches to get out lefties and the numbers just got crazy-bad,” Hurdle said. “So I think you need to identify what kind of pitcher you have, what kind of strengths, what he can do against a lineup that might be tilted heavily left-handed, and still compete.”
On Morton’s end, the results Friday weren’t just limited to the number of hits he allowed.
This season, about 62 percent of the balls put in play off Morton have gone for ground balls. But last night against the Cubs, Morton was able to get only about 31 percent of balls in play on the ground.
Those ratios were reflected in the 15 outs Morton got in his five innings last night, as just five came on the ground. Morton chalked that up to the approach left-handed hitters bring to the plate against him.
“If they have the right approach, there are going to be a lot of hits, a lot of hits up the middle, they’re going to get a lot of hits to opposite field off my sinker,” Morton said. “Staying back, staying short, and trying to go up the middle, and go the other way.”
One aspect left-handed hitters are able to take away from Morton is a part of what makes him so successful against righties: running his sinker down-and-in and right-handed hitters’ hands. But against left-handed hitters, if Morton makes a mistake, those hitters can sit back on the sinker and wait for it to flatten and become easier to put into play.
“You can get away with thing with righties, more often than not. But with lefties it’s different because there’s an area for left with the sinker where it’s just different for them,” Morton said. “It’s like it’s tailor-made for a lefty swing when it’s in certain spots.”
As a result, Morton believes the biggest fix is finding an approach to counter left-handers’ approach that he can take with him to the mound every time he pitches.
“It’s been that way the last three years, so finding a way and an approach that’s consistent, that’s the biggest thing,” Morton said. “Being aggressive, and at least showing that I can throw two or three pitches for strikes.”
- Jose Tabata LF
- Neil Walker 2B
- Andrew McCutchen CF
- Justin Morneau 1B
- Marlon Byrd RF
- Pedro Alvarez 3B
- Russell Martin C
- Jordy Mercer SS
- Gerrit Cole P
- Starlin Castro SS
- Luis Valbuena 3B
- Anthony Rizzo 1B
- Nate Schierholtz RF
- Ryan Sweeney CF
- Brian Bogusevic LF
- Welington Castillo C
- Darwin Barney 2B
- Scott Baker P