First Pitch: Charlie Morton is Comparable to Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb

Charlie Morton led the league in ground ball percentage this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Charlie Morton led the league in ground ball percentage this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about how Charlie Morton is under-rated. It won’t be the last time either. All summer, even before he returned from Tommy John rehab, I’ve been on the Morton bandwagon. At times it was lonely. At times it looked like there was no room left. All throughout the season I felt that Morton was a very under-rated pitcher. I still feel the same way, even after he finished with a 3.26 ERA in 116 innings this year.

Morton is a complex case. He’s not a guy where you can just look at the career numbers and tell what kind of pitcher he is. In 2011, the Pirates totally overhauled Morton’s delivery, dropped his arm slot, and got him to lean on his two-seam fastball. The result was that he put up a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings. It was a huge turnaround, but it didn’t last long. The following season Morton quickly suffered an elbow injury. He pitched through it, but was unable to throw his sinker or curveball. Another way of saying that: he wasn’t able to throw his two best pitches. As a result, he was hit hard for 50 innings before having Tommy John surgery.

This year Morton returned, and looked great. His sinker looked better than it had in 2011, and once his command fully returned he looked the best he has looked in his career. Instead of looking at the full career, you have to look at the development with Morton. What the development says is that he has been a totally new pitcher since 2011, and when he’s healthy he is a strong number three starter in a rotation.

The Pirates have control of Morton for one more season. He’s projected to make about $4 M in his final year of arbitration, which is a huge steal for the production he brings to the table. It may seem weird to say this a day after suggesting the Pirates should trade Francisco Liriano, but I think the Pirates should look at extending Morton over the off-season.

I’m not talking about a long extension, buying out a lot of free agent years. I’d hesitate to do that with any pitcher. What I’m talking about is something in the form of a three year, $25-30 M deal. Earlier today the San Francisco Giants signed Tim Lincecum to a two year, $35 M deal. This is the same Lincecum that has posted some poor numbers over the last two seasons, although his xFIP suggests he’s better than his ERA. Even if you go by his xFIP, he’s not the top of the rotation starter he once was. And he’s getting $17.5 M per season as a result.

This is the new free agent market. This is the result of every team getting an extra $20-25 M to spend. The prices are going to go up, and they’re going to go up across the board. Lincecum had a 3.56 xFIP in 2013. Morton had a 3.69 xFIP. If Lincecum is worth $17.5 M (and I don’t think he is), then Morton at $8-10 M per year is a steal.

So why would I suggest trading Liriano then extending Morton? Because I don’t think people fully appreciate Morton. He’s under-valued. I don’t like player comps, but I couldn’t help but notice an interesting comparison for Morton. When recapping the starting pitchers, I saw that Morton had the highest ground ball rate of anyone with 110+ innings this year. I wanted to see how that compared to guys in previous years. I went back as far as FanGraphs kept ground ball percentage data (2002) and found that only 14 other pitchers had a better season than Morton. It wasn’t exactly 14 different pitchers, since Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb made up ten of those seasons.

So is Morton the next Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Ground Balls

This seems like the best place to start, since the comparison was originally drawn based off a high ground ball percentage. Here are the career numbers for each player, along with the 2013 numbers for Morton.

Lowe – 62.3% career (over 55.8% every year since 2002, over 60% seven years in a row from 2002-2008)

Webb – 64.2% career (over 60% every year from 2002-2008, which amounts to all of his full seasons)

Morton – 62.9% in 2013

Morton was 58.5% in 2011 and 56.5% in 2012. As an illustration of how the injury affected him in 2012, he had a 71.4% ground ball rate through the end of April. His ground ball rate in May (when he could no longer throw the sinker, due to pain) was 49.6%. So Morton has demonstrated the ability to post some insane ground ball rates with his new sinker.

Charlie Morton Pittsburgh Pirates

Not only does Morton generate a lot of grounders, he also has good strikeout and walk rates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Strikeouts

The one downside to ground ball pitchers is that some of them rely on their defense too much. That can lead to poor overall numbers, since about 30% of balls hit in play will go for hits. That number can be higher for ground ball heavy pitchers in some years. Having the ability to miss bats can be the difference between a number five starter and a number three starter. The reason Lowe and Webb were successful for so long wasn’t just the grounders. It was also the ability to miss bats.

Lowe – 5.80 K/9 career (highest from 2002-2012 was 6.64)

Webb – 7.26 K/9 career (had an 8.57 K/9 in his first year, then was 6.76-7.39 in the following years)

Morton – 6.59 in 2013

The curveball is a big reason for Morton’s strikeout rates, although his sinker can be a swing and miss pitch at times, even when Morton is looking to pitch to contact. He’s had good strikeout rates before. Other than his 2012 season (again, couldn’t throw the curve), his K/9 ranged from 5.75-6.67. Morton will probably end up between Webb and Lowe, but he definitely has the ability to miss bats to the point where he won’t be a Zach Duke type of ground ball pitcher.

The Control

One big thing about Morton this year is that he really improved his control. That’s a sign of his command improving. He’s got so much movement with his sinker that it would be impossible to post low walk rates without being able to command where the pitch is going. He only walked 7.3% of batters faced this year, which is a good number (the MLB average was 7.9%). Here is how he compares to the others.

Lowe – 7.0% career

Webb – 7.9% career (inflated by a 9.1% and 12.8% in his first two seasons)

Morton – 7.3% in 2013

I think the biggest reason for Morton’s overall success in 2013 was his command. That really kicked in around the beginning of August, and he looked dominant from that point forward. It’s because of this command that I think the control numbers are legit.

Morton's average velocity with his sinker is why he gets the #ElectricStuff hashtag. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Morton’s average velocity with his sinker is why he gets the #ElectricStuff hashtag. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Velocity

One area where Morton separates himself from Lowe and Webb is with the velocity of his sinker. In 2013 he threw at an average of 92.8 MPH. By comparison, Lowe was 88.3 MPH in his career (never over 89.2), and Webb was 88 MPH in his career (never over 88.7). Not only does Morton’s sinker have a ton of movement, but it also has more velocity than most sinkers. There’s a reason he gets the #ElectricStuff hashtag. To put Morton’s velocity in perspective, the average four seam fastball in the majors this year was 92.0 MPH, and the average two seam was 91.3 MPH.

Morton’s velocity breaks down as 93.4 MPH with his four seam, and 92.5 MPH with his two seam. By comparison, Francisco Liriano was at 93.0 MPH and 92.9 MPH respectively.

Sustainability

Lowe and Webb are two different stories when it comes to sustainability. Webb provided six excellent seasons, but injuries derailed his career after his 2008 season, just before he turned 30. Meanwhile, Lowe was a workhorse, throwing 180+ innings ten years in a row from 2002-2011. He was able to be successful through the age of 37.

Morton has had some injuries, and he’s never gone over 180 innings, so you can’t compare him to Lowe. I wouldn’t compare him to Webb, since Webb had shoulder problems (a career killer) while Morton had elbow problems (a bump in the road). When talking about extending Morton, there’s not a huge health risk in ages 30-32.

As for the performance, I think a large reason Webb and Lowe were successful was the high percentage of ground balls. It’s easier to put up good numbers when people can’t get the ball out of the infield, especially when you’re inducing ground balls at a league leading pace. Everyone loves strikeouts, but a ground ball can be just as effective, and often leads to smaller pitch counts and quicker innings. That, in turn, leads to better health.

I don’t think there would be much risk of Morton fading over the next few years, as long as his sinker is legit and keeps producing league leading ground ball rates. And I think his sinker will do that.

The Comparison and Buying Low

On the surface, a three year deal for $25-30 M might sound like a lot for Morton. Then again, that’s kind of my whole point. Most people don’t look at Morton and think that he’s worth that much over the next three years. But then you look at the comparisons to two other extreme ground ball pitchers. Morton doesn’t directly compare to Lowe or Webb, since they’re all different pitchers. But statistically, they all compare very well. Just like the other two, Morton generates a ton of ground balls, gets a good amount of strikeouts, and showed improved control in 2013 (his second full season using the new sinker).

If you look at Morton as another Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb, then the $8-10 M per year makes a lot of sense. That’s especially true in a market where Tim Lincecum gets two years and $35 M. Even without the Lowe/Webb comparisons, Morton and Lincecum had similar values in 2013 (although they are completely different pitchers). I’d take three years of Morton for less money than two years of Lincecum.

I don’t think people fully appreciate Morton’s value yet. Because of his history — the transition to the sinker, the injury in 2012, and the half season of success in 2013 with a dominant final two months — I think there is a lack of trust. For that reason, the Pirates might be able to get him at a favorable rate this off-season. If they don’t extend him, and he repeats his 2013 numbers in 2014, then there’s no way they get him at $8-10 M per year as a free agent following the 2014 season. Even though the price would be too high for the classification, I think this would be an example of the Pirates buying low.

Links and Notes

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: The Starting Rotation

**The Pirates Have Plenty of Starting Pitching Depth in 2014

**Pirates Grant Phillies Permission to Interview Jim Benedict

**Clint Hurdle Wins The Sporting News NL Manager of the Year

**Baseball America Releases Pirates Draft Report Card

Winter Leagues

**AFL Recap: Ngoepe Helps Scottsdale to 5-1 Victory

**Winter League Recap: Gregory Polanco Doubles Twice In Win

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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  • https://www.facebook.com/wilbertmatthews Wilbert Matthews

    Anyone who watched the team closely has to see how good Charlie is. I actually see him as a good number three sandwiched between Cole and Burnett

  • skliesen

    Trade Liriano? Crazy talk! Extend Ground Chuck? Pure brilliance!

    Besides the obvious reasons you pointed out rather well, Tim, he can also step into the veteran leadership role once AJ & Frankie leave, too.

    I wouldn’t say this is a bigger priority than 1B or RF, but it’s up there w signing AJ for importance this off-season.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I disagree that we should sign Charlie Morton to a 3 year contract. I agree that he had his best stuff in 2013 and his most successful season in his career. My position is based on the facts that

    *He is a late bloomer, turning 30 next month, and his 3 years we want to buy will be his ages 31, 32, and 33 years,
    *$25 mil for 3 years is something you do for a guy with a solid track record,
    *The Pirates have RHSP’s coming of age right now – Cole, Taillon, Kingham, and possibly Glasnow, and guys already in the majors like Cumpton who pitched very well in 2013 for the Pirates,
    *The Cardinals did not re-sign Kyle Lohse last off-season; instead they went with Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, & Michael Wacha.
    *I think we need 2 years of AJ Burnett because he was the leader the past two years and has had 2 excellent years already; if we have $25 mil for a “sleeper”, we have at least that for our No. 1 guy in the Rotation, regardless of age
    *We have been here before with Morton and he has had difficulty stringing successful years together.

    I think that the best thing to do is be thrilled for the guy coming back from TJ and if he does, for the first time in his career, string together successful seasons, then we have a no lose situation. We often speak of staying the course. In my estimation that means keeping the flow of the prospects coming until we reach a point where we are solid on all fronts. We have one guy already up in Cole, and I hope to see Taillon by mid-June, and Kingham shortly thereafter. With what we already have in place, this is no time to throw a roadblock up to any of these young arms. Morton had an excellent year for his 20 starts and 115 IP. Look at the first year he posted decent numbers – do they look a whole lot like what Jeff Locke posted in 2013?

    • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

      It’s basically a no-lose unless Chuck blows his arm out again. Even if Bucs find they don’t need him in 2015-2016 due to the kids needing to come up, he’ll still be underpriced and thus a valuable trade asset.

      It does also bring up the need for tighter defense at 1b and short if Bucs are going with Mercer. And a faster right fielder (or more Dan Fox positioning) as teams (e.g. Cards) have figured out how to hit Chuck by waiting on the breaks and going oppo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    If Charlie would agree to some type of incentive laden contract, then, yes, I am all for it. But so far, all he has been is an ‘electric’ Jeff Karstens…in other words, can’t stay healthy.

    Tim…your argument sort of makes sense, but can we really tie up $8-9 mil in ‘dead’ money IF he goes down again?

    Luckily, we’re not paying Wandy’s full salary, because he may never pitch again with that arthritic elbow (or if he does, he pitches ineffectively?).

    That could be up to $15 mil in ‘dead’ money between Charlie and Wandy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      Charley has had: Shoulder fatigue, hip problems, foot injuries, elbow. He’s averaged just over 95 IP in his big league career. Sure, he could break out, but his history says he is more likely to break.

      Fragile Foo

      • emjayinTN

        I reached my conclusion based on Charlie’s numbers, health, and inability to string together successful seasons. The reference to Lowe and Webb bothered me, but I did not have the time to put some facts together. But here it is – Charlie is 30-49, 4.70 ERA over his 6 years, averaging less than 100 IP/yr, and he does not belong in any conversation or reference that would include Derek Lowe and/or Brandon Webb. Over a 10 year period, Lowe started 334 games and posted a record of 146-114 while averaging more than 200 IP/yr. Before that he was a reliever and then a Closer and posted 42 Saves one year. In Webb’s short career of 6 years he started 197 games, going 87-62 while averaging close to 220 IP/yr. His combined WAR over that 6 years was 33.5; Charlie is at -0.7 WAR for his 6 years.

  • MaineBucs

    I am as excited as most about the future Pirate rotation — Cole, Tallion, Glasnow, Kingham and others could all form the core of a solid rotation. But, at present, and perhaps even through most of the 2014 season, Tallion and Kingham are unproven, and it is hard to envision any scenario in which Glasnow would arrive before mid-2015.

    With Wandy perhaps done, AJ an uncertainty to sign a new contract, and Locke being a real question mark with respect to performance, I view Morton as one of the potential stabilizing forces in the starting rotation. While I would hope that the dollars could be a bit less than $30 mil and more in the $25 mil range , I would be a big fan of inking Morton to at least a 2 year deal with an option for a 3rd year, or a 3 year deal. My offer would be in the range of $6 mil for 2014, $9 mil for 2015 and a third year at $11 or perhaps an option for $12 mil with a $2 mil buy-out.

    I too believe that Morton is a plus pitcher for the Pirates, even if the Cardinals seemingly know how to regularly take him to right field. He is a really good number 3 starter and his sinker could be a really good compliment to how Cole and Tallion pitch.

    And looking down the road, if Morton does make about $6 for 2014, and he pitches well, the Pirates would need to post an offer of at least 14.5 mil or so (qualifying offer) just to retain his services for one more year. I do the 3 year deal and trust/believe that Morton has turned the corner on his career and that he will be an effective starter for the next several years.

    And, with respect to the Cardinals, although they did move on from a pitcher like Lohse whose won – lost record struck most as being much better than his stats or talent (for the dollars he wanted), the Cardinals did try to bring back Carpenter this year and they clearly stuck with Wainwright. Miller, Wacha, Lynn (although I believe he could regress) and Kelly (although I believe he too could regress) are an imposing array of young arms, but I believe the Cardinals also will lean to keeping a veteran or two in their staff.

  • jon6er

    Having no pitching depth at all in the minors is what I remember most for a couple of decades so I love hearing all the discussion and arguments about this guy and that guy. In the end we have to hope that NH and CH make the right decisions on who comes and who goes. I’m not overly excited with Hurdles love for “veteranosity”. He acted like since he was forced to bring Lambo up to make everyone happy doesn’t mean I have to play him and he rarely did!

  • leadoff

    Yesterday I said extend Morton.
    There are two ways to look at this.
    If the Pirates have long term plans for Morton, then extension is the right way to go.
    If they plan on trading him now or in a year or two then don’t extend him.

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

      The only way to trade him in a year or two is to extend him.

      • leadoff

        Your right, they have to make up their minds what to do with Morton between now and the end of 2014.

  • jg941

    I wouldn’t mind having Charlie around for a couple more years pitching they way he did in 2013, but there are numerous caveats and concerns, meaningful and minor, related to a market extension, including:

    * in his BEST year ever, 2013, he put up 1.3 WAR in two-thirds of a season (actually less than that when you factor in the Bucs-normal horrendous batting). Extrapolating that to a full season in 2014 – which would be his FIRST full season ever, BTW – means he puts up a 1.7-1.9 WAR (I know you’d like to not think about the extra 20-25 at-bats, but you can’t :-).

    * Also – the most innings he’s ever pitched at any level is 171 in 2011, so just have to keep that in mind before you bank on even the full-year WAR value.

    * And, even with the partial MLB season workload, Charlie still averaged only 5-and-two-thirds innings per start. Not sure what to make of that. This could be related to his real inability to deal with LH hitters – which opponents will gameplan for more and more often – and he becomes that much less effective the third time thru lineups – don’t know.

    * that kind of projected WAR value puts you right around the $8-$9 million/year being suggested, which makes Charlie (in theory) someone you’re now paying full retail for, and no longer a “bargain”

    * you ARE basing an extension off of a guy’s best year ever, one that came at age 29, and paying for that thru ages 30-32, a minor caveat

    * Looking past 2014, there IS a Pirates pitching pipeline that should see Cole, Taillon, Kingham, Locke, Cumpton, McPherson, KJohnson, Irwin, Sadler, and a few other possibles lined up as potential 2015 starters, with others like Glasnow, JRodriguez and a few more knocking in 2016. You have him for next year, where he should be your #3-4 guy with AJ back, but you’d hate for him to be the highest paid guy in 2015-16 and be the 5th-best, or worse, out of the equation. No clue if he’d be better or worse than any of those guys, just saying that’s a pretty good looking group of minimum wage guys coming almost immediately.

    I like the idea of some continuity from 2014 to 2015 after AJ, Frankie & Wandy leave (other than Cole), but you may find out in 2014 that Tailon and Kingham are ‘as advertised’, and you may have 7 or 8 others banging on your door going into 2015. Depth is a be-yoo-tee-ful thing, indeed!

    Look, Charlie Morton for 3 years/$25 mil seems OK in the abstract and when thinking about what the market looks like for similar pitchers. But from the perspective of managing the Bucs resources you have over the next few years, extending him now just may not be the right overall strategic move.

    It doesn’t necessarily matter if that deal looks good against the market, if you think you have your own internal market of options coming up in the extension years that are being suggested for Charlie.

    Where his value relative to the market might come in most handy is – similar to the Liriano suggestions yesterday – whether you can sell Charlie’s low price tag right now towards something else you might need right now at 1B or RF.

    I was against trading Frankie, and would absolutely keep Charlie for his final year, too, for all the same reasons i gave yesterday, but if you’re now going to talk about extending Charlie into that pipelin of pitchers coming in 2014-15, and extending the risk of injury exposure beyond the upcoming year, and paying full retail for his win value, then the combination of all of those reasons makes me think I’d rather test the trade waters to see if I could generate the same excitement in the market this winter as the excitement that makes me want to offer him a 3/$25 extension.

    Love Charlie, would love to have him here in 2014. Going further, for a lot of the above reasons, just worries me a bit.

    • leadoff

      Above all else I would not want to see Charley leave for nothing after 2014.

  • Andrew

    An aspect of Morton’s performance that I have not seen discussed is his platoon split against LHHs. Over his career he has a split of .099 wOBA, and a FIP of 1.34. (.246 for OPS) This is extreme as a pitcher can get, and his splits in 2011, 2013 become even more pronounced .158, .133 wOBA, FIP of 2.08, 1.75 respectively. The splits became worse because in 2013, 2011 he turned RHHs into no walk, .230 singles hitters.

    I still like Morton as a pitcher and I think he can be effective, but this a flaw that is easily exploitable, (40-45% of the league hits from the left side.) Morton is a sinker ball, curve ball pitcher with a 3/4 delivery which means he prone to huge platoon splits. Could he develop a cutter, change up, sure, but in his current form I think this fault needs to be consider in any valuation.

    As far as discussion of his precise value, I will wait for more data before saying a pitcher win is worth 8.75 million on the free agent market. Give the above caveats I think it is correct that Morton is undervalued, the reason being he is extremely valuable given the Pirates defense and park. Thus I think he is more valuable to the Pirates compared to what he would command on the free agent/trade market. Have a look at Rick Porecello, similar K and BB rates but pitches in Detroit in front of DH quality corner infielders.

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com steelpro

    I kind of agree. I think a 3 year deal for Morton makes sense. I think $25-$30 million is a little high. The estimates have him making $4 million in arbitration for this season. More than $10million for his 2015 and 2016 seasons seems like too much.

  • http://www.deanmanifest.blogspot.com Dean Manifest

    I wasn’t quite clear- are you suggesting buying out this final year of arbitration?

    If that’s the case the options would be:

    A. Pay $4-5M in 2014, deal with 2015 and beyond later
    B. Add two years and $20-25M to that “deal”

    $8-9M per year sounds solid if he’s a free agent NOW. But since he’s not you’d have to look at it in terms of adding two years at $10-13M per (depending on the extention). I’m not sure how much more he would make than that even if he posted a fully healthy year (which would be his first). Would a team really go to 3/45? Maybe. But even if they did I don’t think we’d be kicking ourselves THAT much. We only would have cost ourselves $2-5M in per year dollars in that case, which I think is a reasonable price to pay as a sort of insurance against him blowing up again next season.

    And what if he lands somewhere between a full, healthy repeated his 2013 numbers and a total disaster. What if, for example, he starts just 20-24 games due to various injuries, he looks rough going into or coming out of a couple DL stints for minor injuries, and his ERA goes up 0.5-0.75 of a run in the process? In that case I think he’d jump a the same 2/20-25 we’re talking about giving him right now.

    After you factor in all the various possible outcomes, factor in the player’s perspective. Morton is about to turn 30. He’s never cashed a REALLY big check in his life. If it’s all downhill from here, and he plays just 2-4 more up-and-down years before retiring due to injuries, he’s gonna have to go look for a job. If he’s lucky he’ll end up like Bob Walk. If he’s unlucky he’s selling insurance. (Trust me, I’ve managed money for a living…..guys who bag only a few million bucks after taxes while they’re in their 20s are NOT set for life).

    I think Morton would think about all the uncertainty of the past few years- the struggles, the surgery, the stress- and then JUMP at the chance to secure $20,000,000 and a future with the team for the next three years. I could be wrong- he could be stubborn, or supremely confident, or whatever. But my hunch is that he’d go for it. There’s a difference between $20M now (plus the chance for more later) and a possible $40M in a year. There’s a BIG difference between $4-5M now and $20M now. After taxes all you get from that $4-5M is a house, a car, a car for your woman, and a couple hundred K in the bank. $20M means you can actually call yourself a millionaire for more than a couple weeks.

    Long story short: I’d offer him more like $18-20M for 3 years.