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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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