This time last year there was a common phrase going around: Charlie Morton had great numbers outside of that one bad start in Chicago. Morton posted a 4.55 ERA in 18 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates, after coming over in the Nate McLouth trade. That one start was a one inning, ten run outing against the Cubs. Outside of that start, Morton had a 3.66 ERA in 17 starts, spanning 96 innings.
A year later, Morton is coming off a disastrous season in which he posted a 7.57 ERA in 17 starts. Morton also was demoted to AAA, where he didn’t exactly light up the minors, posting a 3.82 ERA in 80 innings, mostly due to a late season surge. Ironically enough, this time Morton finished the season strong, with a 4.09 ERA in the month of September, including a strong 6.0 K/9 and a 2.44 K/BB ratio.
Morton was unlucky this year, with a .361 BABIP, well above the norm for starters, which is around the .300 mark. Even his September numbers were unlucky, with a .337 BABIP. His strand rate was 53.2%, well below the average for starters, which falls around 70%. The worst part was his HR/FB ratio, normally around 10% for starters, but 18.1% for Morton. All of that combined says one of two things: either Morton was extremely unlucky, or there was something wrong with his approach, and I think anyone who watched this year would lean more towards there being something wrong.
It’s easy to forget, but Morton had success in 2009 with the Pirates. It’s easy to look back at that one start, plus the majority of his 2010 season, and suggest that he’s just a bad pitcher. However, you don’t do what Morton did in those other 17 starts in 2009 unless you’ve got the talent to make it in the majors. Is Morton the potential top of the rotation starter with electric stuff that people thought he could become? Probably not. At this point, a number three starter might be optimistic. That said, it might not be out of the question to assume Morton can still be a reliable starter in the majors.
Lets turn the clock back two years to a similar situation. Tom Gorzelanny had a horrible 2008 season, putting up a 6.66 ERA in 105.1 innings, with a horrible 67:70 K/BB ratio. In 2009 he had a 5.19 ERA in nine relief appearances, and spent most of the season in AAA. The Pirates gave up on him too early, and this year he responded with a 4.09 ERA in 136.1 innings with the Cubs, including an improved 119:68 K/BB ratio.
I look at Morton and I see a similar situation. Morton doesn’t have the success that Gorzelanny had in 2006 and 2007, but he does have some success: the 2009 season. I also look at the pitching staff and I see a possible problem that could have affected Morton: Joe Kerrigan. It seems that Kerrigan wasn’t fully involved this season, and Morton wasn’t the only one who struggled. Brad Lincoln struggled, and was demoted due to a mechanical change Kerrigan made which went wrong. Paul Maholm had a horrible season. Zach Duke was extremely bad. Things were so bad that a 4.88 ERA from Jeff Karstens was seen as a bright spot. I don’t want to blame it all on Kerrigan, but you could make a strong argument that he wasn’t helping the pitching staff this year.
Morton and Maholm each improved at the end of the year. Duke never bounced back, and there wasn’t enough to tell if Lincoln got over his issues. I don’t think there would be an argument with giving Maholm or Lincoln a second chance, and because of that, I think Morton deserves another shot. The Pirates only have three starters who have locked down a spot next year: Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald. I’d like to see them add an external option, but with the other remaining spot I’d like to see Morton get another chance. The last thing the Pirates can afford to do is have another Gorzelanny situation, where they give up on a pitcher who obviously has the talent to compete in the majors and realizes that talent at his next destination.
I think Morton could end up similar to Gorzelanny: an ERA in the low four range, which would be good enough to be a #4-5 starter in a good rotation. The Pirates don’t exactly have the starting depth at the start of the 2011 to just cast Morton away. If Morton doesn’t work out, they can move to the group of 2010 AA starters who will likely be reaching the majors by June 2011. That scenario isn’t as bad as the scenario of the Pirates getting rid of Morton, only to find themselves in a Tom Gorzelanny 2.0 situation.