Pittsburgh’s starting rotation has received a mid-season addition in each of the last few years that elevated the staff. In 2013, it was Francisco Liriano when he recovered from his broken arm and later Gerrit Cole upon his major-league debut. Vance Worley joined the rotation in June 2014 and delivered a 2.85 ERA over 110 2/3 innings. This year, the boost was expected to come from Nick Kingham and possibly Jameson Taillon.

But Taillon is recovering from his Tommy John surgery last April and while his rehab has gone well in his early throwing stages, don’t expect the Pirates to be unnecessarily aggressive with one of their top young arms. Meanwhile, Kingham began the recovery process last month.

Enter Charlie Morton, who admittedly didn’t know where his pitches were going as he released them over a number of otherwise disastrous starts in Spring Training. As a result, he spent nearly the first two months of the season on the disabled list as he continued his recovery from hip surgery last September.

“The failure during Spring Training forced me to change some things,” Morton said.

The sinkerballer is pitching arguably the best baseball of his career and won each of his five starts since his return, while posting a 1.62 ERA.

“I guess what I was doing in Florida was paying off,” Morton said, “Just working on mechanics and trying to get it right.”

Manager Clint Hurdle said before Morton’s start Tuesday this was as good as he’s seen Morton throw from the time he’s managed the Pirates. Morton proceeded to toss seven shutout innings against the White Sox later that evening.

“He’s just nailing his delivery,” Hurdle said. “The release point. Everything is coming out of one spot, whether it’s the breaking ball, whether it’s the sinker, whether it’s the changeup. He’s keeping himself together on the mound. The delivery has been really good.”

Morton’s continued to show the form from his first two starts off the disabled list and strengthened an already-strong Pirates rotation.

His sinker has been as effective as ever, leaving opposing hitters no alternative but to beat it into the dirt time after time. Morton’s operated heavily with the pitch, throwing his sinker over 70 percent of the time.

And for good reason. Morton’s ground ball rate is at a career-high 67 percent. Opposing hitters have only hit 13 fly balls against Morton in 33 1/3 innings so far.

The only other pitch Morton has thrown extensively is his curveball, with which he’s generated the most amount of swings and misses with.

Morton’s FIP of 3.31 and .229 BABIP allowed indicates he’s due for some slight regression, and a pitcher that relies on contact has had the advantage of having starts against five teams that rank among the top 10 in the rate at which they hit ground balls. It’s also a group that, overall, is pretty average when it puts the ball in play.

Team GB% Rank BABIP Rank
Marlins 51.8 1 .311 5
Padres 47.1 9 .299 13
Braves 47.8 7 .309 8
Brewers 47 8 .280 26
White Sox 49 3 .284 23

Morton’s next start is slated for Sunday at Washington, and the Nationals are another high ground ball, average BABIP team. They have the sixth-highest ground ball rate at 47.9 percent and their .296 BABIP ranks 16th.

But the Pirates will keep taking Morton’s quality of work, regardless of who it comes against. It’s also a side of Morton that fits in with the dominating personalities of A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole.

Now in his age-31 season, Morton has never put it all together. He showed flashes of it in 2013 when he went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts, after which the Pirates rewarded him with a three-year extension.

How long Morton has left in his career, who knows, but now it becomes a little more about the legacy of a player who’s always been his own toughest critic.

“He expects a lot out of himself,” Hurdle said. “He’s worked extremely hard. I do think once he got back here it’s time he wanted to take ownership of some things more so than he had in the past.”

That sense of ownership seems to have provided the Pirates with what looks like baseball’s best No. 4 starter.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. I respect Morton a lot for keeping his mouth shut about that disastrous plan to alter his arm slot Tim wrote about this winter. Clearly wasn’t physically prepared for such a change and that had to exacerbate his release point issues.

    He knows how good Searage & Benedict have been for him and trusted them to get him back even after that mistake.

  2. I am very glad that ground chuck is on his game and hope this trend continues into october, although there is still that nagging doubt that upchuck will show up and spoil the party.

  3. He has been a tremendous shot in the arm for this team. With our offense being very erratic his starts are significant. We need to get the offense to provide more then 3 runs a game.

    • With a little more offense we could afford to give Melancon more of a break. My guess is, if it comes to it, Watson closes tonight. Caminero is probably off limits too.

      • We have really struggled to get production out of the RF position and consistent production from 1B. I like the idea, honestly, of giving JHay time in RF and letting Kang occupy 3B. The problem with Polanco, honestly, is that his bat just looks too slow. When he first started struggling it was because of off-speed pitches, but now he’s getting blow away with high heat. Yesterday alone he got blown away by fastballs not even above 94 mph.

        • Like I’ve said before, when polancos lower half gets in sync with his upper half he is going to be a terror, right now his legs don’t know what his hips are doing and so on. He will figure it out, I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

        • The appearance of his bat being slow is the symptom, not the cause. One thing Gregory Polanco is most certainly not short on is bat speed.

          Polanco’s problem is that he has absolutely no plan at the plate right now. The club has done an awful job preparing this kid to hit. They focus on his holes, which leaves him indecisive even on pitches he can handle.

          I read a great interview of Joey Gallo the other day where he openly acknowledged that he has a hole in his swing due to the length created by his size. His quote was essentially that if a pitcher can pinpoint three plus fastballs in that one location then he’ll tip his cap and walk back to the dugout, but if the pitcher misses he’s ready to jump on HIS pitch HE can attack.

          This is completely opposite of the naive teach-everyone-to-be-a-complete-hitter philosophy Hurdle preaches.

          • Please excuse my ignorance but I’m trying to follow – so basically you’re saying Polanco needs to look for his pitch more and the fact that he can’t identify what he should be swinging at is causing a hesitant swing?

            • Basically. Good hitters play to their strengths, not try to cover up their weaknesses.

              Four of the five hitters with the worst contact rate in all of baseball right now are Stanton, Pederson, Springer, and Bryant. You don’t see them choking up on the bat trying to make more contact, do you? No. They accept who they are as hitters knowing that they’ll eventually get a pitch to attack, and they damage it when they do.

              Polanco has to stop trying to do too much and just hit the damn ball.

              • I was actually surprised and happy that I saw him attempt that bunt (which he wasn’t successful getting down) last night. I mean he’s got the speed and when he gets on he’s a terror on the bases. But you’re right. He’s gotta see the ball, hit the ball, and get on base more to be a factor for us. He looks lost and, sadly, a little helpless at the plate. He should take after Marte…Marte has said, “forget it, I’m going to be me and hit” and he’s having an incredible year.

              • Thanks. My swing is more like Liriano’s than Polanco’s so any insight on a man’s approach with seemingly no holes 365 days ago is always appreciated.

          • Very interesting about Gallo because, I think, that approach is, honestly, the exact approach of every hitter (or at least should be). Every hitter has a hole in his swing. Its about minimizing the holes and working the pitcher to be able to get a pitch where you can handle it. You’re right, Polanco looks lost and like he has no map out of the woods. It seems like the Pirates are ONLY going to be successful with developing hitters with short, quick swings who have had success that way previously.

            • I agree that Polanco is struggling. The swing is off and he looks confused in the box. Whatever they are saying to him from a coaching standpoint is not working. I realize the kid has long arms, to put it mildly, but he is reaching and searching for contact. Compare the level and powerful swingpaths of Cutch and Marte right now with Polanco’s uppercut. He will always struggle for consistency with that uppercut because the timing has to be perfect to be effective. With his speed he should be bunting once a game…I heard a an interview with Omar Moreno last week where he said he believe Polanco AND Marte could and should be getting a bunt base hit very game.

          • Yeah, that philosophy has produced horrendous team results.
            Maybe they should go with some layman’s all or nothing approach instead.

      • Scahill maybe Hughes and Bastardo. B enice if we can get out to 3-4 runs early and milk the offense like last night. We need Walker/Alvarez to wake up.

  4. When he’s not hurt or reinventing himself that man is a bargain. I almost miss the plunkings. Really pulling for him.

  5. Good for Charlie. Hopefully, he keeps it up. The great thing about Chuck is that when he’s pitching effectively he can go deep into games with a low pitch-count and can really get you into your most effective relief spots. Thats what I like most about him. He works (can work) efficiently, gets outs, and gets you into the late innings consistently.

  6. While, yes, Morton will regress toward his FIP, he’s the sort of pitcher who can out pitch his FIP because of his ground ball rate. If he keeps not walking or hitting batters, his ERA is going to look might pretty all season.

    • Ground ball pitchers aren’t a class of pitchers that beat their FIP’s. Ground balls are hits more often than fly balls. Since the arm slot change in 2011 through last season, Morton ERA/FIP/xFIP is 3.74 / 3.76 / 3.89.

      • GB are hits more often, but they are more often singles. Reducing the number of extra base hits allows for a GB pitcher to amass double plays, and that shows in the teams philosophy (leading league in DPs). I think they gladly trade the idea that a GB guy might give up a few more hits in a game, for the knowledge that its going to be singles most of the time and that the next batter is likely to hit it on the ground as well.

        Morton almost has to regress at this point (or be a cy young arm lol) but if he keeps his release point his regression might not be all the way to upper 3 ERA/FIP stuff. His SIERA right now is 3.32, so he is pitching like a 3 arm.

        • I’m aware of this all, but it is ancillary to the point I was raising. Ground ball pitchers aren’t one of the classes of recognized FIP over-performers like knuckleballers, lefty fly ball pitchers, and Chris Young.

          I’m glad Morton is in the rotation, he has always been effective when healthy, I just think a little too much is being made of 120 batters faced.

          • I think the way PIT operates with its pitchers and defense makes it far more likely to outperform its FIP type numbers many years. Morton will regress, but i see no reason why a heavy GB pitcher with a team defense set up to maximize his skills cant regularly see better numbers than what FIP would suggest.

  7. I just wish he would shave that nasty facial hair. But hey if its helping him pitch well then maybe he should keep it.

  8. Hopefully everything he’s been through and all the hard work he’s put in is finally paying off. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.

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