The Key to Charlie Morton Having Success Against Left-Handers

MIAMI — On paper, the Pirates had a good plan tonight. They loaded their lineup with guys who have fared well against left-handers, while going up against a lefty starter. The infield had several guys who also doubled as good defensive options at their position, which made sense with Charlie Morton on the mound. And Morton was going up against a Marlins lineup that had plenty of left-handers, but he had done a better job in that regard over his last few outings.

The plan just didn’t work out.

The lineup had some early success against Brad Hand, scoring a run in the first after a pair of back-to-back hits from Andrew McCutchen and Aramis Ramirez. From there, Hand shut the Pirates down. They had a lot of hard-hit balls for outs, but ultimately the offense couldn’t get to the lefty until the top of the ninth inning. That’s when they led off the frame with back-to-back hits, ending the career longest outing for Hand. However, the offense was unable to do much damage off A.J. Ramos, and Miami shut the Pirates down 5-2.

Charlie Morton looked great early in the game. He started with three shutout innings, then gave up a run each in the fourth and fifth, before seeing things fall apart in the sixth inning. The last time I saw Morton live was on August 9th when he struggled against the Dodgers and their lefty-heavy lineup that night. After the game, Morton told me that lefties were swinging a lot against him, and that he was going to look into the cause of that.

I asked Morton about that again tonight, and he said that the location of his pitches was the issue, and that lefties were getting comfortable out over the plate against him. As a result, he focused on establishing the ball on the inside worked for him.

“I think that’s the key against the lefties, is just making sure I’m working in and up, so they can’t just hang out over the plate and look for sinkers out over the plate all the time,” Morton said tonight after the game.

Morton clearly executed this plan in the early frames. He was pounding the inside corner against left-handers, pushing the Miami hitters back off the plate and getting good results. His goal was to push guys off the plate, but throw the sinker in a way that it would come back over the corner for a strike. This led to a few pitches where left-handers backed away from a called strike.

While Morton’s sinker was working, it was the curveball that led to trouble in the later frame. The pitch looked good early, but started getting hit hard in the later innings.

“My curveball just wasn’t really locating very well,” Morton said. “It felt like the ball was just popping out a little bit. I felt the movement was alright. The location was just middle-middle.”

This led to two big doubles off the curve. Another double came off his sinker when Martin Prado displayed a good piece of hitting, going way inside to lead off the scoring in the sixth inning. The Pirates called on Jared Hughes, who gave up another run on a double to Christian Yelich, who crushed a sinker that was mostly flat. Prior to the game, Clint Hurdle talked about how the recent struggles from Hughes were due to his lack of success against lefties recently.

“It’s been better against right-handers than left-handers right now,” Hurdle said. “He has gone through some sequences where I think the appearances might have taken a little sink out of the ball. He was red lining [with the number of appearances].”

The Pirates didn’t allow any runs past the sixth, including a scoreless seventh inning from Hughes where he struggled against the two left-handers he faced, only to get out of the jam with no runs allowed.

The Pirates had a good plan on paper heading into this game. The Marlins also had a plan to load up the lineup with left-handers, and that paid off in a big way against two sinkerball pitchers who have struggled against left-handers at times.

**Francisco Cervelli had two scares tonight. The first one came when a foul ball went off his right ankle, leading to a delay while the trainers checked on him. The second instance came in the ninth inning when he rounded second base, saw Aramis Ramirez was held up at third, and turned and slid hard into the bag, jamming his left foot. Hurdle said that Cervelli checked out fine after the game, so it appears the Pirates were fortunate in both cases.

**Clint Hurdle said that Aramis Ramirez isn’t ready for games at first base yet, due to a lack of opportunities to get work in at the position.

“We’ve had some challenges,” Hurdle said of getting Ramirez work. “We want to get a really good work day in with him, and the days he hasn’t played have been travel days or days we haven’t been on the field based on our schedule. So we’ve still got some work to do. Getting closer, but we’ve still got some work to do.”

**Michael Morse had some hard hit balls tonight against his former team, including one that fell in for a hit. Hurdle talked before the game about what they liked about Morse, noting that they wanted a compliment at first base on the right side, and a guy who could be a good pinch hitter. Hurdle also mentioned that he got a very good recommendation from San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy about the makeup and character of Morse. Ultimately, the Pirates will hope that Morse plays better for them than he did with Miami.

“We liked the things the Marlins liked when they went out and brought him in,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes things don’t work for the reasons they don’t work.”

**We’ve written a lot recently about what has been working for Gregory Polanco. Hurdle reiterated that a big change was that Polanco is now showing better mechanics, allowing him to see the ball deeper in the zone. This has seen his swings and misses and rolled over ground balls replaced with a lot more line drives. Hurdle even said that Polanco was a “ground ball machine” when he first came up.

“I do think the mechanics in his case have helped and played a definite role,” Hurdle said. “He’s letting balls travel. He’s seeing balls better. When he’s firing, he’s connecting. He’s making firm contact. Before I just felt that the body placement, the balance, the swing path was disconnected.”

    • It absolutely drives me up the wall too. I don’t understand it but it seems like it’s organization wide. My only theory is they are really, REALLY stressing making the pitch over letting the runner distract them. But I would love to hear another idea why it seems like we just do not care about holding runners…

      • Makes me wonder about that part of Glasnow, Taillon, Kinghams games ect

        • Exactly…the first aaa start (I think) for glasnow when runners went 6 for 6 on him is when I really started noticing how prevalent it is

      • Mike: Why are all of the Cardinal pitchers at 5 SB’s or below? Molina is part of the reason and has the rep, but the numbers indicate a management that emphasizes not allowing giving up any base – make the other team work for everything!

        With as many TJ’s as the Pirates have experienced, we should know that it does not have anything to do with whether you slide step or not. We teach them to not vary their deliveries with runners on base, and we are still having guys go down to injury. Maybe we need to adjust and try to do it the right way – protecting every base like it meant the game.

        • Exactly. It’s clearly not all on Cervelli. I mean he’s not even getting a chance to throw the ball. Curt Schilling was going on and on about it on one of the Sunday night broadcasts, and it’s even more frustrating that apparently the attitude goes all the way through the lower levels too.

  • Cervelli’s sequencing is just atrocious at times. Not one bit impressed with his ability to call games. We saw it over the weekend when he kept having Jeff Locke lob breaking balls into right handers, and we saw it last night with Morton. You cannot turn a lefty heavy lineup over three times with two pitches when you show the curveball so often early on. Justin Bour was sitting on them like he knew what was coming, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering everyone else in the ballpark did as well.

    Even if the change isn’t an out pitch, you simply *have* to show it or else you’re left counting on pinpoint command getting it done, and that Charlie has not.

    • What are some good sequences for Morton to pitch against left hand hitters that Cervelli should have called given what Morton has to work with?

      • The curveball lost a lot of bite as the game progressed too.

      • I like changing a hitter’s focus; in to out, up to down, hard to soft, etc

        You often hear hitting coaches tell a guy to focus on a zone and attack if the pitch is there. Cervelli has Morton establish the fastball inside (good!), but then time after time after time has him try to bury the curveball in there as well. Instead of the hitter diving out over the plate (before) he now rarely even has to worry about a pitch on the outside corner.

        Morton’s change will likely never be a weapon, but he has to show it off the outside corner to keep the hitter honest. Fastball in>fastball away>changeup away would open up the plate for that curveball to be buried on his back foot.

        • We agree. I’d add the following:

          The only time Morton should use the 2 seamer is when he starts it high and tight with a possible break down and away to catch the high inside corner. And then only after establishing a 4 seamer inside. The movement on his two seamer follows straight down the LH bat line and is far to easy to hit. This is in direct contrast to the two seamer against RHH where the break of the pitch crosses perpendicular to the swing path making it very hard to hit.

          So that reduces his repertoire to his four seamer, curveball and change.

          Morton needs to command the four seamer in and out, particularly on the outside for strikes. Apparently he has trouble doing this consistently, and that lies at the heart of his problem.

          He needs to back door the curve ball on the outside of the plate, in addition to the back foot curve.

          So in summary Morton is giving up the outside of the plate too easily in an effort to protect his two seamer by pitching inside. The result is he is too predictable. He should establish the outside by changing speeds, 4 seamer/change up, with an occasional back door curve, and only rarely use the two seamer on the inside corner.

        • I heard a post-game interview with Morton where he came out and said he lost both his slider and his curve in the 5th.

  • Looked like Morton had command issues that led to getting behind in the count and then throwing up some pitches that were strikes but were not very sharp. He had a bad July and was really doing well in August with 3 very good outings and only one bad outing until last night.

    IMO, last night was a perfect example of a game the Pirates could have won with their bats, but they left a lot to be desired against a LHSP barely breaking 90 mph. He was allowed to pitch without any pressure on him. OTOH, the inability of Morton to have any control over the running game was exposed by the Marlins, and guys getting to first were soon stealing second to get into scoring position. They applied the pressure.

    Worst comment of the night – ‘Cutch may have had problems with that ball (the error) because of the way they cut the outfield grass????????

    • Right. That comment was one for the ages…. the cross- cut, basketweave grass caused Cutch to miss the ball. Later, they said Cutch’s knee must be bothering him when he made no attempt to break up the DP. I am at the point where no matter what I am disappointed if Kang in not in the lineup. The day after a great night at the plate Polanco looked real bad against this lefty. I do hope that unbelievable throw he made is something that he becomes known for. The dream outfield should probably see some positional switches in the future to take better advantage of the cannons Marte and Polanco possess.

    • Not saying it did, but it could. Happens with golf balls.

  • Brad Hand is now officially a member of the Jimmy Nelson Club.

  • Sounds good on paper but you can’t lose to the worst team in baseball when the Cards win again.

    • Contrary to popular belief, Pirates aren’t going to win me all. And neither will the Cards. Ground Chuck couldn’t make it through the lineup the 3rd time. A very common issue with a lot of SP’s.

      • Gordon got on with a bunt. Prado got lucky on an inside pitch that hit the chalk. Bour doubled off an ill-advised outside curb that stayed up and was pretty much the exact same pitch Bour doubled off of earlier.

        Point being, the “third time thru the lineup” argument doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny in Charlie’s case.

        • I still can’t get over the game Cervelli called.

          In general, he hasn’t been nearly as good defensively as he was billed. -6 DRS ranks second worst in all of baseball out of catchers with at least 500 innings; 6.1 DEF 13th of 17 qualified catchers. I’m also highly skeptical of the framing value that can be attributed to him, specifically. The zone is expanding low across baseball, and every Pirate pitcher lives at the bottom; I think any decent framer is going to put up huge numbers because of those two things alone.

          Thank goodness the bat has been propped up by that .367 BABIP.

          • It’s hard for me to get on any catcher who’s catching Morton, except for maybe not being in position to block pitches. Even Morton will tell you it’s an inning-to-inning thing with his curve. So if it’s working for 3 innings, then stops biting, it’s still hard not to call for it later in the game. Charlie did miss up a few times. Which again has nothing to do with six innings or 3rd time through. Contrast to Happ’s game when he hit the mitt where Cervelli held it almost every pitch. (edit: I see you mentioned Charlie historically not having pinpoint control below, and I’ll agree with that).

            Anyway, I’m one of those guys who still believes in team chemistry, so Cervelli is OK in my book. As is Stewie. If he was hitting a “more appropriate” .270 or so, he’d still be an asset.

            This is sort of like the baseball equivalent of “first world problems”.

            • Agree

            • And admittedly, I’m undoubtedly subconsciously comparing Cervelli to Russell Martin, who has him beat comfortably in every facet of the game. That’s not fair to Cervelli, who has been good in his own right.

              Cervelli seems to have a fantastic relationship with his pitchers, and that certainly plays a factor; but my goodness could Russell pick apart a lineup. I just don’t see Cervelli with that kind of acumen.

              • For all his years of service Cervelli doesn’t have that many innings having been primarily a backup whereas Russell was a starter. Could be that Cervelli will improve his game calling with more game experience. He seems smart enough, but does he study the books on the hitters the way that Russell did?

        • Scott Kliesen
          August 26, 2015 12:28 pm

          You can hash it out to suit your purposes, but the fact remains the Marlins scored 3 runs on Morton in the inning in which the top of the order came up to face him for the 3rd time. So yes, it very much does stand up to scrutiny.

          • It does, but it gets overplayed imo. Nearly every pitcher is worse his 3rd time through. So its not really shocking that a guy that doesnt have elite talent is more prone to some “well crap” innings his 3rd time through.

            But what a manager cant do is assume that and pull him early, because most 4th and 5th SP will see worse numbers the 3rd time through but the bullpen cant go 3-4 innings that often.

            • Sure it can…just not in the current standard one-inning-per-outing format.

              • You’d have to have 2-3 guys able to go multiple innings and have them to do back to back games (and do it that way every time through the rotation). I dont see that as smart, since you’d have a high volume workload for those guys + the current high volume for the closer (since lord knows that role isnt changing).

                • Not even close.

                  Now, if you’re going to pseudo-piggyback your entire rotation, sure. But we’re talking only the back end here. Limiting your 4th and 5th starters to 5-6 inning outings.
                  All that would be required would be turning your mop-up guy into an actual asset, i.e. what they’ve just done with Joe Blanton over Vance Worley, and build two other middle relievers up to multi-inning guys. That’s not close to revolutionary, no is it tough on arms.

                  As the current bullpen stands, IP are typically inverted from back end guys to scrubs in the 6th and 7th spot. Vance Worley pitched just twelve times as a reliever this year. Even if you pulled your 4/5 starters at 5 innings each start, you’re only talking about needing two bullpen arms to throw about 60 IP each, with plenty of rest between appearances.