I asked some fellow Pirate fans on twitter and various Pirate message boards to describe Charlie Morton in two words. Here are some of the two word descriptions that people came up with for Morton: “Head Case”, “Ground Balls”, “Electric Stuff”, “Consistently Inconsistent”, “Bad Peripherals”, “Great Sinkerball”, “Ground Chuck”, “Over Rated”, “Under Rated”, “Backend Starter”, “Effectively Wild”, “Just Average”. As you can see Charlie is lot of things to a lot of different people, and quite honestly it is hard for me disagree with any of it. He is a tough pitcher to figure out. But one description you will never hear attached to Chuck is “Lefty Killer”. As difficult and confusing it is to define Charlie Morton as a pitcher there has always been one constant. He could never get lefties out….until now.
The game plan of opposing managers has long been to load up the lineup with left-handed bats when facing Morton. In his career left-handed hitters have tagged him to the tune of a .313 batting average and an .863 OPS. But things have been much different for Chuck in 2014. He has held left-handed hitters in check all year. Thru his first 14 starts lefties are hitting just .223 against him with a paltry .581 OPS. The success against opposite side hitters has Chuck poised to have a career year. We are in mid-June and he is sporting a team best 3.09 ERA. So how has Morton been able to flip the script?
One of the big misconceptions I had with Morton is he lacked a quality out pitch to use on left-handed hitters. Morton is often compared to Roy Halladay due to the uncanny similarity of their deliveries. In spring training I argued that if Morton wanted to be successful against lefties he needed to continue to develop a cut fastball like Halladay used in his prime. I wasn’t the only one to suggest the repertoire was the issue. Trib Reporter Travis Sawchik discussed the possibility of a new split-change pitch that Morton was toying with as being a potential lefty neutralizer. As it turns out Charlie actually had an out pitch for lefties all along. That pitch was none other than his good old “Uncle Charlie”.
As I dug into the data to find out why Charlie has been successful against left-handed hitters I discovered some truly shocking details in regards to his breaking ball. The first finding that blew my mind is that Charlie’s curve basically never gets tagged by a lefty for a home run. In his career he has thrown left-handed hitters 1051 curveballs and only once has a hitter driven it over the fence. The second finding that blew my mind was just how effective his breaking ball can be when he starts a hitter with it. In his career Chuck has thrown 187 first pitch curveballs to left-handed hitters. Only three times was it put in play, and only once has it gone for a hit. You have to go all the way back to the 2012 season for the last time a first pitch breaking ball to a lefty was put in play.
It is pretty clear that over the course of his career Morton has possessed a high quality curveball capable of neutralizing left-handed hitters. But why has that not led to success until this year? It is really all about command and usage. Morton is throwing first pitch breaking balls to lefties 20% of the time this season. That is the highest rate of his career. As I already mentioned, when Morton throws a first pitching breaking ball it almost never gets put in play, so it is imperative that he gets strikes with this pitch. This year he has. For his career when he has started a left-handed hitter off with a breaking ball it left him in 1-0 hole 54.55%, but this season he has thrown a ball with a leading curve just 41.67% of the time. For the most part when Charlie drops his deuce on a lefty to start an at-bat he is getting it near enough to the dish to be called a strike or have the hitter offer at it. And in all counts he is getting a lot more chases. In fact, that has really been the biggest difference with Charlie this season as opposed to last. In 2013 lefties hit just .089 against Charlie’s curve. This season LHH have a .109 average against the Ground Chuck breaking ball, but hitters are offering at his breaking ball 10% more often this season (47% as opposed to 37%).
I’m not sure if Morton can continue this kind of success against left-handers. The breaking ball can be a fickle beast of a pitch. And if I can spot that Morton is throwing more first pitch breaking balls I’m sure major league advanced scouts and hitters will to. Charlie will need to continue to command it to maintain the success he has thus far in 2014. Otherwise it will just be more of being “Consistently Inconsistent” for the guy with the “Electric Stuff”.