Going to Ground: The Transformation of Charlie Morton

Figure 1: Pitch Tracks showing a comparison of the dominant fastball used by Charlie Morton in 2011 compared to 2010. Note how the two-seamer has a great deal more sink.

Charlie Morton is a pitcher who wasn't on anybody's radar before this season began.  According to fWAR, he was barely above replacement level for his career (and bWAR has him below replacement level), and really there was nothing to suggest he'd ever amount to more.

Of course this season, he's started out with a bang (though he has "cooled down some").  Suddenly sporting an amazing ground ball rate (61.9% - 2nd best in the league), Morton has managed to be a pretty successful pitcher thus far, despite nearly walking as many batter as he's struck out.  He's due for some regression of course, but even so, his peripherals would seem to be pretty nice - well his ground ball rate at least, meaning he should still perform way above preseason expectations.

What's caused his improvement?  The answer: A switch in fastball usage.  Like Joel Pineiro three years ago, Morton appears to have switched from primarily using a four-seam fastball to a two-seam "sinking" fastball (a sinker) as his bread and butter pitch this year.  In addition, the sinker appears to have some additional sink to it this year that it didn't have last year. 

Figure 1 above shows the difference between Morton's main fastball last year (the four-seamer) and his main fastball this year (the sinker).  The difference is pretty stark as have been the results.

Mortonchange10-11_medium Figure 2:  A Graph showing the change in the movement (spin deflection) of Charlie Morton's pitches over the last year.  Note how the fastball cluster has clearly dropped to a lower part of the graph, showing how he's now throwing a pitch with a greater amount of sink. 

Figure 2 once again shows the difference in Morton's pitches this year as compared to last year.  Morton has greatly decreased, if not eliminated, his use of his slider in favor of his curveball, and has added a rare cutter to his arsenal of pitches. 

But really, these other pitches are not very important: Morton relies nearly entirely on his fastballs to get batters out.  He throws the fastballs a combine 74.9% of the time to left-handed batters (64.7% 2-seam, 10.2% 4-Seam) and a whopping 82.1% of the time against righties (70.8% 2-seam, 11.3% 4-seam).  Morton will use his breaking pitch (es) (it seems like Morton has eliminated his slider and just focused upon the curve, but it's not completely clear) a decent amount on 0-2 or 1-2 counts to both types of batters, but even on those counts more often than not Morton is coming with a fastball. 

Morton's Fastballs: 

Pitch Type Average MPH Average Horizontal Movement Average Vertical Movement
2010 4-Seam 93.1 -7.91 +6.94
2011 4-Seam
92.7 -7.47 +6.30
2010 2-Seam
91.9 -9.14 +4.88
2011 2-Seam
91.9 -9.66 +2.06

Table 1:  The Average Velocity and Movement/Spin-Deflection on Charlie Morton's two fastballs each of the last two years.  

Table 1 once again shows the difference between Morton's two fastballs - especially this year.  Morton's four-seamer would seem on average to not have a lot of "rise," but his two-seamer in 2011 sinks an additional FOUR inches on its way to the plate.  As you might expect, this makes the pitch much more of a ground ball pitch than the four-seamer.  You can see that in Table 2 below:

 

Pitch Type Batter Handedness Whiff Rate (Misses/Swing)
Swing Rate (Swings/Pitch)
Swinging Strike Rate (Whiffs/Pitch)
Ground Ball Rate
Zone %
Called Ball %
2010  4-Seamer
Left-Handed Batters
12.80% 45.79% 5.86% 28.85% 50.92% 35.53%
2011 2-Seamer
Left-Handed Batters 6.90% 45.55% 3.14% 52.08% 37.17% 40.84%
2010 2-Seamer
Left-Handed Batters 3.70% 46.15% 1.71% 43.33% 38.46% 41.03%
2011 4-Seamer Left-Handed Batters 30.00%* 33.33%* 10%* 100%* (Just 1 ball-in-play)
30% 63.33%
2010  4-Seamer Right-Handed Batters 9.78% 48.94% 4.79% 42.86% 53.72% 31.91%
2011  2-Seamer Right-Handed Batters 13.47% 52.30% 7.05% 67.37% 47.15% 30.62%
2010  2-Seamer Right-Handed Batters 16.67% 55.26% 9.21% 50.00% 63.16% 23.68%
2011  4-Seamer Right-Handed Batters 30.00%* 33.90%* 10.17%* 42.86%* 55.93% 32.20%

Table 2:  The Results of each of Morton's fastballs the last two years.  I've highlighted Morton's primary fastballs in light blue as those are the most important numbers.  NOTE:  ASTERICKS (*s) denote way too small sample sizes.

As you can see, the switch to the two-seamer (and its additional sink) ha resulted in Morton having a dominant pitch that is clearly a great GB pitch against batters of both hands, especially compared to the four-seamer's numbers.  

However, you could might also note, as Dave Cameron did this week, that Morton's pitch has severe platoon splits this year:

Against right-handed batters, the 2-seam fastball is terrific.  Morton uses the pitches natural great tailing movement in on right-handed batters to hit the inside part of the plate.  Oddly enough, this would seem to be a location that is poor for getting ground balls - and yet the pitch has a beyond stellar 67.37% GB Rate this year (due to the movement).  Meanwhile (perhaps because of the location), the pitch has a solid (slightly above average) ability to get whiffs.  This pitch is the reason why Morton has a 2.56 FIP against right-handed batters.  

Against left-handed batter, the pitch is problematic.  Once again, Morton relies upon the pitches tailing movement to hit the outside part of the plate (the pitch tails AWAY from lefties).  This would of course be optimal for getting ground balls as the outside part of the plate is where a two-seamer (and most other pitches) result in a greater ground ball rate.  And we do see that: the pitch has a 52% GB rate, which is really good, if not as good as against right-handed batters (due to the pitch' natural split). 

However, Morton has an issue locating this pitch in the strike zone...the pitch tends to miss away really frequently, and gets called for a ball over 40% of the time.  This missing doesn't seem to help get extra whiffs either - the two-seamer has a clearly below average whiff rate as well.  And this is not a new problem: Morton has seemingly always had issues locating the pitch against these batters. The end result is that Morton's numbersagainst these batters are not so pretty and this is in fact a bad pitch against them.

 

CONCLUSION:

As I said in my introduction above, Morton reminds me of Joel Pineiro, who also (in 2009) switched from a 4-seamer to a 2-seamer and reinvented himself as a strong ground ball pitcher.  However, unlike Pineiro, Morton has massive issues with his splits due to his inability to place the pitch properly on the outside corner. 

There's a lot to like here- Morton's two-seamer has great sink now along with decent velocity, and the ability to get that amount of GBs from left-handed (in addition to right handed) batters is very impressive.  Clearly this switch in pitches opens the door for Morton to be a very successful pitcher.  But he's got to improve his ability to locate the two-seamer against lefties, otherwise he could be in for some trouble.

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