Defense, ground balls make Charlie Morton a good fit in Pittsburgh

Jared Wickerham

Why did the Pirates give Charlie Morton their biggest contract for a starting pitcher in franchise history? Well, in a Pirates uniform, Morton may be more valuable than you think.

In a day filled with a number of minor moves, the Pirates agreeing to a three-year, $21 million extension with Charlie Morton on Wednesday didn’t exactly produce much excitement. This is because Morton, a right-hander whose stuff doesn’t stand out as noteworthy by any means, is perhaps best known for being a great imitator of Roy Halladay, and not much else.

Just a year ago in 2012, Morton finished the season with an underwhelming 4.65 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and a miniscule strikeout rate of 11.2%. So how did the 30-year-old Morton, who pumps in low-90s sinkers on 60% of his pitches, earn a multi-year extension from Pittsburgh?

He generates lots and lots of groundballs.

To a team like the Pirates, who have committed wholeheartedly to infield shifting and defensive analytics, this is a valuable skill to have. In 2013, Morton’s 62.9% groundball rate led all major league pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. This ability helped Morton post a 3.26 ERA and 3.60 FIP last season, even though his strikeout rate (17.2%) and BABIP (.306) were nothing about which to write home.

Indeed, the six-year veteran succeeded by keeping the ball in the park—his 18.7% flyball rate was also best in the majors—and benefiting from Pittsburgh’s newfound defensive prowess. The Pirates were among the most frequent shifters on defense last season, a change in approach that helped them finish third in defensive runs saved and fifth in defensive efficiency, which measures the number of batted balls a team converts into outs.

Now not all of this can be chalked up to Pittsburgh’s infield defense (Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen were pretty good out there in the outfield, too). But considering the Pirates vaulted into the top five among all major league clubs in DRS and defensive efficiency while shifting over 450 times more in 2013 than they had the previous year, it’s clear the team’s propensity to turn groundballs into outs helped drive Morton’s strong campaign. Add in the success that other Pirates pitchers like A.J. Burnett, Mark Melancon, and Jeff Locke had with above-average groundball rates, and Pittsburgh’s approach to run prevention looks an even more significant factor.

Which makes Morton a valuable player to Pittsburgh and, given his contract, a fairly cheap and safe one at that. In many ways, Morton is indicative of the increasing phenomenon that Beyond the Box Score contributor Lewie Pollis wrote about a few weeks ago:

There are 30 teams in the majors, all of whom are looking for pitching at any given time (even a rebuilding team will be looking to acquire prospects and develop players). As teams gradually start to consider DIPS theory in evaluating players, greater proportions of personnel choices are made in concert with clubs' comparative advantages. And the more teams maximize what they get out of their pitchers based on what kinds of fielders they put behind them, the more the run environment declines.

In short, Morton is more valuable to the Pirates than he would be to most anyone else. He generates loads of groundballs and has already demonstrated the ability to be comfortable and successful pitching in concert with Pittsburgh’s philosophy.

Can he pitch as well as he did last year? Probably not, but the 3.91 ERA and 3.69 FIP that Steamer projects for him in 2014 seem reasonable and make Morton a good fit for the back of the Pirates rotation. Moreover, comparing Morton’s contract to some of the deals given out to starting pitchers in free agency makes him that much more of an attractive option in Pittsburgh.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also works as a Staff Editor at SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places online. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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