Charlie Morton and his varying approaches to right-handed and left-handed hitters

After a very strong start to 2011, Charlie Morton started to come back to earth quite as the summer wore on. There are plenty of ways to explain how this happened — his peripherals caught up with him, hitters got used to his new delivery and changed repertoire, etc. — but perhaps none is as compelling as the most obvious. After a couple of months, clubs figured out that Morton’s sinker wasn’t nearly as effective against left-handed hitters and started stacking their lineups against him with lefties. The results were often strange to watch; teams didn’t seem to be scorching the ball off of him, but it often seemed like they could find holes that didn’t exist when he pitched against righties. More than a couple times, he got dinked to death on the mound. 

His splits on the season bear those memories out. Morton gave up 18 more hits to lefties than he did to righties in 93 fewer plate appearances, and of those 18 hits extra hits, 13 were singles. Against Morton, righties hit like Chase d’Arnaud and lefties hit like … I don’t think there’s a good comp for .364/.460/.500, to be honest. 

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS TB BAbip
vs RHB as RHP 29 431 381 37 84 17 1 1 28 66 2.36 .220 .289 .278 .567 106 .262
vs LHB as RHP 29 338 280 37 102 15 4 5 49 44 0.90 .364 .460 .500 .960 140 .415

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/6/2012.

What really stands out is that ridiculous .415 BABIP. Lefties reached base on more than 40% of the balls they put into play against Morton last year. That’s insane. Now that we have Brooks Baseball’s player cards, though, maybe we can learn a little bit about Morton’s approach against lefties and try to diagnose the problem. You can see Morton’s player card here; all of the data that’s coming about pitch selection and result from here on out is taken from right here

Let’s start with general pitch selection. Here’s how Morton broke his pitches up against all hitters in 2011: 

Pitch Count Frequency H. Mvt V. Mvt Mph H. Rel V. Rel Spin Θ RPM
Fourseam (FA) 232 9% -8.19 -18.54 92.83 -2.26 6.10 230 1,651
Sinker (SI) 1669 61% -12.39 -25.32 91.94 -2.28 6.06 262 1,788
Cutter (FC) 176 6% -1.63 -23.85 89.05 -2.20 6.13 208 759
Curveball (CU) 449 16% 11.24 -47.13 79.14 -2.26 6.16 48 1,580
Changeup (CH) 200 7% -6.86 -31.41 84.64 -2.30 6.09 263 967

That’s 70% fastballs/sinkers, 16% curves, 7% changeups, and 6% cutters. There was a little bit of talk about Morton using a cutter last year (as a result of the change in arm slot), but I didn’t really think of it as part of his repertoire at any point in the season. It’s clearly a different pitch here, though, as it moves quite differently than either of his other fastballs. Moving past that, though, if you watched Morton pitch last year, this is about what you’d expect. 

Now let’s split it, with the righties going first:

Pitch Count Frequency H. Mvt V. Mvt Mph H. Rel V. Rel Spin Θ RPM
Fourseam (FA) 110 7% -8.92 -18.16 93.25 -2.25 6.07 231 1,738
Sinker (SI) 1076 70% -12.42 -25.52 91.88 -2.26 6.05 263 1,788
Cutter (FC) 27 2% -2.12 -23.39 89.61 -2.16 6.06 211 793
Curveball (CU) 215 14% 11.49 -46.98 79.20 -2.24 6.15 49 1,591
Changeup (CH) 117 8% -6.60 -31.74 84.41 -2.22 6.08 264 937

Everything’s almost the same, with one key difference: he barely threw the cutter at all and he really leaned on the sinker against righties. Again, about what you’d expect. Now, lefties:

Pitch Count Frequency H. Mvt V. Mvt Mph H. Rel V. Rel Spin Θ RPM
Fourseam (FA) 122 10% -7.54 -18.88 92.45 -2.27 6.13 228 1,574
Sinker (SI) 593 50% -12.34 -24.97 92.04 -2.33 6.08 261 1,790
Cutter (FC) 149 13% -1.54 -23.93 88.94 -2.21 6.14 208 753
Curveball (CU) 234 20% 11.01 -47.26 79.09 -2.27 6.16 46 1,571
Changeup (CH) 83 7% -7.24 -30.94 84.96 -2.40 6.10 263 1,010

There’s a clear difference in approach here; Morton moved waaay away from the sinker against lefties and threw that “cutter” and his curveball a lot more. This makes sense: his sinker and his four-seamer bear in hard on right-handed hitters, but to a lefty they’re just kind of hanging out over the plate. Using a cutter that won’t tail away like that should in theory keep hitters honest. And Morton’s curve was a good pitch last year, even if it wasn’t quite as pretty as it was when he was throwing overhand. Let’s look at the same splits, only using pitch results instead of count and break. Righties are first, lefties are underneath. 

Pitch Counts Ball Call Str. Swings Fouls Whiffs BIP GB LD FB PU
Fourseam (FA) 110 38.18% 26.36% 35.45% 12.73% 9.09% 13.64% 6.36% 1.82% 3.64% 1.82%
Sinker (SI) 1076 30.02% 15.89% 50.65% 20.17% 8.83% 22.86% 15.24% 3.44% 3.62% 0.56%
Cutter (FC) 27 55.56% 14.81% 25.93% 3.70% 22.22% 14.81% 7.41%
Curveball (CU) 215 42.79% 19.07% 36.74% 13.95% 10.70% 12.56% 6.98% 2.33% 1.86% 1.40%
Changeup (CH) 117 45.30% 7.69% 45.30% 15.38% 11.11% 19.66% 10.26% 2.56% 5.13% 1.71%

 

Pitch Counts Ball Call Str. Swings Fouls Whiffs BIP GB LD FB PU
Fourseam (FA) 122 52.46% 7.38% 39.34% 18.85% 6.56% 13.93% 5.74% 4.10% 4.10%
Sinker (SI) 591 40.61% 16.07% 41.29% 14.55% 3.55% 24.20% 14.21% 6.60% 3.05% 0.34%
Cutter (FC) 149 35.57% 9.40% 51.01% 23.49% 8.05% 21.48% 12.08% 4.70% 3.36% 1.34%
Curveball (CU) 234 38.46% 13.25% 47.44% 18.38% 17.95% 11.11% 6.84% 2.56% 1.28% 0.43%
Changeup (CH) 83 54.22% 9.64% 36.14% 12.05% 1.20% 22.89% 9.64% 4.82% 7.23% 1.20%

Here you can really see how ineffective the sinker is against left-handed hitters. Against righties, it’s a strike almost 70% of the time, it generates foul balls 20% of the time, and it gets swinging strikes almost 9% of the time. Against lefties, it’s only a strike 60% of the time, it only has a 15% foul rate, and the whiff rate is 3.5%. Lefties hit it for line drives at nearly twice the rate righties do. His regular fastball gets pounded pretty badly, too. With the cutter, he gives up a a decent amount of line drives, but he does generate swings and misses and he gotes a lot of swings with it. His curveball also looks like it was hugely effective against lefties last year, getting swings and misses 42 of 234 times. 

Let’s take this information and play a little game. Based on his monthly splits, when did Charlie Morton start throwing his cutter more regularly to lefties? I’ll bet you can figure it out. 

I Split W L W-L% ERA G IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
April/March 2 1 .667 3.00 5 33.0 27 12 11 2 18 0 18 1.364 4.9 1.00
May 3 1 .750 2.06 5 35.0 37 10 8 0 11 1 19 1.371 4.9 1.73
June 2 2 .500 8.50 4 18.0 32 19 17 0 6 0 13 2.111 6.5 2.17
July 1 2 .333 4.97 5 25.1 29 17 14 3 14 1 17 1.697 6.0 1.21
August 1 2 .333 2.84 6 38.0 37 12 12 1 14 2 27 1.342 6.4 1.93
Sept/Oct 1 2 .333 4.43 4 22.1 24 12 11 0 14 1 16 1.701 6.4 1.14

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/6/2012.

In April, Morton threw 12 cutters to lefties (7% of his total pitches to southpaws). In May, Morton threw seven cutters (3%) to lefties. In June, Morton threw seven more cutters to lefties (4% this time). In July, he threw 32 cutters (16%) to lefties. In August, he threw 47 cutters (19%) to lefties. In September, he threw 44 cutters to lefties, clocking in at 29% and eclipsing his other two fastballs for the first time. Only a quarter of his pitches to lefties were sinkers and he also leaned very heavily on the curveball that month (52 pitches, 34%). 

There are a few conclusions we can draw here. One is that Morton’s struggles against lefties can’t be written off as a fluke due to that ridiculous BABIP because his sinker just doesn’t fool left-handed hitters. They’re a lot more judicious with the pitch than righties are, they swing and miss at it less, and when they put it in play they hit it harder. If hitters know a pitch is coming and they know that they can hit it, is it ridiculous to say that all of those seeing eye singles that Morton occasionally gave up in the middle of the summer last year weren’t accidents? That’s actually rhetorical because it’s a virtually unanswerable question and it might be ridiculous to say that. I don’t think it is, though, because Morton relied on that sinker very heavily against everyone early in the year and it just wasn’t a good pitch to throw to left-handed hitters and now we can see that the numbers bear that out in every way imaginable. 

Someone recognized this pretty quickly, though, and after Morton’s disaster month in June he started moving away from the sinker and towards the cutter. The results there are pretty murky since we don’t have a ton of data, but Morton got better in July, he was great in August, and he started struggling again in September. Were those late struggles because he simply ran out of gas with a career high workload? Were they because the cutter isn’t a great pitch either, and hitters started to catch on after they’d seen it a bit? It’s hard to make a perfect diagnosis for now. 

It’s fascinating to me to see how Morton’s career has unfolded and to see where he goes from here. He came to the Pirates as a clearly talented guy with lots of problems, mechanically, mentally, everywhere. The Pirates did a great job with him after his debacle in 2010 and transformed him into an entirely different pitcher. Being able to lean on his sinker was a great crutch for him early in the year because it got him past the giant hurdle he had with runners on base in 2010. Where he was giving up three-run homers and grand slams in 2010, he was getting weak bounce outs and double plays. I can’t pretend to be able to quantify things like confidence and mental approach to game situations in a pitcher, but it was really obvious watching Morton early in the year last year that an important part of his makeover wasn’t just that he looked like a different pitcher, but that he thought of himself as a different pitcher when he was on the mound. As the season wore on, though, it became clear that he couldn’t simply hammer away at the strike zone with that sinker and keep getting away with it. 

And so he changed back, at least a little bit. Check out the release point of his sinker vs. the release point of his cutter. The sinker comes from that three-quarters slot that we heard so much about last year, but the cutter comes from noticeably higher up top. It’s not quite the same arm slot he threw from in the past, but it’s still a pretty dramatic mid-season adjustment made by him and Ray Searage to combat the way that he was getting hammered by lefties. The jury’s still out, but it worked pretty well in the short-term. 

It’s hard to say exactly where this leaves Morton, especially because of the hip injury that’s going to limit his throwing this winter (and now that I’ve done this analysis, his injury is a huge, huge bummer because I think that throwing regularly and being more comfortable with all of the changes he’s made over the course of the last 12 months would’ve been a real boon to Morton this winter and I’m worried that being unable to throw as much could hurt him in the short-term), but a few things stand out to me. One is that Morton is a pretty talented guy, even if his career results don’t bear that out to this point. Not only did he make over his mechanics and approach entirely over the course of the 2010/2011 winter, but then he went and did the same thing over again in the middle of the season to address his biggest problem. He had a pretty good season on top of it all, too. It’s enough that I can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t have another leap forward in him if he can find a way to consistently get left-handed hitters out and he can find a comfortable medium between the groundball maven approach and the strikeout pitcher approach he had earlier in his career. The other thing that jumps out at me is just how well the Pirates’ coaching staff handled Morton last year. If you want evidence that Ray Searage had a positive impact on the Pirates’ staff last year, it’s all in the post above. He helped Morton re-work his whole approach to lefties to the point that he basically added a pitch into his repertoire and it had a positive effect on Morton as the season wore on. 

So what happens in 2012? Will Morton try use the cutter just enough to keep lefties off balance, or will he completely overhaul his approach and almost abandon the sinker against them the way he did in September? I think that’s probably what he needs to do because the sinker just isn’t an effective pitch against lefties, but can he really make himself into one type of pitcher against righties and another type of pitcher altogether against lefties? How much success can he really have with that kind of approach? I honestly have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I’m really interested to find out.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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