James McDonald and Charlie Morton are the Pirates’ most important pitchers this year

Part five in a series of previews that I’m increasingly running out of time to finish since I have three more posts and 36 hours to write them in.

This spring, Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett have gotten the brunt of the attention as it relates to the Pirates 2012 pitching staff. This is only fair; they pitched for the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively, last year, they make a lot of money, they’re talented guys that change the focus of the entire rotation. They’re also more or less known quantities. Bedard is a very good pitcher who will be effective and miss a ton of bats, but who you can’t count on for more than 140 or so innings at this point in his career. Burnett is getting older, but he’s still capable of racking up strikeouts and stringing together some good starts. He won’t be great, he’ll give up some home runs, he probably won’t throw more than 170 or 180 innings, but he should be solid enough. The two of them might seem interesting, but really, there’s not much we don’t know about them besides “how healthy will he be” or “how quickly will he age?”

The two guys that are much more worth watching this year are James McDonald and Charlie Morton. Both guys are talented but flawed pitchers that are both young enough that they could take a step forward and old enough that we should know better than to expect it. They’ll also almost certainly throw more innings combined than Bedard and Burnett, which means that they’re going to be more important to the team, one way or another. Their skillsets are such that they can be very effective pitchers if they do harness their talents, though, and if they can make it happen in concert with Bedard and Burnett giving their expected level of performance, the Pirates rotation could be better than people think this year. Of course, the opposite is also true; if they’re not very good this year, the Pirates rotation will probably be about what people expect from it. 

The obvious question is what Morton and McDonald need to do to be better pitchers in 2012. I spent quite a bit of time trying to answer this question in regards to Morton back in February; Morton’s sinker rescued his career last year, but it’s a water balloon to left-handed hitters. Morton clearly made some attempts to fix the problem as the season wore on last year by working a cutter into his repertoire. It seemed to me that he made some progress with it, but there’s not a whole lot of data to work with and the results varied quite a bit. What’s clear is that Morton and the coaching staff both know that Morton can’t lean on his sinker against lefties and that they started to address the problem last summer. 

In that regard, Morton’s hip injury concerns me quite a bit. It would be nice to know that Morton spent the winter throwing and getting comfortable with his cutter, but obviously that wasn’t possible. It’s not the end of the world, but with Morton looking kind of rusty in his spring training starts it does make me wonder if he’s going to get off to a slow start in 2012. His struggles with lefties are secret to no one and he’s going to see lineups stacked with lefties from his first start onwards. Hopefully the cutter’s something he’s been working on concurrent with his rehab and it’s certainly something that’ll be worth monitoring as Morton returns and the season wears on. 

McDonald’s case is trickier. It’s obvious that he throws too many pitches and that can get him into trouble, so I pored over his Brooks Baseball page to try and find evidence that he pitches away from hitters after he gets ahead in the count. Given things like foul balls and the fact that pitches threw more pitches early in the count than later just by pure probability, this seemed to be a bit of a fool’s errand. In the end I found that McDonald pitched to a full count at about an average rate last year and couldn’t say more than that. What I can tell you is that McDonald threw his four-seam fastball for a strike close to 68% of the time last year and his two-seamer/sinker for a strike in the ballpark of 60% of the time. His curve only went for a strike about 55% of the time, and his changeup only 46-47%. The knock on McDonald when the Pirates got him was that he was a two pitch pitcher, that his changeup wasn’t good enough to make him a reliable starter. If he can’t throw it for strikes more, then that’s going to hold true. 

Of course, Ray Searage and his staff have done good work helping pitchers increase their control. I’ve written about McDonald’s changeup in the past; his fantastic Pirate debut in 2010 against Colorado came mainly on the strength of the pitch and the nights that he pitches the best, the changeup tends to be working. He needs to throw it for strikes more often. That sounds overly simplistic and maybe it is, but the fact is that we know McDonald can throw his fastball for strikes and we know that he has more trouble getting his offspeed pitches and his breaking pitches over. The general perception of McDonald is that he struggles to finish hitters off and ends up pitching deeper than he should into counts. It seems to me that a pitcher that throws fastballs for strikes but not other pitches would find himself in that situation quite a bit. Can he throw those pitches for strikes this year? Can he get hitters out if he does? Those are the questions I have about McDonald for this year. 

Can Morton throw his cutter to get lefties out? Can McDonald throw something for strikes other than his fastball? Two easy questions without easy answers and for the Pirates, I think there’s a whole lot riding on whatever those answers might be. 

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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