In Part 1 of the Charlie Morton Chronicles, I broke down Charlie Morton’s season into four quarters for PitchFX analysis and found that his curveball and slider underwent some changes over the course of the season. What does that mean, exactly?
In his first five starts, Morton threw 483 pitches and PitchFX classified 139 of them as breaking pitches, all as curves. That means 28.8% of his pitches were curves. Of those 139 pitches, 19 got put into play (13.7%), 51 went for strikes, and almost half of them were balls (that’s the 69 remaining pitches, if you’re counting along at home). In his next five starts, Morton threw 432 total pitches and PitchFX classified 150 as breaking pitches — a whopping 34.7%. This time, 97 were curves and 53 registered as sliders, which dovetails with my guess from my prior post that he started throwing his breaking pitches a little more effectively as the season wore on (compare the way the breaking pitches on the right side of the chart differentiate from his first five starts to his next five). At least he started throwing these breaking pitches for strikes. This time around, 24 pitches went into play (16%), 69 for strikes, and 57 for balls. That’s a strike rate of 62%, which is an improvement over the near 50/50 rate of the first part of the season.
After Morton went to the minors, he threw 321 pitches in his next four starts. He took a different tactic this time around, throwing just 79 breaking pitches (61 curves, 18 sliders, 24.6% total breaking balls). They got put into play at a decent rate (21 of the 79), but he was again much more effective at throwing strikes, this time at about a 65% rate. His last three starts show a bit more reliance on the breaking balls again (he threw 80 breaking pitches (60:20 in favor of curves) out of 267 total –29.9%) but again showed good control, throwing 50 of the 80 for strikes (62.5%).
There are a couple easy conclusions to draw here. The in-play rate against Morton’s breaking pitches in the early part of the season was the lowest of any of the four parts of the season, he couldn’t throw the curve for strikes and I’m guessing that let hitters sit on his fastball. Because the fastball was getting bashed, he then turned all the way around and leaned extra hard on his breaking pitch before he was demoted. The control was better though, and once he came back he dialed the breaking balls back a bit and got better results.
The next logical question here is how he used these breaking balls. It’s a little harder to dig into exact count-by-count break downs, but it’s not too hard to see how often Morton was starting hitters off with breaking balls. The results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect based on the conjecture above; in those ugly first five starts, Morton faced 104 batters and started 33 of them with breaking balls (31.7%). In the next five, he faced 115 batters and started 35 off with breaking balls (30.4%). After the seven starts he made after his exile to the minors, he faced 163 hitters and started just 22 of them with a curve or slider. Before he was demoted, one in every three hitters was getting a breaking pitch to start the at-bat. After he came back it was more like one every seven or eight.
In a nutshell, Morton started out the year relying heavily on his breaking pitches, which got him behind in counts and into trouble, especially very early in the season. Morton’s got two good fastballs, but most Major Leaguers are going to tee off on a two-seamer or a four-seamer if they know it’s coming. After he went down to the minors, he came back with both increased control and decreased reliance on his breaking pitches. I’m guessing if I really dig into the numbers, I’ll find that after his return he started using his fastballs to get ahead in counts, then using the curveball (electric stuff!) to bring down the hammer. Anecdotally, that’s how James McDonald was successful in his starts with the Pirates and since he and Morton work from a similar repetoire, it makes sense to me that Morton would be more successful pitching that way.
A lot changed between when Morton was demoted and when he came back up in August. Joe Kerrigan was fired and replaced with Ray Searage, Ryan Doumit was mostly removed from the starting catcher’s role, and we don’t know what Morton was being instructed to work on during his time with Indianapolis. But it looks to me like either he or whoever was in charge of his pitch selection approached things much differently in August and September than they did in April and May, and that could be one reason Morton found more success.