Since people seem to like the PitchFX breakdowns I’ve done in the past, I’m going to make them a regular-ish feature called “The Electric Meter,” named so after Charlie Morton’s famous electric stuff. I won’t limit them to just Morton starts, though I can’t promise that pitchers that I find less interesting (Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, maybe Ross Ohlendorf) will be featured in The Electric Meter all that often. That’s to say that it won’t be an everyday feature, because all of these take time and I’m not sure some pitchers are worth the time, but I’m going to try to do it as regularly as I can. Let’s start with Charlie Morton’s Saturday start against the Rockies and try to figure out just what the heck is going on when he’s on the mound.
The weirdest feature of Morton’s 2011 season thus far is the extreme contact rate. Prior to 2011, Morton had a swinging strike rate of around 7.5%; this year, he’s gotten just six swinging strikes in his first 189 pitches (3.17%). In a word, he’s threwing fewer strikes and fooling hitters less often, but he’s getting better results. This is weird.
The easy place to start is with what happens to pitches Morton throws outside of the strike zone. We know he’s been living on the inside corner (w/r/t right-handed hitters); are umpires calling strikes on pitches out of the zone? Are hitters getting fooled and making bad contact on pitches out of the strike zone? Let’s look at the strike zone/result makes from Brooks Baseball for his first two starts.
The umps certainly aren’t helping Morton. If anything, he’s losing more ball calls on the bottom of the strike zone than he’s getting off of the inside corner. The Cardinals’ batters did their share to help him, though; I count seven out-of-the-zone pitches they put in play for outs plus several foul balls. The Rockies did less; there’s maybe three balls out of the zone they put into play plus a few fouls.
Thus far, Morton’s approach has worked because he’s gotten a crazy number of ground balls. Through two starts, he’s gotten 30 grounders, 10 flyballs, and three line drives. That means that on balls put in play, 69.7% of them are on the ground. That’s awesome and it’s probably also unsustainable. Last year, Tim Hudson lead the majors with a 64.1% GB rate and no one else was over 60% (Justin Masterson was a 59.9%). No one’s topped 65% since 2006, when Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb both did it.
Morton’s new sinker is great and I’m pretty encouraged by the groundballs he’s getting, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned. He’s not throwing the ball past people and against the Rockies, fewer hittings were swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. At this point in the season he’s got the element of surprise on his side; as I wrote last week, his new sinker doesn’t really resemble anything he’s thrown in the past and I’d guess that he’s catching hitters off guard because there’s just not a lot of film on him yet. But what happens as more hitters see the new Charlie Morton? I’m afraid we’ll see more walks and more guys sitting on Morton’s four-seamer after he falls behind the in the count the way Seth Smith did when he crushed his homer on Saturday.
What I’d like to see from Morton is, well, exactly what Joe Kerrigan wanted to see from him last year, I think. I want to see him use his four-seamer to get ahead in counts and his breaking ball a little more regularly to keep hitters off balance. He can and should still be primiarly a sinker-baller because Ray Searage has Morton throwing what’s a much more effective sinker than he’s ever thrown in the past. If he keeps leaning on it the way he has in the last two games, though, I’m afraid it’s going to catch up with him sooner rather than later.