When we last left the Electric Meter last month, the main point of discussion was what Charlie Morton was doing to mix things up with his newly effective sinker to get some swings and misses along with his ludicrous groundball rate. To briefly recap, through three starts Morton threw his two-seamer 233 times in 299 pitches (77.9% of the time, not even counting 28 other pitches PitchFX classifies as four-seamers). That resulted in a great groundball rate of 68.7%, but hitters weren’t having any trouble making contact with Morton. In those three starts, just 6.5% of the swings Morton generated resulted in swings and misses. Morton’s ERA was 1.64, but in 22 innings he’d walked 12 hitters and struck out just six. Everyone watching said that wouldn’t be sustainable and that Morton would have trouble without some variety in his arsenal.
Since then, Morton’s taken things to a different level by mixing his pitches up. In his five starts post-Tax Day, Morton’s thrown 522 pitches. He’s still leaning on the sinker, but not nearly as heavily; he’s thrown it 387 times (74.1%) with another 34 pitches classified as four-seamers. His groundball rate has dipped a bit (60.9%), but hitters are swinging and missing much more regularly (the swing-and-miss rate is up to 16.6%) and as a result, he’s got a 23:14 K:BB ratio in the 33 innings that those five starts span. In short, he’s sacrificing some groundballs for swings and misses, and the results he’s getting now are much more sustainable than his early season numbers. So how’s Morton doing it?
The first part of the answer is straightforward: he’s throwing his changeup much more regularly. In those first three starts, Morton threw just two changeups to right-handed hitters and somewhere between 6 and 11 to lefties (his split-change is awfully hard for PitchFX to classify and often shows up as a slider, but then sometiems his curveballs also show up as sliders and so it’s not always easy to parse without doing it by hand, which I’m not doing). At most, that’s 13 changeups in 299 pitches (4.3%) in his first three starts. In the five starts since, Morton’s thrown between 40 and 54 changeups in 533 pitches (between 7.7% and 10.3% of his pitches).
What’s impressed me the most is the way that Morton’s employing the changeup. I noticed it when looking at the velocity graph of his complete game shutout in Great American Ballpark last week. Early in the game he was hammering away with his sinker like he had early in the year, but as the game wore on he was obviously changing speeds a bit more. Morton throws three basic types of pitches right now. His fastball/sinker sits between 90-92, his changeup clocks in right around 86, and his curveball comes in around 77-78 (and yeah, he can ramp his four-seamer up to 95 and sometimes he throws a split-change and circle-change and sometimes it looks like he throws two different types of breaking pitches … but in general he’s got three speed tiers and that’s what I’m trying to say here). So keep those three plateaus in mind while looking at this graph:
What I love about this is the way Morton uses the changeup. Besides using it twice early, he only throws it three times total in his first 45 or so pitches. He’s pretty much throwing all sinkers and curveballs to that point in the game. But as the game wears on, the Reds got a few runners on base and seemed to be figuring him out. They were probably sitting on the sinker a bit and getting the timing down and so what did Morton do? He suddenly brought out the changeup and threw it four times in about 15 pitches while hardly going to his curve at all. When he went back to the curve around pitch 65, it was a bigger change of pace and now every hitter had the changeup in mind with every sinker that he threw.
Morton’s changeup isn’t a huge change of pace; it’s only 4-6 mph slower than his sinker. The split-change he throws does has some nice break to it, though, and that makes it a different enough pitch than either his sinker or his curveball that it’s effective when used properly. He doesn’t use it that heavily every time out (some nights, like against Houston, he gets into a groove with the sinker and just rolls with it) but in the starts that he brings the changeup out, he’s used it like he did against Cincinnati. He establishes the sinker/curveball tandem and then when the other team starts to settle in, he drops in a bunch of changeups to change the pace up and keep the opponent off balance. Here’s his start against the Rockies on May 1st; he uses it a bunch early and then almost abandons it until pitch number 60, when it comes back with a vengeance:
And here’s his start against San Fracisco on April 26th, where he goes to the changeup a little earlier on (around pitch number 20):
What Morton’s really doing here (along with his catchers and Ray Searage, I’m sure) is picking the spots for his changeup extremely well to maximize the value of a pitch that on its own probably wouldn’t be that effective. He sets hitters up to look for the sinker/curve combo, then brings the change in. Morton’s not just getting by on his Electric Stuff anymore; he’s really pitching circles around his opponents.