Instead of taking a huge mess of PitchFX graphs and trying to make a comparison, I want to compare Charlie Morton’s start last night with three other starts from his Pirate career. The first is his excellent complete-game shutout at Wrigley to end the 2009 season; the second will be his first start from 2010 against Arizona, where he started strong and imploded; the third is his very good start against St. Louis from September 22nd of last year. The first question to be asked: whither the sinker?
If you’re not familiar with this sort of graph, it’s a horizontal break vs. vertical break plot. A ball with no spin on it would be expected to cross the plate right at the origin (0,0). Pitches with positive vertical break don’t rise, they simply drop less than expected. Horizontal break moves away from a right-handed batter from left to right. In general for a righty like Morton, the pitches on the bottom right of the chart are breaking pitches, while the pitches on the top left are fastballs, sinkers, and changeups.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on this: Ray Searage did not bring Charlie Morton’s sinker back, he taught him a whole new pitch. Even considering park differences, I don’t think that the pitch he threw tonight was anything like the fastball he threw, whether it was in 2009, whether it was when he was struggling with Joe Kerrigan and without his sinker early in 2010, or whether it was after Kerrigan was fired late last year. His sinker tonight had way more sink and bite in on righties than anything he’s ever thrown before. You can see how heavily he leaned on it, too. There are a few purple marks lost up in the mess of blue and red where his four-seamer (which he ramped up as high as 96 according to the gun and 95.5 on the PitchFX), but the PitchFX breakdown says that he threw that sinker more than two out of every three pitches. He only threw maybe 10 breaking pitches; way, way lower than the number he was throwing at any point in the year last year.
There was a lot of talk about Morton’s release point and how he was going with a more three-quarters delivery this year. It certainly seemed apparent on the broadcast, but it’s always nice to be able to verify something like this with numbers
Yep. He clearly dropped down what looks like maybe half an inch from where he was releasing the ball last year.
When I looked for evidence of Morton’s sinker in the past, it wasn’t all that easy to find. The easy conclusion then was that Joe Kerrigan saw the pitch as a security blanket for Morton; a redundant pitch that he was falling back on when he should either be blasting his four-seamer or using his very good curve to keep hitters off balance. Searage, instead, apparently saw potential (Morton’s always had a good groundball rate with his two-seamer) in the same pitch and has turned it into a weapon unlike anything Morton’s thrown in the past.
The bottom line is this: the Charlie Morton that pitched tonight wasn’t the same pitcher as the Charlie Morton we’ve seen in the past. He’s never had a pitch as nasty as the sinker the Cardinals saw last night, and I think if he does a better job controlling it and mixing his curveball in, he could be even better.
As always, the PitchFX data comes from the invaluable Brooks Baseball.