The Charlie Morton Master Plot

What did Joe Kerrigan do to Charlie Morton?

Ed. note: Yes, I’m going to talk about Charlie Morton again. And I’m going to use a lot of charts to try and figure out something that in the long run might not matter at all. I think the wealth of data made available through PitchFX is amazing and I think Morton’s the best guy on the Pirates to put it to use with. Whether or not Morton ever reaches his potential isn’t really the point here; I’m just trying to learn something and bring everyone else along for the ride. Before we really get started, I should mention that all PitchFX data in this post was pulled out through Brooks Baseball and then put the charts together myself. I also did two other posts analyzing Morton back in February: the Charlie Morton Chronicles Part 1 and Part 2. They aren’t exactly required reading for this post, but they’re proably helpful background. 

 The Great Offseason Charlie Morton saga took an interesting turn last week when Chaz talked a bit about his sinker; a pitch that Joe Kerrigan encouraged him to move away from last year. He’s throwing it again this spring and he feels like having it back in his repertoire is helping him this spring. 

Being the guy with the gigantic Excel spreadsheet full of Charlie Morton pitches in his Dropbox folder, my first thought was to look through and try to find the missing pitch. If Morton was throwing a sinker in 2009 and not in 2010, that should be apparent. It’s a bit tricker than that, though, because it’s not always easy to differentiate between sinkers and fastballs. Sinkers are generally pretty similar to fastballs and they often get lost in the giant four-seam/two-seam/change-up maw on the giant horizontal v. vertical break charts that people tend to use to separate pitches. Take, for example, the chart I put together from Morton’s 2010 starts, keeping in mind that everything on the upper-left part of the graph is either a fastball or a changeup. 

charlie morton full season A sinker will more or less fall into that same area in the top left. Add in that there are 1,500 points in that graph up above and there are another 1,500 or so pitches to add in from 2009, and we’re going to have a mess. But it’s clear there’s no turning back at this point, so let’s first toss up the giant chart with all of Morton’s 2009 pitches. 
Charlie Morton 2009What actually jumps out at me here isn’t the blob of fastballs, sinkers, and changeups on the top left, but the big blob of curveballs and sliders on the bottom right. Remember from the last post how Morton’s slider and curve evolved quite a bit over the course of 2010? For a reminder, the following two charts show Morton’s slider and curve in his first four starts and his last three: 
Charlie Morton 1-5 Charlie Morton 15-17More than likely, this sort of thing is the reason that Kerrigan wanted Morton focusing less on his sinker and more on his other pitches; what was an amorphous blob of slurve in 2009 became a distinct slider and curveball by the end of 2010.

But back to the initial quesiton: is there a missing sinker? Let’s overlay the first two massive charts into one gigantic nightmare chart. It’s the same as the first one with the 2009 pitches inserted as semi-transparent black asterisks. 
The Charlie Morton Master Plot I see it! Do you see it? 
Charlie Mortons sinkerI’d actually expect to see a sinker breaking back in on a righty’s hands much more than that, but there’s definitely a chunk of points on the plot that only show up in 2009 in a part of the graph that could be interpreted as “sinking fastball.” That break profile fits a splitter more than a sinker, but let’s say for now that we’ve found Morton’s missing pitch. 

It’s a bit harder to say what not having a sinker did to Morton last year. As far as I know, he still threw his two-seam fastball (which is somewhere between pretty similar to a sinker and a sinker) quite a bit and he still got a lot of groundballs. In 2009, his groundball rate was 49%, in 2010 it was 46.8%.A little lower, but not exactly a huge difference. 

It’s also possible that not having the sinker had a much less tangible effect on Morton. If you recall the second post I did about Morton last month, you might remember that one of the weird red flags for him early in the year last year was that he was throwing a ton of breaking balls. When Morton’s at his best, he’s using his fastballs to either get ahead in the count or get groundballs, then using breaking balls to finish the hitters off. If his sinker is his proverbial Linus’s Blanket, he’d be way out of whack all year. Check out this pitch selection graph FanGraphs generated with PitchFX.

charlie morton pitch selectionIn 2010 there’s more breaking pitches, a ton more fastballs classified as two-seamers, and what generally looks like a schizophrenic mess. So was Morton throwing more two-seamers to compensate for not being able to throw his sinker? Or generally messing with his fastball because he felt less comfortable with it without his sinker to fall back on? 

As usual, it’s not easy to draw any strong conlcusions from this stuff without really going into the numbers, but as usual there are a few lessons here that we should keep in mind when watching Morton pitch this year. It’s clear that whatever Kerrigan did in 2010 did mess with Morton’s fastball profile and it wouldn’t be a huge leap to say that that seemed like it played havoc on Morton’s pitch selection and possibly his two-seamer usage. It’s interesting; if Kerrigan was working on having Morton improve his breaking pitches he might end up a better pitcher in the long run, but if it’s the sinker that set everything off kilter last year than maybe bringing it back into the mix will keep him from spiraling out of control again in 2011. 

Postscript: I realize that Kerrigan is taking a ton of flack this week for the way he handled Morton and the title of this post probably seems like I’m piling on. I’m not. I’m guessing that what Kerrigan saw in Morton was a guy with a good four-seamer and a good two-seamer that he felt made Morton’s sinker, which doesn’t show up on these charts as a traditional sinker, redundant. Look at it this way; maybe Morton thought of his sinker as an acceptable pitch to use when he should’ve been using a breaking pitch and Kerrigan essentially wanted to take his blanket away, to force him to go with something other than a fastball or fastball-like pitch in certain situations. That seems like something a good pitching coach would do. The logical conclusion isn’t that Kerrigan’s biggest mistake was telling Morton he couldn’t throw his sinker, it’s that the mistake was underestimating just how far the whole thing took Morton out of his comfort zone and how much that screwed with the guy. In any case, I think Kerrigan was right in thinking that Morton wouldn’t miss his sinker much in that it’s not all that different from his normal fastball(s), but this seems like one of the cases where Kerrigan’s notorious hard-assery and lack of people skills probably failed him a lot more than his actual coaching. 

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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