FanGraphs beat me to the punch with a post about Charlie Morton and why it’s not worth it to get completely bent out of shape over his first two starts this year, looking at his strikeout rates compared to runs allowed. If you need more illustration of exactly what Morton’s done so far this year, note that his FIP, which is calculated from strikeouts, walks, and homers, is 7.31 while his xFIP, which uses an expected home run rate based on flyball percentage and park factor (some people argue that this is more telling than home run rate), is 3.35.
So there’s our Weird Charlie Morton Anomaly #1; he’s given up 11 flyballs this year and four of them have turned into home runs. One of those was the Aubrey Huff inside-the-parker, but even that was a blast off the wall that nearly cleared the fence on its own accord. A 36.4% HR/FB rate is is insane an unsustainable, even for the worst pitcher. John Van Benschoten’s career HR/FB rate was (is?) 13.3%.
Weird Charlie Morton Anomaly #2 is the percentage of base runners that Morton’s allowed to score this year. This year, Morton’s allowed 17 hits, he’s walked one hitter, and he’s hit one hitter; this makes a total of 19 runners he’s put on base this year. He’s also allowed 14 runs. That is, in a word, insanity. Almost three-quarters of the runners he’s put on base this year have scored. He can’t keep being that bad. Even Hayden Penn is below 50% (around 46% on his career using the same shorthand method (earned runs / hits + walks + HBP + IBB)).
For a moment, though, let’s ignore that Morton has to come back towards the mean on some of these stats and assume that there is some kind of problem driving his performance this year. Afterall, maybe not every fly ball he gives up can keep leaving the park and maybe not every runner he puts on base can keep scoring, but he’s still getting hit hard to this early point in the year. So far, batters are hitting line drives on 34.3% of the balls they’re putting in play against Morton (last year: 17.9%). That rate is also unsustainable (Aaron Harang gave up the most line drives of qualified pitchers last year at a rate of 23.7%), but it is an indicator that something’s not quite right with Morton.
My guess is that it has something to do with how he’s pitching out of the stretch. It’s true that guys are hitting him pretty hard without runners on base (.346/.346/547), but they’re just obliterating him with guys on (.444/.500/.944 with all three home runs of the traditional variety). His line was also a bit worse with runners on base last year as well, holding hitters to a .259/.339/.380 line with bases empty, but getting hit at a .299/.373/.439 rate (including 12 doubles and 3 homers in 186 PAs with runners on, compared to 5 doubles and 4 homers in 230 PAs with bases empty) with runners on. The trend doesn’t appear to extend to the minors, though. Minor League Splits has him down for a lower career minor league FIP with runners on base (3.75) than with bases empty (4.15).
It’s hard to dig other trends out of just two starts. So far this year Morton is using his fastball a little less than in the past and his slider a little more, but that may be just because his fastball is getting slammed (FanGraphs has it as worth -5.3 runs already, which is worse than the first two years of his career combined). It’s worth noting he is throwing it a little harder this year (average of around 93 mph compared to 91 last year), so I guess it’s possible it’s straightened out a bit but FanGraphs’ PitchFX doesn’t seem to agree with that.
It’s obvious that something’s a bit off with him right now, whether he’s throwing his pitches out of the stretch differently than out of the windup or he’s tipping pitches, some kind of early season kinks, or something else that we’re all missing. Still, he shouldn’t be as bad as he’s been and I don’t think that whatever’s wrong is something he can’t overcome.