It is no secret that the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a bad offseason. Even the biggest Pirates fan couldn’t look you straight in the eye and tell you that he or she is happy with the way the winter has gone. Coming off of a historic playoff appearance, ending 2o-plus years of losing, the Pirates lost all their momentum by having a dud of an offseason.
The biggest move the Pirates made wasn’t signing Edinson Volquez, it wasn’t signing Chris Stewart and it certainly wasn’t when they traded for Chris McGuiness from the Texas Rangers. The best move the Pirates made over the winter was signing starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a three-year extension worth $21 million.
Morton, signed through at least the 2016 season (he has an option for 2017), has made great progress in the past few years. His lowest point as a Pirate came in 2010 when he went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA. A lot of his trouble came from having bad luck, as opponents hit .353 on balls put in play against him, and 18.1 percent of the fly balls hit against him left the yard. In 2011, Morton improved his ERA to 3.83 and he had a 3.77 FIP. The 2012 season can be thrown out, as Morton pitched the majority of his 50.1 innings that year with an injury that didn’t allow him to throw his best pitches without feeling pain.
His best season to date came last year. Morton missed the first two months of the season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, but when he returned to the rotation, it gave the Pirates a huge lift. He pitched 116 innings in 2013 with a 3.26 ERA. His 3.60 FIP suggests he got a bit lucky at times, but the majority of his success can be contributed to two things: His innate ability to induce ground-balls and the Pirates great infield defense. When combined, a ground-ball pitcher and a great infield defense can be lethal for opposing offenses.
Along with his 3.26 ERA, Morton also had great peripheral statistics that suggest he can continue to be great moving forward. While he isn’t a strikeout pitcher, he does have the stuff to begin striking out more hitters. His sinker is obviously effective, as shown by his outstanding 62.9 ground-ball percentage. Due to only 37.1 percent of the balls put in play against Morton being in the air, he allowed just 0.47 HR/9 in 2013.
The Pirates’ ground-ball machine will continue to be successful as long as he keeps earning his nickname, “Ground Chuck”, because the Pirates’ infield defense doesn’t let a whole lot get passed them. Without a great defense, it’s hard to tell how Morton’s statistics would look, but that doesn’t matter — the Pirates’ defense is elite. Along with good individual defensive players, the Pirates and manager Clint Hurdle use some of the most aggressive defensive shifts in the game right now.
Morton was very good in 2013 and there is no reason to believe he won’t be even better in the upcoming season. Make no mistake, this isn’t a luxury for the Pirates; they will need Morton to raise his game in 2014. Without A.J. Burnett, the Pirates need Morton to pick up some of the slack.