After having an impressive 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates rewarded sinkerballer Charlie Morton with a nice three-year, $21 million extension that includes a team option for 2017. The Pirates didn’t only give Morton the extension to reward him for his success in 2013, but also in hopes that he would continue to perform well for the duration of his contract. It is still early, but Morton hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far.
Morton continued to disappoint on Thursday as he and the Pirates lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of a double-header, falling to 10-17 on the year. In 2013, Morton missed the beginning of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Once he returned, he looked better than ever. In 116 innings, the right-handed hurler pitched to a 3.26 ERA with an elite 62.9 percent ground ball rate.
With just 2.79 BB/9, Morton also showed very good command, something that is difficult for someone with the movement on his pitches to demonstrate. Morton’s sinker sits at 91-94 mph and it has amazing late movement to it that makes it almost impossible to hit in the air. His curveball is a sweeping curve that can move like a wiffle ball at times.
This season, Morton has pitched 31 innings with a 4.35 ERA. Even more concerning than his high ERA is his 51.1 percent ground ball rate and his 3.48 BB/9. He is getting fewer ground balls and he is also walking more batters. Even though his numbers look bad, his starts haven’t all been horrible. He is generally a decent pitcher for the majority of his starts, but then he will have a terrible inning that costs him. That inning tends to come sometime in the middle part of the game.
In the first, second and third innings, Morton has a 3.00 ERA with a .250/.306/.321 triple-slash line against him. As you can see, the first three innings aren’t a problem for Morton. The fourth, fifth and sixth innings are much different. In these three innings, his ERA is 6.00 and he has a line of .255/.388/.436 against. This is clearly where the problems come from.
It is difficult to truly know why Morton struggles in innings 3-6. It may be the fact that hitters are seeing him a second, and maybe even third time. It may even be that Morton is fatigued, but that doesn’t seem like a likely answer. Regardless of the what the problem is, the Pirates and Morton need to get it figured out. Consistency is needed from Morton, and with how the Pirates have started the season, it is needed very soon.