First Pitch: Why Charlie Morton Belongs in the Pirates Rotation

Charlie Morton
Charlie Morton is one of the best five starters for the Pirates rotation.

When it comes to any player in the majors, you’re going to get a variety of opinions. You’re going to get different opinions on how good a player actually is, and in some cases you’ll have a debate over whether the player is even good at all. There’s one player on the Pirates pitching staff who draws the biggest split in opinions, and that is Charlie Morton.

There are a lot of people who don’t like Morton, and have no intention of changing their opinion of him. All year I’ve heard from these people on a regular basis. When Morton was coming back, the comments were stating that he shouldn’t be in the rotation or even on the team. When Morton came back, it was that he should be the first person bumped from the rotation, rather than Gerrit Cole, when everyone was healthy (and the Pirates never got everyone healthy, so that ended up being a useless debate). And now that Jeanmar Gomez is in the bullpen, and Brandon Cumpton is in Triple-A, the comments are that Morton shouldn’t be in the rotation and should be replaced.

He’s coming off a horrible start tonight, but Morton hasn’t been bad this year. Tonight’s start elevated his ERA from 3.59 to 4.07, although his xFIP stayed about the same, going from 3.71 to 3.66. He’s got a 7.0 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9 ratio this year, showing some good control and a decent strikeout ratio. No one is saying Morton is a top of the rotation guy, or anything close. However, Morton isn’t a bad pitcher. The Pirates have been spoiled this year with great performances, to the point where a 3.66 xFIP is seen as a pitcher who shouldn’t be in the rotation. It’s almost fantasy baseball or video game territory.

There are three main arguments against Morton. All three scratch the surface with an overall look. However, Morton is a complex case that demands a closer look.

The Career Numbers Argument

The biggest argument against Morton is that he has a career ERA close to 5.00. That is down this year to a 4.94, although it was above 5.00 prior to the season. Never mind that Jeanmar Gomez also had an ERA over five coming into the year, and the people against Morton would gladly go with Gomez (although I don’t know if that would change after tonight).

The thing about his career ERA is that it is misleading. From 2008-2010, Morton was a totally different pitcher. He changed his arm slot and converted to a sinkerball pitcher in 2011. Therefore, anything that happened before 2011 wasn’t relevant to the pitcher Morton was after the 2011 season.

He struggled in 2012, but also had an elbow injury that eventually needed Tommy John surgery. It was to the point where he couldn’t throw his sinker or curveball without pain. Those are his two best pitches, and that’s something to consider when evaluating his numbers for the 2012 season.

This year he’s back to throwing all of his pitches, and so far the results are in line with the 2011 season. There is going to be the urge to take an overall look at Morton, but his situation is too complex for that. When you dig deeper, you’ll see that he’s put up results similar to the league average starter since he converted to a sinkerball pitcher, and in the years where he is healthy.

Under-Valuing an Average Pitcher

Average can be seen as an ugly word, but I know of 30 major league teams who would take a league average starting pitcher any day of the week. The Pirates have been fortunate this year to have so many strong pitching numbers. Francisco Liriano (2.16 ERA), A.J. Burnett (2.86), Jeff Locke (2.36), Gerrit Cole (3.56), Brandon Cumpton (2.78), Jeanmar Gomez (3.26), and Wandy Rodriguez (3.59) have all put up amazing numbers this year. Some of those pitchers are legit, and some will regress eventually. Some have small sample sizes (mostly Cumpton). But for the most part people still rely on ERA, and don’t focus on sample sizes, which means you’re going to get people calling for Gomez (who has a lower xFIP than Morton) or Cumpton (who only has 22 innings) over Morton (another small sample size, but good numbers the last time he was healthy with his sinker).

Morton doesn’t have enough innings to qualify, but if he did he would rank 37th overall among 90 qualified starting pitchers with his 3.66 xFIP. Even if you trust the ERA more, that would put him 58th out of 90 qualified starters. If you looked at all starters this year, Morton would rank 65th in xFIP and 119th in ERA, both out of 260 pitchers.

Morton isn’t a great pitcher, but he isn’t a bad pitcher. He’s got better advanced metrics than Jeanmar Gomez, and his stuff is better than Cumpton and Gomez.

He is Inconsistent

Probably the most valid argument against Morton is that he is inconsistent. He’ll have games, such as tonight’s game, where he doesn’t have the best command. But what exactly are we saying when we say Morton is inconsistent?

Consistency is really what leads to a top of the rotation starter. You can have top of the rotation stuff, and still be a #3-4 starter if you aren’t consistent with that stuff. You can have lesser stuff and put up top of the rotation results if you’re consistent every start.

Morton isn’t consistent, but he has “electric stuff”. When it’s on, he looks great. When it isn’t on, he struggles. And all of those average out to give us what we know: that he’s a league average pitcher, rather than a top of the rotation guy.

Again, that’s not a bad thing. Any Pirates fan who thinks Morton doesn’t belong in a major league rotation has either been spoiled by this year’s ERA numbers, or has extremely unrealistic expectations on how a major league starting pitcher should perform.

Morton’s Value

If you take an honest look at Charlie Morton, you’ll see that he’s one of the top five starting options for the Pirates. An objective approach notes that he has his bad starts, but also has great stuff, which leads to him being a league average pitcher. That’s better than what the alternatives are with Gomez and Cumpton. The non-objective approach focuses only on those bad outings, while ignoring the good outings. That happens far too often. You’ll hear a lot of people calling for Morton to be removed from the rotation after tonight. But in his previous three starts he combined for eight earned runs in 18.2 innings (3.86 ERA) and those starts are seen as the fluke.

Morton isn’t a guy you want pitching in your playoff rotation, but neither are his alternatives. That said, if you’re looking for the best five starters right now, he’s definitely in that group. The only way he’s not in that group is if you’ve got a super rotation full of number three starters or better. But the Pirates don’t have that type of rotation, and the alternatives to Morton won’t change that. Thus, they’ll just have to settle for a league average starting pitcher, which is something every team in the majors would want.

Links and Notes


**Prospect Watch: Johnson and Dickson Strong In Back-To-Back Outings.

**Prospect Links: Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, Gregory Polanco.

**Minor League Schedule: Sadler Goes For Altoona Tonight.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Drop Doubleheader, De La Cruz Extends Hitting Streak.


**Cardinals Good at Baseball, Pirates Lose 13-0.

**Pirates Notebook: Tony Sanchez Acknowledges “Long Road” to Majors.

**How Do August Waiver Trades Work?

  • I am so happy that most of the comments are anti-Charlie Moron. Someone called him a “rally killer.” AMEN. This was the only game that I wasn’t excited for b/c I knew he was pitching. The bottom line is this: we’ve seen enough of him as fans. He just doesn’t have it. I would rather see someone else have a shot. I don’t care how good his “electric stuff” can be. It is “electric $h!t ” a lot of the time. It was noted how poor Gomez’s career numbers were going into this year. Well, it’s his first yr here and he has been consistently good when thrown out there. His act hasn’t worn b/c it hasn’t been shoved down our throats by management like Moron has.

  • Paul J Books
    August 2, 2013 2:11 pm

    I’m thinking if they could go 5 infielders when certain batters come to the plate they could be better off. Play Josh Harrison and move him anywhere on the field where they might expect a ball to be hit. Move players around aggressively depending on the spray charts. Cutch and Marte cover the outfield by themselves. He gets so screwed on the infield singles, never seen anything like it.

  • The Kip Wells comparisons above are a good one.

    • The Ryan Vogelsong comparison is the best one to make in regard to Morton. Like Boston C. said,He has no more in common with salad tossers like Duke,Maholm,Suppan,Todd Ritchie,Joe Beimel and others of that style than Gerrit Cole does.

      • BostonsCommon
        August 2, 2013 2:24 pm

        Just to kind of drive this point home so we can be done with it. While we’ve seen Morton touch 96-97, he is still averaging 93.9 mph on his four seam FBs. That’s just a tick under Cole’s 95.4…

        Even at 93.9, he’s throwing harder than everyone on this list….

        Jordan Zimmermann 93.8
        Justin Verlander 93.7
        Shelby Miller 93.6
        Ivan Nova 93.6
        Alexi Ogando 93.4
        David Price 93.4
        Derek Holland 93.3
        Justin Masterson 93.3
        Max Scherzer 93.3
        Yu Darvish 93.3
        Josh Johnson 92.9
        Edwin Jackson 92.9
        Francisco Liriano 92.9
        Gio Gonzalez 92.9
        Tom Koehler 92.9
        Corey Kluber 92.8
        Joe Kelly 92.8
        Tyler Chatwood 92.8
        Matt Garza 92.8
        Jason Hammel 92.7
        Jeremy Guthrie 92.6
        Matt Moore 92.5
        Clayton Kershaw 92.4

        • BostonsCommon
          August 2, 2013 2:31 pm

          I mean why do you think the Pirates keep giving him these chances? If he ever figures it out, and gets his head right he’s clearly got the stuff to be a dominant pitcher.

          Just listening to him give interviews and talk, I kind of doubt that he will. He just seems sooo out there. But for the Pirates’ sake, I hope he does.

  • “He’s got a 7.0 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9 ratio this year, showing some good control and a decent strikeout ratio”

    Except for the fact he has also hit 10 batters in only 9 starts.

  • Morton’s career stats are not a strong predictor of His future performance. He reinvented his pitching style and after one year sustained a major injury. He is still developing. This is a player that may end up better after he leaves Pittsburgh.

  • He is a frustrating pitcher (like kip wells mentioned above) in that he has the stuff to be much better than a number 5 starter. I would keep sending him out there this season and hope he goes on a hot streak.

    If he puts everything together he could be a very good pitcher. That being said, I would not give him a long leash next year.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 2, 2013 10:51 am

    His track record is consistent – a sub-500 pitcher, +4.00 ERA, and very inconsistent results. He will pitch well in a start, followed by a couple of bad ones. I hope I am proven wrong for the Pirates sake obviously, but I do not have any confidence that he will be anything more than what we have seen.

    I just do not see any bulldog attitude in him – just watch his body language during a start. He just falls apart too easily. Kip Wells 2.0

  • I’m on board w/ the thought that Morton is a better alternative than Gomez, Cumpton, or anyone *healthy* in the Pirates org. at the moment. However, if Wandy can show that he is indeed healthy (and I’m not even sure that’ll be likely or even possible by the time playoffs come around), I think he should replace Morton in the rotation. While Chuck has the chance to be really good on any particular night, he also has the chance to be, well, like last night. On the other hand, Wandy doesn’t have quite the potential to have a bunch of swing-n-misses and dominate a team (though he has intermittently in the past), but he also will usually keep you in the ball game, similar to what a Locke will probably end-up being when all regression/sustain/etc. occurs. In the end, when you’re approaching the final couple weeks of the season, I’d rather go with the somewhat-predictable guy.

    But, with that being said, I would point out that just a few weeks ago, you were of the opinion that Morton > Cole for ROS. I’d be interested if you still believe that, and, additionally, who you would pitch in a hypothetical GM 4 of a 7 game series if we decided to go 4 deep in our rotation.


  • I’ll give ole chuckles a pass related to tj surgery…but did anyone catch his post game comments? Chuckles lacks the “it” factor. He is a bit of a head case IMHO. He sounds more unsure of himself than any pro athlete I’ve heard in interviews.

  • It seems like Morton’s biggest issue is luck, which is what you get with a groundball pitcher. Gomez didn’t exactly earn the job last night either, and anyone expecting Cumpton to be as good as he was Tues. is overreacting in the opposite direction.

  • Morton is 239th out of 271 in WPA. He’s 243rd in RE24. He’s 237th in RA9-WAR. Those are bad advanced numbers.

    Even so, he’s the best option for the firth spot until Wandy returns.

  • Look I like advanced statistics but I don’t need them to tell me Charlie Morton is a good pitcher who deserves to stay on this staff.

    All I need to know is the guy is striking out over 7 batter per nine while keeping his walks down and inducing ground balls over 60% of the time. I want a guy like that on my staff. This year batters have a .724 OPS on fly balls and a .498 OPS on ground balls.

    It is a bad thing for a hitter to hit a ground ball.

  • the dude is 13 months removed from tommy john…look at brandon beachy who is in the same situation and he was one of the top pitchers in the nl last year. he just got rocked. you can see the stuff is there, but when you come back from tommy john, location is the last thing that comes back. i think youll see an improved charlie morton out of spring training next year. for now, hes an adequate 5th starter who won’t be making any starts in the playoffs. and no, charlie mortons 10 starts the rest of the season will not cost us a playoff birth, even if he goes 1-9, which he wont

  • This was truly a painful comment thread to read. Tim I’m with you 100% on this, but i don’t even think it’s worth trying to justify to most people at this point. Haters gonna hate, right?

  • So right after reading the article that points out why using his career numbers is flawed, you guys quote his career numbers? And wait…we’re still using pitcher wins as a way to measure a pitchers performance? Holy 1993!

  • CalipariFan506
    August 2, 2013 8:07 am

    Give him a little credit Lee. There was no teasing with Johnathan Sanchez!

    • Well, compared to JSan, I’m Warren Spahn…

      I was a little over the top, so maybe I should rephrase “Charley would be a perfect fit on those pitching staffs….”

      He doesn’t belong on a good one, jmho.

  • Charley = All the pitchers that we’ve had for 20 years. They’re called teases!

    If so many teams covet average Charley, let’s trade him for an average RF.


    • BostonsCommon
      August 2, 2013 11:00 am

      Morton is not like all of the pitchers over the last 20 years. Guys like Duke, Malholm, Josh Fogg, Jeff Suppan, Todd Richie et al were all soft tossers who sat 85-89 and got hammered because there stuff wasn’t any good.

      Morton’s stuff is head and shoulders above all of those clowns, and it absolutely plays in MLB. His results have been league average, but if he ever figures it out, he will be much better than league average. And even if he doesn’t, he could be a dominant bullpen arm.

      All of those guys from about ’98-’08 were just a bunch of soft tossers that were not very good.

  • CalipariFan506
    August 2, 2013 7:09 am

    I think one reason Charlie the pitcher looks worse than he pitches is because Charlie the fielder, Charlie the hitter and Charlie the base runner cost him an opportunity to create or save a run every game he throws.

  • xFIP went down after that performance.

    Yeah – there may be a flaw there in xFIP…

  • I love Morton’s stuff. He has #2 or #3 stuff. 95 mph fastball at the beginning of a start. a sinker ball that if he’s got it working like he wants he can be as good as anybody. But Morton is so up and down from one inning to the next. not start to start, Like last night , He looked like Roy Halladay for two innings then he looked like James McDonald 2nd half 2012. I think Charlie would be a fantastic bullpen pitcher. erlier this year i saw him touching 96-97 in the first two innings. I think if he were a bullpen pitch he could unleash that fastball. He just seems to tire mentally, He would be a great pitcher to bring in when you desperately need a double play. I’m sorry but if Wandy comes back Morton should be the man out. YES most teams would want an average starter at the back of their rotation but he’s not a top 5 option when we are healthy. Liriano,AJ,Locke,Wandy and Cole are our best options

  • 26-48 over 6 seasons, the guy doesn’t know how to win. Kevin Corria and Josh Fogg were equally mediocre but knew how to win. To paraphrase Woody Allen: Sabermaticians prove that you can be brilliant and have no idea what’s going on

    • James Santelli
      August 2, 2013 10:14 am

      64 of Morton’s 97 career starts have come pitching for the 2009-11 Pittsburgh Pirates, which was a god-awful baseball team. Using win-loss record to make ANY point is bad enough, but you are just… completely off.

      • I guess you think left-handed batters having a career .917 OPS against him is completely off also.

      • Winning is the object of the game. All the fancy stats try to do is establish what correlates most highly with winning – they’re the means not the end. The sample on Charlie is large enough to safely say that if you intend to lose the game he’s your man

    • So a player is never going to get better? RA Dickey showed that career numbers don’t always apply to every single season. Morton has had injury issues, and he’s rebuilt his mechanics. So in actuality this is still his 2nd season in the majors

  • I cringe any time Charlie faces a left-handed batter. They absolutely kill him.

    LHB have a career .917 OPS against him.

    If you want to discount this game, then, fine, but his career numbers tell the true story.

    26-47 record – 4.95 era – 1.535 whip

    No, I don’t think he is a better option than Cumpton or a healthy Wandy or a healthy Karstens.

    Heck, we might as well call Jameson Taillon up. I doubt that he would do much worse.

    • I expect a loss EVERY time he is on the mound. He always seems to have those innings where balls find holes and then he gives up the big hit.

  • This may be all well and good but the fact it is seems that Charlie Morton is the “rally killer”. When he is on the mound it seems he will pitch just good enough to lose by one run. Besides the rapport the other night between Brandon Cumpton and Tony Sanchez that led to 7 shut out innings deserves exploring.