Pittsburgh’s starting rotation has received a mid-season addition in each of the last few years that elevated the staff. In 2013, it was Francisco Liriano when he recovered from his broken arm and later Gerrit Cole upon his major-league debut. Vance Worley joined the rotation in June 2014 and delivered a 2.85 ERA over 110 2/3 innings. This year, the boost was expected to come from Nick Kingham and possibly Jameson Taillon.
But Taillon is recovering from his Tommy John surgery last April and while his rehab has gone well in his early throwing stages, don’t expect the Pirates to be unnecessarily aggressive with one of their top young arms. Meanwhile, Kingham began the recovery process last month.
Enter Charlie Morton, who admittedly didn’t know where his pitches were going as he released them over a number of otherwise disastrous starts in Spring Training. As a result, he spent nearly the first two months of the season on the disabled list as he continued his recovery from hip surgery last September.
“The failure during Spring Training forced me to change some things,” Morton said.
The sinkerballer is pitching arguably the best baseball of his career and won each of his five starts since his return, while posting a 1.62 ERA.
“I guess what I was doing in Florida was paying off,” Morton said, “Just working on mechanics and trying to get it right.”
Manager Clint Hurdle said before Morton’s start Tuesday this was as good as he’s seen Morton throw from the time he’s managed the Pirates. Morton proceeded to toss seven shutout innings against the White Sox later that evening.
“He’s just nailing his delivery,” Hurdle said. “The release point. Everything is coming out of one spot, whether it’s the breaking ball, whether it’s the sinker, whether it’s the changeup. He’s keeping himself together on the mound. The delivery has been really good.”
Morton’s continued to show the form from his first two starts off the disabled list and strengthened an already-strong Pirates rotation.
His sinker has been as effective as ever, leaving opposing hitters no alternative but to beat it into the dirt time after time. Morton’s operated heavily with the pitch, throwing his sinker over 70 percent of the time.
And for good reason. Morton’s ground ball rate is at a career-high 67 percent. Opposing hitters have only hit 13 fly balls against Morton in 33 1/3 innings so far.
The only other pitch Morton has thrown extensively is his curveball, with which he’s generated the most amount of swings and misses with.
Morton’s FIP of 3.31 and .229 BABIP allowed indicates he’s due for some slight regression, and a pitcher that relies on contact has had the advantage of having starts against five teams that rank among the top 10 in the rate at which they hit ground balls. It’s also a group that, overall, is pretty average when it puts the ball in play.
Morton’s next start is slated for Sunday at Washington, and the Nationals are another high ground ball, average BABIP team. They have the sixth-highest ground ball rate at 47.9 percent and their .296 BABIP ranks 16th.
But the Pirates will keep taking Morton’s quality of work, regardless of who it comes against. It’s also a side of Morton that fits in with the dominating personalities of A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole.
Now in his age-31 season, Morton has never put it all together. He showed flashes of it in 2013 when he went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts, after which the Pirates rewarded him with a three-year extension.
How long Morton has left in his career, who knows, but now it becomes a little more about the legacy of a player who’s always been his own toughest critic.
“He expects a lot out of himself,” Hurdle said. “He’s worked extremely hard. I do think once he got back here it’s time he wanted to take ownership of some things more so than he had in the past.”
That sense of ownership seems to have provided the Pirates with what looks like baseball’s best No. 4 starter.