ESPN analysts recently tabbed Morton as an option worth keeping an eye on. The case for him is his sparkling 1.64 ERA and 2-0 record, as well as the fact that he has changed his delivery and developed his sinker.
Morton has made only three starts on the season though, so it is way too early to be saying much of anything about him. As I’ve said many a time, baseball is a game of averages. The best pitchers in baseball could string three mediocre starts together and still wind up with an ERA under 3.00.
Likewise, the Livan Hernandez's and the Carlos Silva's of the world are capable of stringing successful starts together. What doesn’t change is the potential for success and Morton’s early successes are not sustainable.
The most obvious argument against him are his career stats, but this isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Morton, in parts of three seasons, has thrown at least 74 innings and made at least 15 starts each time. His ERAs were 6.15, 4.55 and 7.57. His WHIPs were 1.62, 1.46 and 1.73. Simply put, these are the marks of a bad pitcher.
He only once posted a K/BB rate north of 2.00 (K/BB is a good benchmark for predicting success because it reflects statistics that the pitcher is solely in control of). In only one of those seasons (the 7.57) you could point to the BABIP as a source of bad luck. However, his past is less relevant to 2011 than his present. The question fantasy owners should be asking is whether Morton can sustain his early success.
Through his first 22.0 innings this year, his BABIP-against is .164, tied for third-lowest in MLB. This is absolutely unsustainable. Even the most extreme ground-ball pitchers allow hits on balls in play at a rate over 100 points higher. On average, when a major-league hitter makes contact with the ball, it will go for a hit about 30 percent of the time, with some room for error, due to speed of the runner, ballpark and ground-ball tendencies of the pitcher/hitter.
As an example, let us look at the best ground-ball pitchers of the last decade (minimum 500 innings pitched). Brandon Webb leads the pack with a grounder rate of 64.2 percent. His BABIP-against? .286. The next three top ground-ball generators—Chien-Ming Wang, Derek Lowe and Fausto Carmona—are all tied with a BABIP-against of .294.
In fact, the lowest BABIP-against of the last decade (min. 300 IP) was Troy Percival’s .231. The lowest by a starting pitcher is Chris Young’s .250. In fact, the lowest mark of the last five seasons was .236 (Trevor Cahill in 2010 and Dave Bush in 2008). So Charlie Morton’s batting average against, currently sitting at .173, is going to rise.
It boggles my mind that the ESPN analysts neglected to mention that Morton has struck out six hitters and walked twelve in his 22.0 innings pitched. Take each of those numbers on their own and they’re bad. Take them together and they’re bad.
While Morton has tended to strike guys out at a reasonable rate, his control problems are still there. In his best control season (2010), he walked 2.94 hitters per nine innings. This is a good figure if you’re striking out nine guys per game; it’s just average if you’re striking out between six and seven.
The best way to assess any changes he may have made is to go and watch footage of him throwing. The differences between his delivery now and his delivery circa May 2010 are subtle. He may have taken some length out of his arm action during the windup, but he appears in both cases to be doing his best impression of Roy Halladay’s mechanics.
Morton is a ground-ball pitcher, but his ground-ball rate this season so far is double his career mark. His line drive rate has been cut in half, which has a lot to do with his low hit rate. These figures are probably just a consequence of a small sample size and are sure to regress.
To his credit, Morton has faced three quality lineups, most recently going nine innings against Cincinnati. These early successes worked wonders for fantasy owners who took an early chance on Morton, but banking on him to continue this rate is ludicrous because no one maintains rates like his these days.
Relying on him to turn in his first productive big league season is also a long shot because his peripheral stats do not project to long-term success. When the hits start falling in, the walks will seem more significant and will hurt more.
The best case scenario is that Morton's strikeout rate approaches his career mark and he K's about six guys per game. On the improved Pirates team, he could win somewhere around 12 games and if he has reinvented himself, maybe an ERA in the low to mid 4.00s. Keep in mind this is not especially likely given what we have seen from Morton, and he has a ways to go to prove himself, but he will get a chance to do so this year in Pittsburgh.
Charlie Morton could be on the verge of his best major league season yet, but because it is hard to bet on it being an especially good season, his value is greater to the Pittsburgh Pirates than to your fantasy team.