One of the better kept secrets in the NL Central has been the transformation of Charlie Morton, the Pittsburgh Pirates starter who recorded the worst record and ERA among qualified starting pitchers in 2010 (2-12 7.57).
However, Morton did not pitch as terribly as those numbers indicate. A .353 BABIP, 53.2 percent strand rate and a 18.2 percent HR/FB all negatively affected his ERA. Morton's 2010 xFIP was 4.14.
Morton finally received some attention after throwing a shutout against the Reds in which he allowed five hits, no walks and five strikeouts. He improved his record to 5-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.61 for the season.
The key to Morton's success this season has been the transition to a ground ball pitcher who relies heavily on a two-seam fastball.
Morton always posted above average ground ball rates prior to this season. He posted a 46.8 percent rate in 2010,a 49 percent rate in 2009, and a 50 percent rate in 2008.
However, Morton has improved that number to 62 percent this season (second highest in baseball), and he has dropped his fly ball rate to 18 percent (the lowest rate in baseball).
Morton has essentially dropped his use of the slider (down from 12.1 to 1.7 percent), and increased the use of his fastball from 59.1 to 82 percent. Morton has seen a slight decrease in his fastball velocity (92.9 to 92.1 mph), but he has seen almost a three inch increase in downward movement on his fastball, which explains the increase in ground ball percentage.
Morton's new approach has resulted in a drop of his strikeout rate (6.67 from 4.75 K/9), and he has seen an increase in his contact rate.
Additionally, Morton has had trouble throwing as many strikes. His first pitch strike percentage has dropped from 55.8 to 52.6 percent, and his walk total has increased from 2.94 to 4.25 BB/9.
A xFIP of 3.91 signals that Morton is due to regress over the coming months, but I think he should be able to keep his ERA low.
His .257 BABIP is much lower than his .309 career number, but Morton's BABIP should be lower now that he has taken this extreme ground ball approach. His 79.5 percent strand rate should come down a bit as well.
I'm sure there are some Morton skeptics out there and it would be hypocritical to ignore the higher xFIP, but Morton's batted ball rates lead me to believe he can pitch close to this level for the rest of the season.
No matter what, Morton is sure to garner some more attention over the coming days, as he looks like he could be an All-Star representative for the Pirates.