Here’s who you’re watching tonight:

Tonight the Yankees will be taking on the Astros again, and will be facing Charlie Morton, who made them look silly back on April 30th.  In leading the Astros to a 2-1 win, Morton threw 7 and 2/3  innings allowing only 4 baserunners (two hits, two walks) while striking out 10.

It wasn’t too much of an aberration as Morton has been great this season, which is turning into a career year for him – timely, considering he’s a free agent at season’s end.  But to truly appreciate his season a little background may be necessary:

Morton was drafted by the Braves then traded to Pittsburgh in 2009 as part of a package for Nate McClouth.  In Pittsburgh, he was part of a strategic overhaul by Pirates GM Neal Huntington who was trying to end a two decade long absence from the post season for the Pirates.

One of the issues with a team on a budget is that it’s impossible to fill a pitching staff with 10 good pitchers.  You may – may – be able to get 5 or 7 good ones and the rest are filled up by…whoever.  So in order to maximize the number of innings the Pirates received from their best pitchers, they decided upon a two part strategy:  A) Employ defensive shifting to unprecedented levels, and B) have pitchers throw sinkers and two seam fastballs to induce groundballs into the shift.  This kept the pitch counts down of the Pirates best pitchers, maximizing their innings totals and reducing the innings totals for the back end of the bullpen (guys who were major leaguers in name only, for the most part).  This required a pretty big commitment from the position players (remember, shifting is generally accepted today – not so much at the start of this decade), one of whom was current Yankee Neil Walker, coincidentally.  And it required a huge commitment from the pitchers.  They were asked to predominantly throw two seamers and sinkers even if they weren’t the pitchers’ best pitches in order to benefit the team. In addition to Morton, Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett were on those staffs and had never been known as two seam, sinker types.

The strategy worked.  After not having made the post season since Sid Bream slid into home ahead of a throw from Barry Bonds in 1992, the Pirates made the post season in 2013, ‘14’ and ’15.  This was in large part due to their ability to prevent runs: defensive shifts, an emphasis on pitch framing and maximizing innings totals from their best pitchers through ground ball inducement led to a huge swing in W/L record for the franchise.

But that was a few years back.  Now Morton is on a team that is analytically inclined as any and has a different philosophy than the early decade Pirates.  Since joining Houston, Morton has returned to being the hard throwing four seam fastball pitcher that made him attractive to scouts a decade ago, and the results have been fantastic.

Consider:

  • In his first two seasons with the Pirates, his ground ball percentage was 49% and 46.8%.  Then from  ’11 to ’15 it was never below 55.7%, including a high of 62.9% in ’13.

Since joining Houston, his ground ball rates have been 51.8% and 54.6% in ’17 and ’18 respectively.

  • His previous K per 9 innings career high was 7.21 in 2014.  It’s been over 10 since joining Houston, currently sitting at 10.95.
  • He had his then career best K% to BB% as a Pirate in 2014 with 10.4%.  Since joining Houston, it was 18.3% last season, 22.3% this season.
  • As a Pirate, his average fastball velocity ranged from 92 to 94.3 mph.  With Houston, it’s been 96 and 97.2 in ’17 and ’18 (2nd in baseball to Luis Severino).

He’s simply been one of the best in the American League so far in 2018.  Among 59 AL starters with a minimum of 40 innings pitched, Morton ranks:

4th in both ERA+ and xFIP, 6th in K% and 8thin K%-BB%.

Not bad rankings when you pitch in the same league as Verlander, Severino, Sale, Kluber, and Cole.

And I couldn’t write an article about Charlie Morton without mentioning Game 7 of the 2017 World Series.  Morton entered in the 6th and finished the game for the Astros while allowing only 3 baserunners over four innings (2 hits and a walk) while striking out 4.

Easy guy for whom to root.  I’d like to see him continue to do well – just not tonight.

 

*Thanks to Travis Sawchick for a lot of the background, information and inspiration here.

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