Blogs | Sports | News
Bucco Blog

Morton’s new weapon could elevate him to elite status


BRADENTON, Fla. – Can Charlie Morton’s stuff become even more electric? I suspect it can.

It was just one pitch, just one pitch Tuesday at the Tigers that I wrote about here, but it was an important one offering even this early in the spring.

Late last season I wrote about how Morton had experimented with a split-changeup grip. Morton has struggled throughout his career to throw a traditional, circle changeup. And without a pitch to neutralize lefties, that makes him vulnerable. Despite his strong return from Tommy John surgery last season he had pronounced splits. Lefties hit .302 against him and there are a lot of strong lefty bats in the NL Central.

So finding a changeup, or at least a hybrid changeup, a pitch with fading action away from lefties, is critical. (I believe Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay threw split changeups to great effect.)

On Tuesday, Morton threw one split-change to Tigers left-handed hitter Don Kelly and Kelly swung and missed at the 85 mph pitch that appeared to have good downward and fading action. That’s OK velocity separation for a fastball velocity that ranges from 91-94 mph.

“I threw one today. It was a good one,” said Morton of the pitch to Kelly. “I’m trying to throw it more in bullpens and get a better feel for it. It’s been decent in bullpens. But taking it into a game is a different story because it’s a feel pitch and at the same time you really have to throw it. It’s an interesting combination.”

Yes, Morton still has to prove he can effectively repeat the pitch and not alter his arm speed or release point, etc. But the potential for another offering is there.

While much of the above was addressed in today’s notebook in the Trib, I think some larger perspective is required here. If the split-change becomes an effective pitch for Morton then I think he can take his game to another level.

I think Morton is undervalued. We’re talking about a guy who throws a 94 mph sinker, who would have led baseball in groundball rate had he enough innings to qualify last season, whose control and K rate improved as the 2013 season went along. I’m not going to say his curve is a plus pitched but it flashed plus at times last season. Even without it, he nearly took out the Cardinals and Michael Wacha in Game 4 of the NLCS. It’s at least an average pitch to go along with a plus-plus sinker.

Morton can neutralize righties. If the split-change comes along he can become a dominant player. I’m not saying he ever becomes as effective as his mechanical look alike Roy Halladay – who Lyle Overbay once compared Morton to – but I am saying he has the upside of a No. 2 starting pitcher.

Oh, and he signed a team-friendly three-year, $21 million deal in the offseason. Could you view the Pirates’ offseason as a disappointment? It’s certainly been a quiet one. But the Morton contract flew under the radar as one of the great values of the offseason I think.

With a full season or work, and a new pitch, I think Morton can emerge as a breakout pitcher in 2014.


While Dan Fox is synonymous with defensive shifting, he actually did as much work trying to quantify baserunning for Baseball Prospectus as he did defensive value.

Clint Hurdle was gushing about the team’s baserunning after Tuesday’s win over Detroit. Josh Harrison busted out of the box for a double. Alen Hanson stole a bag. Extra bases were taken.

I’m not sure if the teams can teach hustle or baserunning instincts but Hurdle said it’s been a focus and if a team places more of its finite focus on one area of strategy it should hypothetically improve. Andrew McCutchen placed renewed focus on it last season and tied a career best for base-running runs above average.

I’m not sure if there’s much to make of it at this point, but it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.




  1. Jim S. says:

    Maybe this split-change is the pitch Charlie needs to hold lefties somewhat in check. I think most of last year was about getting back to just doing what he does well. Check. This year will be about refinement.

    I had been so down on Charlie because it seemed like he was never going to reach his potential. Every time he seemed to be getting it together, something would go wrong. I changed my tune by August of last year. I love the extension he signed. I think Charlie is a late bloomer that will be a strong #3 for the next few years in Pittsburgh.

  2. RIch says:

    I’m glad Morton is bearing fruit. Takes some of the sting when he came for, ah, that McLouth fello. Now if we would just sign Morales to platoon with Sanchez and Polanco comes up in June and performs like a ROY candidate, and Melancon/Grilli continue to be excellent and Locke comes back and Cole duplicates last year in his first full season, well then? All the prognosticators say the Pirates will fall back and won’t be in contention. What do you all think?



  3. Jim S. says:

    Most of the prognosticators, IMO, Rich, don’t really know how to evaluate a team like the Pirates in this day and age. They still have no idea how valuable Russell Martin is, for instance. If you asked the typical national MLB prognosticator, they would have Yadi as the #1 catcher, followed closely by Posey. Those two are revered by the “experts.” Martin would be lucky to crack the Top 10, whereas I would say the Pirates rightfully evaluate him much higher than that. The prognosticators don’t factor in a lot of the pitching and defensive success the Pirates had last year with some of their developing strategies that seem to be working (defensive shifts, inducing groundballs, etc.). So, they were caught completely off guard by the seasons turned in by Liriano and Morton, among others. Most of them think it was a nice story that the Pirates jumped up and made the playoffs. But, they really don’t respect what the Pirates are developing, IMO. They think this is a decent team where everything went well last year.

    My personal opinion, as we sit here today, is that the Pirates are probably not headed for a 94-win season again. They may not be able to duplicate their record in close games, and I am not convinced the bullpen will perform as well. But, I see no reason why Cole won’t continue to get better, as will Morton. If Wandy is healthy, he could come close to replacing Burnett. Taillon should help when he arrives. On the offensive side, I believe they will actually score more runs than last year where they struggled hitting with RISP. I would guess they will win somewhere around 87-90 games. With a few breaks and pleasant developments from new players, I could see them exceeding that total and pushing St. Louis again. I think they are better than Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Chicago. Hopefully, they will be right in the mix for a playoff spot. But, I believe this franchise is headed for a nice run over the next several years. Just my opinion.

  4. NMR says:

    Great blog, Travis. I think Charlie is the best story going right now on this team. Amazing perceverance.

  5. Interesting, Travis, that you would mention Dan Fox in your quite appropriate paragraph about base-running.

    Fox would have little to do with Hanson, Harrison, McCutchen, and the other examples you cite. I know Nick Leyva and the new assistant hitting coach were showing extra attention to breaking off bases at Pirate City. I would think they would be the ones, along with Hurdle, who should get peripheral mention instead of Stats Wonk (thank you, 24/7) Dan Fox.

  6. Nate83 says:

    I would think it’s not as simple as the break a player gets out of the box or off of first base when stealing that Travis is talking about when mentioning Dan Fox. I think it is more about analyzing data and knowing in what situations and against what pitchers on what counts stealing would give your team an advantage over not stealing. More of a risk/reward type thing then the actual fundamentals of base running. It may even go as far as knowing what size leadoff is possible against which pitchers.

  7. Steelkings says:

    For the last 2 years the Pirates have been extremely aggressive on the bases in Spring Training. In 2012 the Pirates stole 27 bags in spring training and then stole a total of 73 in the regular season. In the 2012 spring training, the Pirates led all of the majors in SB’s and then was 28th during the regular season. 2013’s ratio was similar. They were ranked a little higher as the stole 94 during the regular season.

    So, I guess Im saying that this is meaningless

  8. Steelkings says:

    In todays other top stories

    Troy and Heath get extended today………

  9. Travis Sawchik says:

    Nice research, Steel. My next thought is are players/teams generally too conservative or aggressive in baserunning during regular season?

  10. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, NMR. Charlie is a great story and a really good guy.

  11. Jim S. says:

    I think teams are generally more aggressive in the spring than during the season. A big chunk of playing time is taken up by prospects, so the managers want to see what the shiny, new toys are capable of down the road. And, the shiny, new toys want to show the manager what they are capable of. Polanco and Hanson both have stolen.

    Pitchers are probably also easier to steal off in the spring, since they are rounding into shape and concentrating on location of their pitches most of all right now.

  12. Steelkings says:

    I think I remember a few years back, and you would have to ask him, because I’m a little hazy on this, but Coach Hurdle said that he likes his players to play “OVERLY AGGRESSIVE” in the spring so they could know the boundary’s for the regular season as well as carrying the aggressiveness mindset with them.

    In one of his pre-game interviews posted on-line was when he said he wanted his players to run with the mindset of making the base coaches stop you, and not stopping yourself.

  13. Jim S. says:

    Interesting article/interview today regarding Stetson Allie from Tim Williams. Lots of insight into Allie’s mindset as a hitter. It is easy to forget that this kid is still really raw and inexperienced as a hitter. He had some great success last year in WV, then not so much in Bradenton. Still, the Pirates are going to aggressively slot him in Altoona this year. He has made mechanical adjustments, such as eliminating the high leg kick that he used for much of last year. He has also lost 15 lbs and gotten in much better shape. He has the most raw power in the system at this point.

    This will be a huge “sink or swim” year for him, I think. He has to get that strikeout rate down below 25%. The more I hear from and about this kid, the more I want to root for him big time. We know the Pirates could use a legit bat coming through the system at 1b. He still has a long way to go. Good luck in Altoona, Stetson!

  14. Leo Walter says:

    Jim,I couldn’t agree with you more. Not only do the baseball media types ignore Martin,they never could understand why signing Chris Stewart is,while being a minor detail,is still important. When the Fort started those weekend games,you could see the track meet starting. Another area the national media ( for the most part ) is completely un-aware of is the Pirates Pirate’s pichingHowever,I don’t quite understand whey RICH would think signing a DH like Morales would help the Pirates overtake the Cardinals ( ? ) If he was capable of playing 1st base in the National League he would have had a contract weeks ago.

  15. Leo Walter says:

    Don’t know what happened to that wordin,but I meant unware of the depth of the Pirates’ pitching prospects.

  16. Leo Walter says:

    Jim,did you ever wonder why a prospect like Allie has too high a strike out rate,while a prospect like Joey Gallo is much more highly hyped ? Gallo struck out 42 % of his official ABs,and 37 % of his appearances hitting 40 HRs at Hickory. That is far,far worse than Allie,but he still is referred to as an ” intriguing prospect “.

  17. If Allie lost 15 pounds, he still needs to lose 15 more!

    He looked way too thick for a 22 year old who wants to field a baseball or have an unimpeded swing.

  18. Ghost says:

    Re: Gallo — the 40 HR’s as a 19 year-old is what did it. The kid isn’t even done growing into his body, let alone knows what he’s doing yet. No guarantee of future success, but I fully understand the salivating.
    Yet I get the recent excitement over Stetson Allie and his new and improved batting stroke. Dramatic difference compared with last year. Much cleaner, balanced, repeatable swing. Look forward to see how good he can become.

  19. Leo Walter says:

    Ghost,my point was this : a 37 % SO # at A- is a very large hole to dig out of. Not only that,it would probably be important to check on the pitching prospects he hit those 40 HRs off.For example, I was listening to a game last season where Glasnow struck him out twice swinging,and after the Power brought a fringy prospect in to the game,Gallo hit one about three miles out of the park.So,who is the most likely to advance further ( on merit,not because of bonus $ paid ),Gallo,or Allie with his 27 % SO rate ?

  20. Leo Walter says:

    Groat : Tell that to the Cubs and Dan Vogelbach also.

  21. Jim S. says:

    I think the Stewart thing, for most of the so-called experts, is simply that he is the 2nd catcher the Pirates have signed away from the Yankees in the past 2 years and most of them are pre-wired to assume the Yankees are smart and the Pirates are dumb. Since Stewart is not a good offensive catcher, and the Yankees gave him up, ipso facto, he must stink. Doesn’t matter that the Yankees can’t develop anyone lately, and that the only reason they are even a competitive team is because they spend so much money to get there. Seriously, if someone is objectively telling the real story of the Yankees, is there anything they do well for the last bunch of years besides sign big checks?

    The Pirates will have to go the Tampa route, and chip away at preconceived notions to eventually get the grudging respect of the pundits. That’s just how it is in MLB, Leo.

    I like Morales’ bat, and I hoped he could play 1b well enough to sign by the Bucs. But, apparently that is not the case. I’ll trust the experts on that one.

  22. Jim S. says:

    Good post, Ghost! Ha, that rhymed! I don’t know much about Gallo, but obviously (in my best Greg Brown voice), “40 HRs in Hickory is still 40 HRs.” I guess you can’t give up on a kid at 19 with that much power because they are few and far between. But, I wonder how long the list is of guys who ever struck out at a 40% or so clip and eventually were successful big leaguers.

  23. Jim S. says:

    My mistake on Stewart. We did not sign him away. We got him in trade with the Yankees.

  24. Jim S. says:

    I would say the camera adds 10 lbs., but then I remembered you saw him in person this spring, Groat. ;-)

  25. I’m skeptical the split change will have a big effect for Morton. He needs a pitch that he can effectively work on the inner half of the plate to lefties. He needs something in hard to back them off his sinker. He was working to do that last year. 13 of his 16 HBPs were on LHH. He was trying to mark his territory in there.

  26. I think part of this is you have some players trying to make the team that want to display all their skills. Chris Dickerson is player that has a quality skill set as a base stealer. In his limited time in the major leagues over the past 4 years he has swiped 16 of 17 bases. The staff is going to give guys like this a chance to see what they’ve got.

  27. Jim S. says:

    I honestly don’t know which is true, Vigorish, since I don’t have much pitching experience. But, Travis’ story says Chuck is trying to get something that fades away from lefties.

  28. I don’t think something that fades away from lefties is that big of a need for Morton. His sinker fades away from lefties. People want to make this comparison of Morton to Halladay. But it wasn’t the change up that made the difference for Roy. Sure, it was a nice offspeed pitch that he added to his repertoire later in his career. But it was really just a complement to his cutter. 40% of Halladay’s pitches were cutters in 2011 and 2012. I bet against LHH it was more like 50%. He was busting them in on the hands with cutters and finishing them off with splitters. RH pitchers that can neutralize lefties do it with pitches that ride in. Think of Mariano’s cutter or AJ Burnett’s back foot knuckle curve.

  29. Andrew says:

    He used that spit change last year against LHH and it was terrible.

  30. Andrew says:

    split change*

  31. Travis Sawchik says:

    Morton began experimenting with the pitch last year, true, and it was a below-average pitch… but it’s tough to trot out a new pitch, coming of TJ, in the middle of the season. 95 pct of his offerings were FB-CB.

    The split-change might not work for him but I wouldn’t make a judgment based upon 2013

  32. Travis Sawchik says:

    Pretty shocking to me how quickly someone with 100 mph velocity gave up on pitching

  33. Travis Sawchik says:

    Maybe he should tinker with the spit-change! ha.

  34. I’m not sure I should put this out in the universe.. A prominent pitching coach in the Bucs system taught me everything I know about how to to doctor a baseball.

Other blogs
Sports: Rob Rossi | Steel Mill | Chipped Ice | Bucco Blog | iPreps | Pitt Locker Room | Penn State Sports
News: This Just In | Trib List | ICycle | Flow Back | Stories Behind Trib Stories  

» Top Sports » Top News » Top Breaking News