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A Look at the Breakout Season for Pirates Pitcher Charlie Morton
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014
Rewarding the contract extension
This past offseason, Charlie Morton was coming off four months of a solid performance in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2013. The Pirates rewarded Morton's performance with a three year contract extension as he entered the final year of his contract with the Pirates. The Pirates have been criticized for giving Morton an extension before seeing him pitch a full season following his return from Tommy John surgery, but so far Morton has rewarded the Pirates for believing in him with his best full season effort to this point in his career. While Morton may be outperforming what the advanced statistics suggest for him this season, his strong ground ball rate allows him to not be in line for significant regression in the final two months of the season. Morton's strong command within the strike zone has been a big part of his success this season as he has allowed only nine homeruns in 132 and one third innings pitched this season. At 30 years old, Charlie Morton is in his prime years right now and he is outperforming other pitchers around the league close to his talent level who were extended this past offseason.
A team friendly deal
Charlie Morton's deal with the Pirates only fell into this category because he continued what he started in his return from Tommy John surgery from 2013. The Pirates had to strongly believe in the work Morton had done to rehab his elbow and they had to believe that most of his health issues were behind him after what he did in the four months he pitched in 2013. At three years and 21 million dollars, some believed that the Pirates took too much of a risk in signing a pitcher who had been injury prone and inconsistent before having the Tommy John surgery. The Pirates however felt like they were making a great investment by signing a pitcher with top of the rotation potential to a deal that is well below market value for him if he continued the pace he set to finish 2013. For Charlie Morton the decision to sign the contract extension was an easy one because he had gone through the process of rehabbing his elbow and wondering if he would ever pitch again. Staying with the organization whose coaching staff had helped to revive his career was something he was more than willing to do. In this case the benefits of signing the extension for both sides, far outweighed the drawbacks, which has allowed Morton to settle comfortably into a leading role on the Pirates pitching staff this season.
The breakout season by the numbers
For Charlie Morton, the wins have not been there for him this season and the losses have stacked up despite pitching well. His contribution to the team is largely in the form of being a very good innings eater for the Pirates, and despite his record he is a pitcher the team wants on the mound in big situations. Right now he currently has pitched to a record of five wins and 10 losses, with a 3.40 earned runs average. He has pitched 132 and one third innings for the Pirates so far this season through 21 starts, which puts him on pace for 207 innings pitched over a 33 start season. He has allowed 1.18 walks plus hits per inning pitched this season and he is striking out 7.2 batters per nine innings compared to three walks per nine innings pitched. His fielding independent numbers are at 3.81 and 3.79 respectively, which suggests that Morton is not quite as good as his earned runs average would suggest. However, as a strong sinker ball pitcher, Morton is among the league leaders in ground ball percentage and weak contact. His 1.31 ground ball outs against to every fly ball out hit against him would suggest that his numbers this season are legitimate because he is doing such a good job of generating ground balls. Overall, the command and efficiency for Morton has been solid this season which has allowed him to go deep into ballgames with very few runs allowed. His performance to this point has been that of a top of the rotation starter without actually being the best pitcher on any given staff.
Overall Morton has outperformed some pitchers close to his talent level who faced similar contract situations this past offseason. While his efforts have not led directly to games won by the Pirates, his ability to eat innings for the team has kept their bullpen fresh following his starts, and he has kept his team in nearly every game that he has pitched this season. Morton's ability to generate ground balls with his primary pitch will allow him to continue his success in his breakout season. Also his addition of a split-fingered changeup that he is mixing in much more frequently, will allow him to continue to show batters a different look and could lead to some big strikeout performances down the stretch run of the season. Ultimately everything Morton has done to get himself back to full health after having Tommy John surgery, has worked out very well for him and his team friendly contract is proving to be one of the better production to cost values in baseball.