Charlie Morton won again last night. And he didn't just win. He threw a complete game shut out against the most prolific run scoring team in the National League--the Cincinnati Reds. Morton has now improved his record to 5-1 and his ERA to 2.62. How improbable is this? Consider that Morton went 2-12 last year with an ERA of 7.57 and a WHIP of 1.732. Morton has pitched for three seasons prior to this one and has started fifteen or more starts in each of those three seasons. And his five wins already matches his career high. What's going on here? And can it last?
There is so much to talk about when looking at Morton's numbers. His statistics show him to be a completely different pitcher than he's ever been before. It's almost like a different person inhabits his being than the previous Charlie Morton. The biggest difference in his pitching is that he is throwing almost all fastballs. Around the majors, only Bartolo Colon as a starting pitcher has thrown a higher percentage of fastballs than Charlie Morton. Morton has thrown his heater 82 percent of the time. In previous years, he'd thrown 37.5 percent of his pitches of an off-speed variety. That number is down to 18 percent this year. He has nearly abandoned his slider, a pitch he threw 12.1 percent of the time last year. He's only thrown that pitch 1.5 percent of the time this year.
And even the fastball is different. We have to keep in mind that Pitch/FX was tweaked this year and there are variations in how pitches are categorized. But keeping that in mind, the data does show that last year, 29 percent of Morton's pitches were four-seam fastballs and 31.6 percent of his pitches were two-seam fastballs. This year, 6.4 percent of his pitches are four-seam fastballs and an incredible 75.2 percent of his pitches are two-seam fastballs. What that says is that three of every four of Morton's pitches are that two-seam fastball.
And those pitch selection changes have affected how opponents hit the ball. Last year, 46.8 percent of his pitches put in play were ground balls and 29.4 percent were fly balls. That rounds to a five to three ground ball to fly ball ratio. This year, 61.9 percent of his batted balls are ground balls and only 17.9 percent are fly balls. That's roughly over a six to two ratio. The rest, of course, are line drives, a percentage that is down from last year's 23.8 percent to 20 percent this year.
What this seems to tell us is that all those two seam fastballs are causing batters to hit grounders, which so far, have managed to find infielders to grab them. His BABIP is way down and that can be in part all the grounders plus a large increase in the percentage of his pitches that are popped up weakly to the infield. It also means much less homers which would naturally occur with less fly balls. But Morton has also managed to drastically cut the percentage of his fly balls that leave the park.
Are there any troubling numbers among all this good news? Well, maybe. You would think that his strikeout percentage would improve with all those fastballs. But it's actually at his lowest point in his career. Morton has never been a strikeout pitcher. His career strikeout percentage is only 5.82 per nine innings for his career. But this year, that number is down to 4.75. And while his strikeouts per nine have never been lower, his walk rate has never been higher. His 4.2 walks per nine innings is the highest it's been since his rookie season with the Braves in 2008. Thus, his 1.12 strikeout to walk ratio is kind of ugly.
What conclusions can we gather from all this? What we seem to see is that Morton has remade himself into an extreme ground ball pitcher. As long as those ground balls continue to find infielders, that will work out just fine for him. He's allowed only two homers in 55 innings of work and that's a terrific number and a grand improvement over last year. The suspicion is that his homer to fly ball ratio would rise as the season goes along, but as long as he limits the amount of fly balls like he has, that shouldn't hurt him too badly. His walk rate is certainly dangerous if his BABIP rises from it's current .256 tally to one more approaching the league average of .284. Even so, Morton's FIP and xFIP still paint him as an effective pitcher this season. Charlie Morton is probably not this good. But he's no where near as bad as he was in the past either.