More Sports:

March 06, 2016

Groundball pitcher Morton succeeds in Phillies spring debut

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Five years ago Charlie Morton was a 26-year-old pitcher entering his third spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates but without a very good argument that he should a dependable member of the starting rotation for the 2011 season.

In the previous year, 2010, the Pirates lost 15 of the 17 games Morton started. And his ERA more closely resembled a flight number (7.57) than a number of pitcher worthy for regular starts.

Morton had a career 5.98 ERA after 50 starts (including 29 losses) and figured it was time for a change.

“When I dropped my arm slot down, that’s when my sinker started to take shape,” the now-32-year-old Morton said on Sunday, when he made his Phillies spring debut in a 6-5 win over the New York Yankees. “My arm started to work a lot better and I started to work pitches. Since 2011, I’ve been able to come into my own as far as an identity as far as pitching and what I was doing. I found I was making a lot of mistakes, but I was getting away with mistakes. And that’s a huge weight off my back once you can miss and you are not getting hit real hard.”

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Morton has a 58.2 percent ground ball rate. During the five-season span, only reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (59.6 percent) has a better ground ball rate among pitchers who have made at least 100 starts during that time.

The Phillies front office that decided to take the $9 million Morton is owed through the end of this season (in a straight-up swap with Pittsburgh for minor league pitcher David Whitehead in December) is banking that he can find that ground ball groove again in 2016.

Charlie Morton figures to fill the role held by the Aaron Harangs and Jerome Williamses and Roberto Hernandezes in the last two years, as a veteran capable of giving the Phillies a lot of innings and regular starts over the course of a sometimes-grueling six-month season, when the only certainty is that there will be injuries to the rotation at some point during that season. 

If Morton stays healthy and gives the Phillies those starts and those innings, it will be money well spent because it will ease the burden on what Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff are asked to pitch and it will allow the other promising pitchers not in the big leagues yet (Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Zach Eflin, etc.) to continue to develop at the appropriate pace.

It isn’t a given that Morton will stick, however. He is coming off a 2015 season that saw his ERA (4.81) grow more than a run higher than it was in the previous year (3.72).

But he was also coming off hip surgery last year, and perhaps his mechanics never got quite right. And he is also just three years removed from sporting a nifty 3.26 ERA in 20 starts for the Pirates.

This isn’t to paint a pretty, positive picture for the pitcher. But after listening to Morton speak on Sunday, when he allowed one run on one hit in 2 1/3 innings against the Yankees, you walked away almost convinced you should give him the benefit of the doubt because he sounds like a smart, introspective veteran who knows exactly what he has to do to succeed.

Morton came away from his inaugural outing of 2016 encouraged because each of the first four batters he faced produced ground ball outs (and five of the eight batters total hit ground balls).

"I can still say I’m a groundball pitcher. Maybe I’ll bring it back, who knows. Right now, it’s probably a last option.”

“That’s really nice to see,” Morton said. “Because there have been times I’ve come into spring - last year especially I came into camp and guys were hitting the ball in the air a lot, and to deep outfield. And it was kind of discouraging. Because one thing I do very well is keep the ball on the ground when things are going well. So that’s kind of indicative of where I’m at.”

Morton’s ground ball percentage last year (57.3 percent) was actually slightly better than in 2014 (55.75), but he also struck out fewer batters and gave up more home runs. Morton’s flyball/home run ratio was the ninth highest in the National League last season.

Now that his home starts will take place at Citizens Bank Park, Morton understands that a high flyball/home run ratio won't … fly if he wants to bounce back and become a pitcher that could find his way to a contender by the trade deadline. Or even if he wants to stay and have success, too.

“I think there’s an emphasis on weak contact, whether that’s a weak fly ball or ground balls,” Morton said of how a pitcher can combat a hitter-friendly ballpark. “I had a theory about smaller parks, and the ground that outfielders have to cover, it’s minimized when you have a smaller park. So if you can pitch to contact and pitch to weak contact, especially ground balls, I think you’ll do really well. Knock on wood, but I’ve had some success at Great American Ball Park, Great American Small Park. I think some of the reason why that is is because if I’m inducing weak contact or ground balls.”

When he was at his absolute best, during the 2011 season when he decided it was time to adapt or die to stick in the Pirates rotation, Morton was doing just that, inducing weak contact and ground balls – and not giving up home runs. Morton’s home run rate (0.31 HR-per-9 innings) was the best in baseball, better than Phillies Cy Young winner Roy Halladay (0.39), whom Morton actually tried to mimic that season.

And did a remarkable job doing so, too.

“The Halladay thing was the tuck, the signature move,” Morton said. “The arm slot is what solidified the repeatability and that movement to my sinker. I think when I did that I found my body was staying back really well. I don’t know if I can quantify what exactly was happening.

“Since then, I stopped doing it in 2012 because I had elbow surgery (June 2012). … I think there’s been a decent amount of pitches since then and I can still say I’m a ground ball pitcher. Maybe I’ll bring it back, who knows. Right now, it’s probably a last option.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21