RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
||Born: October 12, 1983
Height: 6′ 4″
Drafted: 3rd Round, 95th Overall, 2002
How Acquired: Trade (for Nate McLouth)
High School: Joel Barlow (Redding, CT)
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|The Pirates acquired Morton and two other prospects (CF Gorkys Hernandez and LHP Jeff Locke) in exchange for Nate McLouth. He’d long been recognized as having outstanding stuff, with two-seam and four-seam fastballs registering anywhere from the upper-80s to the mid-90s, as well as a slider, curve and change. Or at least that’s what he threw then. His Pirates’ career has been through some of the most extreme ups and downs of any player in recent team history and now he has a completely different pitching motion and changed repertoire. Aside from his pitching, he can’t hit at all. He’s probably about average at holding runners.
Morton struggled with his control in his rookie league debut, walking 30 in 39.2 IP.
In the advanced rookie Appalachian League, Morton threw more strikes but got hit a lot harder.
In low A, Morton continued to get hit hard. His K rate was decent, but he walked too many.
Back in low A, Morton had a better season. It didn’t show in his ERA and his K rate dropped, but he allowed a lot fewer baserunners.
Morton moved up to high A and continued to struggle. He allowed a lot of HRs (14 in 100 IP) despite pitching in a home park (Myrtle Beach) that severely depressed HRs. His walk and K rates were both poor.
The Braves moved Morton mostly to the bullpen in AA and he pitched a little better, cutting his WHIP and ERA. His walk and K rates improved, but still weren’t good. He did cut down dramatically on longballs, allowing only three in 79.2 IP.
Had outstanding first half in AAA, the first time he had pitched well as a pro. All his peripherals improved dramatically and opponents hit only .181 against him with no HRs in 79 innings. He didn’t have much of a platoon split in AAA, either in 2008 or 2009. He came up to the Braves in mid-June and mostly struggled through 15 starts. Opponents hit 273/362/464 against him. His problems were mostly with left-handed hitters, who pounded him for a .944 OPS, while right-handed hitters had only a .708 OPS against him. He was hampered by shoulder soreness.
Morton returned to AAA in 2009 and continued to pitch very well there. He cut down even further on walks, while his K rate dropped a little. He again kept the ball in the park, allowing three HRs. After the trade, he made a tuneup start at Indianapolis, throwing seven shutout innings, and then joined the Pirates’ rotation. He had a start or two delayed by a mild hamstring strain that may or may not have affected his pitching. His overall numbers with the Pirates were heavily skewed by one disastrous start in Chicago in which he allowed ten earned runs in one inning. Without that start, his ERA with the Pirates was 3.66. Of course, it’s easy to make a player look good by cherry-picking stats to exclude, but that one start shows how factors that have little to do with a player’s ability can affect short-term stats. Pirates’ ex-manager John Russell often seemed obsessed with managing the workload of his bullpen, to the point where he’d sacrifice chances of winning in order to keep the bullpen “fresh.” Another manager, or a manager on a team in a pennant race, probably would have relieved Morton much earlier. For the Pirates, opponents hit 276/354/407 against Morton.
For Morton, 2010 turned into a nightmare that symbolized the Pirates’ horrific season. From the start of the season, he was utterly awful nearly every time out. What made it especially baffling was that, at least initially, he seemed to dominate hitters at times. In his first start, for instance, he fanned five of the first six batters he faced (the other reached on an error) and began with two scoreless innings. He then allowed eight runs before getting knocked out in the fourth. Things continued like that through ten starts in which Morton accumulated historically bad numbers. In every game the root of the problem seemed to be different. It’d be a couple bad pitches, some bad luck, poor control, too many or too few fastballs, catching too much of the plate or not challenging the hitters enough. The Pirates struggled to find excuses to keep him in the rotation. In the end, they put him on the DL with a phantom injury and sent him to AAA for “rehab.” He didn’t pitch very well there, so the team eventually used his last option to keep him there through late August. Morton came back up when the Pirates needed a starter in late August and stayed in the rotation through September. He got bombed in his first two starts, but afterward gradually improved, relatively speaking. He eventually managed a few actual, good starts, including a strong, nine-strikeout performance in his last start against a decent Marlins’ lineup. Interestingly, his velocity improved during September, until he was sitting around 94 in his last few starts. Oddly, his was and K rates were his career best. Opponents had a .908 OPS against him, but his .361 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) indicated that he probably suffered a little from bad luck.
Amazingly, Morton turned things around, with an ERA+ of exactly 100. He did it with a completely new motion, a three-quarters delivery that precisely duplicates Roy Halladay’s and led to one of the highest groundball rates in the majors, 58.5%. Along with changing his motion, he largely eliminated his slider and went heavily with a sinker, going with changeups and breaking balls less than a quarter of the time, compared to about 40% in 2010. His velocity dropped a little, from an average of 93 in 2010 to 91-92. As is typical of low-strikeout groundball pitchers, Morton gave up a lot of hits. He also struggled with his control in some games, but he compensated with the league’s lowest HR rate, 0.3 per nine innings. He also benefited from a DP% of 15%, which was 50% above the NL average. Morton’s season had three distinct segments: he had an ERA of 2.51 in April and May, slumped to 6.44 in June and July, then rebounded to 3.43 in August and September. The Pirates had him skip some starts periodically over the last four months and it seemed to help sometimes. In fact, his ERA differed dramatically depending on how much rest he had: it was 5.81 with four days’ rest, 2.99 with five days, and 1.38 with six days or more. It was the first time he’d been in a major league rotation more or less all season, so he may still need to build up stamina. He had an enormous platoon split: left-handed batters hit 364/460/500 against him, right-handed hitters 220/289/278.
The big question for Morton in 2012 figured to be whether he could repeat improve upon his 2011 performance. There seemed to be some belief that he was very lucky in 2011, but his FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.77 didn’t really support that and his BABIP of .320, if anything, was a little high. There’s also the fact that he was in his first year with a completely new motion. He clearly had adjustments to make, mainly in getting his walks down and coming up with some solution for left-handed batters. Complicating matters, though, was the fact that Morton had surgery on his left hip to repair a labrum tear. The announcement was a complete surprise. According to the Pirates, the problem bothered him off and on throughout the 2011 season, which made his turnaround all the more impressive. Morton’s recovery proceeded ahead of schedule. He appeared very close to being ready at the end of spring training, but the Pirates didn’t need a fifth starter until mid-April due to off-days. They put Morton on the disabled list at the end of spring training. He made one very good rehab start and then joined the Pirates in mid-April. He pitched well initially but began to struggle, with velocity down more than two mph. He went on the disabled list after nine starts and had Tommy John surgery in June.
Morton was widely regarded as a non-tender candidate after the 2012 season, but the Pirates signed him to a $2M deal for 2013, avoiding arbitration. He recovered quickly from the TJ surgery and began a rehab assignment in mid-April. In mid-June, he joined the Pirates’ rotation. Surprisingly, he pitched reasonably well from the start and in August was probably the team’s best starter, with a 2.68 ERA for the month. His velocity, averaging about 93 and sometimes reaching 96, was the best it had been in the majors, although it was down to 90-92 in his one playoff start. He also had the highest groundball rate of his career (62.9%), easily the highest of any pitcher in MLB with 100+ IP; and the highest K rate of his career. His extreme platoon split continued, as left-handed hitters hit 314/427/422 against him. Right-handed hitters batted only 222/263/286 against him. He led the NL in hit batsmen with 16.
Morton was eligible for arbitration after the 2013 season, but signed a three-year, $21M extension with one option year for another $9.5M. For the first three and a half months of the 2014 season, he was arguably the team’s best starter. Going into July 12, he had a 3.10 ERA. After that, he made eight starts with an ERA of 5.32, and his velocity dropped by a couple mph. The source of the problem initially was described as a hernia that caused him increasing discomfort as each game wore on. Morton went on the disabled list in August, then did one rehab start at Altoona near the end of the season. He continued to experience discomfort and it seemed like that he wouldn’t return, but he started against Boston in mid-September and threw five shutout innings. He still wasn’t healthy, though, although by then the problem was described as being with his right hip. Just before the end of the season, the Pirates announced Morton would undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip and placed him on the 60-day DL.
In some ways, 2014 was Morton’s best season. He had a career-best WHIP and K/9. When he had problems, it was generally with his control. He had the fifth-highest groundball rate in the majors and the tenth-lowest HR rate. He made significant progress with left-handed hitters, holding them to a .243 average. He also led the majors in hit batsmen with 19, despite missing roughly a quarter of the season.
The Pirates’ front office has stuck by Morton through many trials, and considerable fan criticism, but their faith seems to have been justified. It’ll be tested again in 2015, as the hip surgery has a typical recovery time of 6-8 months. That means Morton could be out until as late as mid-season even with a problem-free recovery. He’s recovered well from previous surgeries, so hopefully he won’t be out that long. Although some fans retain a bizarre hostility to Morton, he’s a vital part of the team’s rotation.
|2017: $9,500,000 team option ($1,000,000 buyout)
2013: $2,000,000 (avoided arbitration)
2012: $2,445,000 (avoided arbitration)
|Signing Bonus: $415,000
MiLB Debut: 2002
MLB Debut: 6/14/2008
MLB FA Eligible: 2016
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2007
Options Remaining: 0 (USED: 2008, 2009, 2010)
MLB Service Time: 5.010
|June 4, 2002: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 3rd round, 95th overall pick; signed on June 19.
November 20, 2007: Contract purchased by the Atlanta Braves.
June 3, 2009: Acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Atlanta Braves along with Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke in exchange for Nate McLouth.