Reading Between The Seams: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (Part 2 of 6)

Part 1: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (3/2/18)
Part 2: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (3/5/18)
Part 3: Lance Lets It All Eat (3/6/18)
Part 4: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (3/7/18)
Part 5: Hall Of Fame Hunger (3/8/18)
Part 6: The Cole Train’s Tracks (3/9/18)


Okay, all done. Article over. Go home.

…no? Still here?

Okay then.

Leading Off

We’ve all heard the feel good story about Charlie Morton reclaiming his injury-stunted career from the trash heap under the loving gaze of Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch and how he’s thrived under the tutelage of Brent Strom, at this point. Charlie Morton was signed quietly in November of 2016 to a two year contract worth $7 million per season and earned the full $14 million in his first year in Houston by striking out 10.00 batters per nine innings, walking 3.07 batters per nine (a 3.26 K/BB mark) with a career-best 1.19 WHIP and career bests (excluding his seventeen innings with the Phillies in 2016) in FIP (3.46), xFIP (3.58), fWAR (3.3), strikeouts (163), ERA- (86), FIP- (79), and K% (26.4%, which is almost 10% better than his career average and almost 8% higher than his previous career-best…again, excluding his seventeen innings in 2016) and following that up by winning not one but two Game Sevens in the postseason. That number, seven, seems to show up a lot for Morton – be it the year (2017), the fact that he won 14 (7 x 2) games, lost seven games, the aforementioned Game Seven victories, and other examples that may or may not appear in this piece.

A large part of his success came as he was able to reverse his career trend of allowing tons and tons of hard contact to left-handed batters – his splits changed so much that he was actually more effective against lefties than he was against right-handed batters in 2017. And he did all this by cutting down on his famous ground ball percentage – the point of genesis for his “Ground Chuck” nickname – and focusing more on missing bats than ground-pounding contact, as his GB% fell from a four year range where he was posting marks as high as 62.9% all the way to 51.8%. He traded some ground contact – at the slight expense of his “Ground Chuck” reputation – in favor of more bats missed, and as a result he had the best year of his career.

But is it something he can repeat? Or – and now we’re just getting greedy – is it possible he can be even better?

You betcha.

The Arsenal

Morton has mostly been a two pitch pitcher in his brief stint in Houston so far, focusing primarily on a two-seam fastball that he runs up to the plate at around 95 miles per hour on average – one of the highest average fastball velocities in the Major Leagues – and offsets it with a devastating curve ball that has among the best spin rates in the majors, hovering a tick over 2,800 RPMs consistently. He uses variations on the fastball (four-seam, cut, and split-fingered) as changes of pace, and every once in a while he tosses in a change up to keep everyone honest.

You know this. You watched last year, too. I know. I get it. But we’re going to break down the tool box anyway, so we can then move on to how he can be as good or better in 2018.
Thanks to a wonderful site, pitcherlist.com, we have good quality gifs of basically every type of pitch that every pitcher in Major League Baseball threw last year.

Here’s a choice-cut gif of Charlie Morton’s two-seam sinking fastball:

Here’s another look, courtesy of baseballsavant.com. This time, Charlie Morton is striking out a supremely talented young left-handed hitter for the Boston Red Sox, Andrew Benintendi, at Fenway Park on September 29 of last year. It’s a 96.5 mile per hour fastball with nasty movement:

The problem with fastballs – especially sinking fastballs – is that hitters are hunting them and can hit them with authority, even when you touch 99 miles per hour, as Morton did on multiple occasions this year. We’ll touch more on that phenomenon in an article later this week, but just know that fastballs get hit, and hit hard…unless you have another elite pitch to pair with them.

Cue the deuce.

Charlie Morton’s curve ball:

Here’s a look, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, at Charlie Morton’s spin rate in the seventh game of the World Series, when he became the first pitcher since Bob Turley in 1958 to win a World Series game seven with four or more innings of relief:

morton curveMorton throws his curve ball (now, after significantly upping the pitch’s usage since his days in Atlanta and Pittsburgh) a whopping 28% of the time, and the pitch doesn’t disappoint: in 2017, it posted a 15.7 pitch value rating, which is the highest rating any pitch of Charlie Morton’s has received in his entire career. He held opponents to a .111 average and a 58.5% contact rate on the pitch, and opponents’ wRC+ against the pitch was 17. That’s not a typo – seventeen. That’s their wRC+ against his curve.

Here’s a brief look at Charlie’s cutter, which he added to combat left-handed batters and which he throws about 11% of the time:

It misses bats well when he locates it, but he still doesn’t have quite the feel for the pitch that he could, and it gets hit hard when batters do make contact against it – Morton allowed a .250 ISO (.536 SLG%) against the pitch in 2017. One would assume that increasing his feel for the cutter has to be one of Charlie’s priorities over the offseason.
One more quick look, this time at his split-fingered fastball:

This is a very interesting pitch because Morton doesn’t throw it much – only about 6% of the time in 2017 – and because it isn’t rated terribly well, statistically (it has a -2.2 pitch value)…but the pitch in this gif is a nasty one, and some of the diminished statistical performance can be chalked up to sample size and bad luck (.382 BABIP against the pitch), as the pitcherlist.com site rightly points out. There is value in this pitch, and perhaps there is a little more value than has yet been plumbed – it helped put the ball on the ground 47% of the time, and no hitter hit it for a home run despite Morton throwing it 147 times in 2017, per baseballsavant.com. Not since Roger Clemens (and before him, Shane Reynolds) have the Astros rostered a starting pitcher so talented who featured a split-fingered pitch prominently, and it would be fun if Charlie could find a way to utilize this pitcher to a greater extent successfully in 2018.

Now that we’ve looked some at the repertoire, how can Charlie Morton repeat (or even improve upon) his performance going forward?

The Road Ahead

There are some pitch usage and tunneling aspects that would be interesting to see implemented a little more effectively this year – the first would be that it would be nice to see a few more well-located four-seam fastballs up in the zone from Charlie. Here’s a look, brought to you by brooksbaseball.net, at Charlie Morton’s percentage of whiffs against the four-seam fastball in 2017:

Charlie_Morton___percentage_whiffs_against_four_seam

The idea here, as many Astros fans are aware now after years of articles here and elsewhere on the subject, is to create a tunneling effect with Morton’s very-good curve ball by locating some more four seam fastballs up in the zone, on a similar plane to that which his curve begins in. His four-seam fastball only say a wRC+ of 72 posted against it last year – which is far below his career mark for the pitch in this regard, and far below anything it was with Philly in 2016 or Pittstburgh in 2015 and which gives one the impression that the Astros are already getting him to tunnel it more effectively, but it seems the pitch can be used even better (and slightly more often) in this regard.

Another potentially-beneficial thing or two for Charlie would seem to be increased feel and command of the cut fastball and improved usage of the split-fingered pitch, both of which were mentioned above briefly.

But the very biggest thing for Charlie, in order to be more effective in 2018 and perhaps be the only number five starter in the sport to post a four-win season?

Health.

Morton had the best year of his career in 2017 largely because he spent more time actually on the field this year than he ever had before. He pitched better than 146 innings, and has said this offseason that his goal is thirty or more starts in 2018 – and there is no doubt that, at his rate stat levels and peripheral performances from 2017, Charlie Morton over 30-plus starts is a hugely valuable pitcher. In fact, one would likely feel confident in saying that he’d be the best fifth starter in baseball.

On top of everything else, Morton got better as the year went on. Consider these first and second half splits:

Charlie Morton: 2017 First Half vs. Second Half Splits

Season Monthly K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB% K-BB% AVG WHIP BABIP LOB% FIP xFIP
2017 1st Half 9.61 3.53 2.72 1.13 24.9% 9.2% 15.7% .248 1.34 .313 77.7% 4.12 3.74
2017 2nd Half 10.30 2.71 3.80 0.65 27.6% 7.3% 20.3% .208 1.08 .280 68.9% 2.96 3.46

Charlie Morton improved across the board as the season wore on in 2017.

In fact, it can be taken a step further. Charlie Morton spent a some time following his May 24th start against the Tigers on the disabled list with a strained right lat muscle – he actually missed the entire month of June. From the time of his triumphant return on July seventh (told you that number might get pointed out again…) through the end of the season? Here are the results:

Charlie Morton, from July 7th 2017 through the end of the season

Date Range GS W L IP HR BB SO K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP
7/7/17 – 9/29/17 15 9 4 89.0 7 27 98 9.91 2.73 0.71 .274 70.8% 52.2% 9.5% 3.34 3.12 3.58

Charlie Morton pitched like Justin Verlander from July through the end of the year.

As you can see, those are some Verlander-esque numbers over three months or so. Also painting a rosy picture are his xStats, which you can read more about here. Morton improved his xBABIP, his xBACON, his bbFIP, his xOBA, his xOBA+, and his EV score in 2017, and the projections are bullish that he can at least approximate a lot of his rate stats again in 2018. You can check Morton’s xStats yourself here.

All Charlie Morton has done so far this spring is report to camp in great shape and fire off gas at 97, 98 miles per hour out of the gate. He’s showing no signs of slowing down now, and if he makes a couple of minor adjustments, he might be even better this year than he was last year. For the ghost of Ground Chuck, everything truly is coming up sevens.