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July 11, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Buy or Sell: Charlie Morton

by Wilson Karaman


For those of you who loyally read my weekly Starting Pitcher Planner column (which will return at its regularly scheduled time next week, incidentally), it should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of Charlie Morton’s work. And lately that’s been an easier position to embrace, as the sinkerballer has turned in an outstanding stretch since the calendar flipped to June. Over his past seven starts he’s thrown 45 innings of 2.80 ERA, 1.02 WHIP baseball—and that includes one poor start against the Cubs that singlehandedly accounts for 42 percent of the runs he’s allowed during the period. But what is perhaps most interesting about this string of starts is that he has bucked a career strikeout rate that hovered just north of 6.0 K/9 to whiff 49 batters across those 45 frames. Morton emerged from his Tommy John cocoon as a consistent back-end starter in medium-depth leagues last year, and looked to be on a nice path towards reprising the role again through the first couple months of this season. But the strikeout rate gains over an increasingly intriguing sample size suddenly make him a much more attention-grabbing option for mixed leaguers. So what’s going on? Where did all these whiffs come from, and is this a sustainable development?

Let’s start with the usual suspects. Quick glances at Morton’s velocity and pitch movement by month don’t yield much in the way of explanation. After seeing his two-seam velocity peak at 92.9 miles an hour in May he’s actually seen that number drop down 92.1 in June and 91.8 so far in two July starts. So that’s not moving in the right direction at all. And speaking of movement, when we take a peek at his horizontal movement we find that after manipulating about 10 1/2 inches of horizontal movement on his two-seamer back in May he’s down to about 9 1/4 inches now. Huh. So basically, Morton’s hot stretch coincides with lower velocity and less movement on his pitches, usually two signs reserved for situations in which a pitcher may be unhealthy or otherwise experiencing a period of unproductivity.

Moving on to some more in-depth data points, our first clue into what’s going on comes with a look at the amount of swings batters are taking against Morton. Here’s the month-by-month progression:


The sub-60-percent swing rates on pitches inside the zone are a career low for Morton, meaning he’s been able to generate a surplus of called strikes that, up until the last six weeks or so, he’d never had the luxury of working with before. The progression also implies that despite hitting an above-average .252 and generating a solid 1.35 WHIP against Morton over the first few weeks of the season, batters began adjusting their approach to swing less often at his pitches, despite Morton working inside the zone at a slightly higher rate during that time. That seems like a strange strategic choice, suggesting it may not be a choice at all. And to that end, check out Morton’s release point data for 2014—vertical release is followed by horizontal release in the charts below:

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article 2014 Futures Game Prev... (07/10)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Lea... (07/10)
Next Column >>
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Wha... (07/11)
Next Article >>
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Wha... (07/11)

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