Sleeper Alert: Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton never lit up prospect lists nor was he once deemed an impact player in the Atlanta Braves minor league system. Last year he found himself traded away to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal and he made 18 starts in Pittsburgh. These 18 starts were encouraging and Morton figures to slot into the back end of the Pirates starting rotation this year. He will be 26-years-old this season and now it’s time for Morton to run with a consistent starting opportunity at the big league level.

It appears that Morton is ready for this opportunity. He steadily climbed through the Braves system and since 2008 he has mightily improved his once very shaky control. Morton overcame plaguing walk rates that consistently sat in the mid fours and a few seasons where he split or spent more time in the bull pen than in a starting role. He’s also displayed a good knack for keeping the ball on the ground. Morton’s sinking fastball has induced good ground ball rates (58% and a silly 63% in AAA during 08 and 09) in the upper minors and big leagues.

Morton’s recently harnessed his command in Triple-A where he posted a 3.28 BB/9 rate in 2008 and a 2.23 BB/9 in 2009. He’s also shown a strong tendency of preventing the home run. In 2008 he didn’t surrender a single home run in 79 Triple-A innings. His average home run rate per nine over eight minor league seasons in 0.5 and save for a brutal 2006 season (1.26 HR/9) he has never had a HR/9 rate above 0.5 in the minor leagues. Morton’s ground ball and home run prevention tendencies are quite appealing.

In 2008 Morton made his major league debut in Atlanta and it didn’t go so well. He was afforded 16 appearances (15 starts) and he was tarred and feathered for a 5.14 FIP in 75 innings. His improved control disappeared (4.94 BB/9) and for the first time in a long time he surrendered more home runs than usual (1.08 HR/9). His .304 BABIP was not out of line but his 60.7 LOB% figured to improve.

Morton was dispatched back to Triple-A to start 2009 and he made the most of the opportunity in 10 starts before the trade. He had a 2.94 FIP and he turned in his best walk rate (2.23). Then came the trade to Pittsburgh and this time around Morton prevented the home run in the majors like he had in the minors (0.65 HR/9) and exhibited passable control (3.71 BB/9) with a 5.75 strikeout per nine that could use more improvement. His BABIP and LOB% looked very normal in Pittsburgh. He had a 4.15 FIP and 4.55 ERA. But that ERA would stand at 3.66 if you subtract his abysmal one inning start in Chicago on August 14 where he surrendered ten earned runs.

Morton’s strong ground ball rates have translated to the big leagues as well. During his rough go round in Atlanta he still had a 50% ground ball rate and last year in Pittsburgh it sat at 49%. It appears that he’s got the ability to have an above-average ground ball rate and possesses an average to slightly above-average ceiling on controlling his pitches within the strike zone in the big leagues.

The sinking fastball Morton utilized in 2009 has strikingly similar movement and velocity to the fastball that fellow sinkerballer Mike Pelfrey used in 2009. Pelfrey’s ground ball rate was 51% last year and is 50% over his big league career and the similiar movement and velocity on their pitches is no coincidence. Their sinkers stay on the ground.

The Pirates had a solid defense in 2009 that helped their pitchers out. Their team UZR checked in at 30.1 but there was a lot of turnover on the field last year. Pitchers will miss the slick fielding Jack Wilson up the middle but Ronny Cedeno appears close to an average defender at shortstop (according to UZR but The Fans Scouting Report thinks he’s better) and Akinori Iwamura is slightly above average at second base. Pirates pitchers better be hoping last years nasty injury has no effect on his defense. Andy Laroche is a defensive asset at the hot corner and Andrew McCutchen will be a solid defender in center field this year with an improved Lastings Milledge in left. There are definitely some capable gloves that will be helping out Morton and Pirates pitchers in 2010.

The downsides with Morton are his lackluster strikeout rate and the troubles he has had with left handed batters at the big league level. Morton will be no top of the rotation starter by any means but his true strikeout skill may lie between the 5.75 K/9 in the majors and 7.65 and 8.20 K/9 rates he had in Triple-A over the past two seasons. Morton has been dinged for not having a big out pitch. Baseball America did rate his curveball as the best in the Braves system in 2005 and last year in Pittsburgh it had a nifty pitch value at 4.1 runs above average. This is an encouraging sign.

Morton’s platoon split thus far at the big league level is a concern. Last year lefties had a .923 OPS against him in the big leagues and a .939 OPS versus him in 2008 with Atlanta. Things check out nicely against right handers.

After sifting through Morton’s splits in the minor leagues (dating back to 2005) there was nothing alarming about his performances against lefties. His absence of a third pitch may be a big factor with his struggles against lefties at the big league level but it’s possible the numbers may even out as the sample (321 MLB at-bats) increases over time.

Morton’s sinking fastball, low home run rate, and improved control make for an intriguing package. He held his own in the big leagues last year and there’s reason for optimism in 2010 especially behind a solid defense. He’s been overlooked and if his numbers improve against lefties his value can only shoot up.

See how he fares at the start of the season and if you’re in need of a starting pitcher Morton could be your guy especially during a hot streak. He’ll likely be available in all formats and could become a helpful starter on your team that seemingly came out of nowhere.

We hoped you liked reading Sleeper Alert: Charlie Morton by Dan Budreika!

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Morton’s actually got some pretty good stuff, so I would be surprised if his K rates do not improve. He had a bit of a breakthrough in the AFL in 2007-he learned how to control his change-up-and that carried him through a great stint in AAA in 2008.

The problem for Morton has always been confidence. The guy has 2 plus pitches and a very good curveball, but he tends to be a nibbler. Hence, the previously high walk rates and the inconsistent results for the Pirates in 2009.

He’ll probably be stream-worthy, at least.