Facing Elimination, the St. Louis Cardinals Draw Pittsburgh Pirates Righty Charlie Morton

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Cardinals face the Pirates' sinkerballer with their backs against the wall

The St. Louis Cardinals trail the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 in the best-of-five NLDS. The Cardinals look to keep their season alive and force the Pirates back to St. Louis for Game 5. In order to do so, the Redbirds must beat sinkerballer Charlie Morton.

It's somewhat amazing that Morton is able to make a start at the MLB level this October. After the 2011 season came to a close, Morton underwent surgery to repair his labrum after missing time earlier in the year with the dreaded "fatigue." Morton was able to recover from the procedure in time to start April 14, 2012 when he tallied five innings against the San Francisco Giants. Morton notched nine starts and 50 1/3 innings last year before hitting the 60-day disabled list on May 30 with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which necessitated Tommy John surgery.

Morton recovered from Tommy John surgery and pitched his way up the Pittsburgh minor-league ranks as part of his rehabilitation. On June 13, 2013, Morton returned to the Pirates and made his first MLB start of the year. He made 20 starts this year and threw 116 innings. During those innings, Morton was as effective as he has been at any point in his career.

MORTON vs. NATIONAL LEAGUE STARTER AVERAGES (2013)

SP

K%

BB%

GB%

LD%

FB%

HR/FB

LOB%

BABIP

ERA

FIP

xFIP

Morton

17.2%

7.3%

62.9%

18.4%

18.7%

9.2%

72.8%

.306

3.26

3.60

3.69

NL

18.9%

7.4%

44.6%

21.3%

34.1%

10.8%

72.6%

.295

4.01

3.95

3.91

Morton is the type of pitcher that is integral to a team's success over the 162-game haul of the regular season. While Morton's line is not as impressive as A.J. Burnett's or Francisco Liriano's, he has been a solid middle-of-the-rotation National League starter as he defies his fielding-independent stats. By now you are likely familiar with the "minus" pitching stats, which take a player's ERA, FIP, or xFIP, and scale them to 100 while adjusting for park factors. The further below 100, the better; the further above, the worse. For 2013, Morton posted a 90 ERA-, 98 FIP-, and 98 xFIP. Essentially, Morton's strikeouts, walks, and homers allowed make him 2% better than average while the timing of his runs allowed has been roughly 10% better than the average NL starter.

As you can see from his stratospheric groundball rate (GB%) in the chart above, Morton has shown a proclivity for inducing them. Over the last three years, Morton's GB% has been 56.5% or higher. This season's 62.9% is by far the highest of his career, during which opposing batters have hit grounders 54.8% of the time. In 2013, this is because Morton has relied on a sinker.

Using the Pitch F/X data available at the wonderful BrooksBaseball.net, we get an idea of how Morton has deployed his repertoire of pitches. He relies predominantly on his sinker (57.39%) and curveball (21.83%) while sprinkling in fourseamers (14.03%) and changeups (6.40%). According to Brooks Baseball, he's also thrown a handful of sliders/cutters.

Looking at the breakdown by situation, Morton has some definite tendencies.

MORTON PITCH USAGE vs. LEFT-HANDED BATTERS (2013)

Count

Sinker

Curve

Fourseam

Change

Slider

Cutter

All

42%

27%

20%

11%

1%

0%

First Pitch

49%

13%

35%

4%

0%

0%

Batter Ahead

58%

9%

15%

17%

0%

0%

Even

44%

23%

26%

7%

0%

0%

Pitcher Ahead

18%

56%

15%

10%

1%

0%

Two Strikes

25%

51%

16%

6%

1%

0%

MORTON PITCH USAGE vs. RIGHT-HANDED BATTERS (2013)

Count

Sinker

Curve

Fourseam

Change

Slider

Cutter

All

72%

17%

8%

2%

0%

0%

First Pitch

81%

2%

16%

1%

0%

0%

Batter Ahead

92%

4%

4%

1%

0%

0%

Even

78%

7%

12%

3%

0%

0%

Pitcher Ahead

51%

41%

7%

2%

0%

0%

Two Strikes

43%

47%

8%

1%

0%

0%

The Cardinals' success against Morton in this afternoon's Game 4 elimination game will depend on how well the righty is working his sinker, especially early int he count. It is Morton's bread-and-butter, especially against righthanded batters. Can the Cardinals punch the sinker to the outfield grass or will struck sinkers find infield gloves?

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