If They Can Do It, Then Why Not Chuck?

The career transformation of Charlie Morton has become a polarizing topic, both among the Pittsburgh Pirates’ fanbase as well as the media landscape on both the local and national levels.

Morton, who was 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA last season, was sent to the disabled list in late May and then assigned to Class AAA Indianapolis to regain his confidence and salvage his career. He was recalled in late August and recorded a 4.26 ERA in his last six starts.

Pirates minor league pitching coordinator Jim Benedict sat down with Morton during Spring Training this year and proposed something that would change everything: lowering Morton’s delivery from overhand to a three-quarters diagonal delivery and adding a sinker to his mix of pitches, totally revamping his pitching motion and repertoire to resemble that of Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay.

Morton has been spectacular so far this season with a 5-2 record and a 2.61 ERA in nine starts. Seven of those starts have been quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed). However, in those seven starts, the Pirates are only 4-3, scoring four runs or less in all three losses.

Morton's rebuilt delivery and arsenal have helped him to become a dominant pitcher so far in 2011.

While the video evidence of the similarity between Morton and Halladay is pretty self-explanatory, some are still skeptical of whether or not this trend will continue. (Many of them reside in the Pittsburgh area, where skepticism abounds in droves these days.)

But I present to you the following examples: two men who experienced situations similar to Morton’s and witnessed a career resurgence after being demoted to the minors to make some significant changes.

Pitcher A, age 23 at the time, had a 4-7 record with a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings in the majors before being sent all the way down to Class A at the beginning of the following season to reconfigure his delivery, adding a repertoire of pitches that had both vertical and horizontal movement. After making said adjustments he slowly rose through the system to return to the majors and post a 5-3 record with a 3.16 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 105.1 innings by the end of the year.

Since then he has a winning percentage of .686, a 3.01 ERA, two Cy Young Awards and has been named an All-Star eight times.

Pitcher B, then 25, was a starter having already undergone Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his torn elbow. His results as a starting pitcher in the major were mixed, causing him to be shuttled back and forth between the big show and Triple-A.

Patience began to wear thin, insomuch that his team’s general manager was ready to trade him to the Detroit Tigers for David Wells, but changed his mind at the last minute after learning of a sudden spike in the pitcher’s velocity, adding up to 6 mph to top out as high as 96. While nobody could explain the reason for the change in velocity, the pitcher himself simply called it an act of God.

He eventually returned to the major league club and threw a two-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox with 11 strikeouts. However, his success in relief during the postseason convinced the team to convert him to a full-time reliever the following season. He eventually became the team’s closer and never relinquished the role.

One day, while playing catch with a teammate, he accidentally discovered the grip for a cut fastball that moved very sharply toward left-handed hitters. After trying and failing to regain the straight motion his fastball had before, he finally embraced it and began using the pitch in games.

Since the year he began throwing the cut fastball, he has recorded a .559 winning percentage with a 2.02 ERA and 567 saves and has been named to 11 All-Star games.

All it took was a small adjustment for Roy Halladay to eventually become the man simply known as "Doc."

Player A is Halladay in 2000. Pitcher B is Mariano Rivera in 1995.

Which leads me to this question: if these two pitchers can undergo the kind of changes they’ve made and enjoy success because of them, why can’t Morton?

Of course, the obvious answer is sample size. Nine starts with a new delivery does not a dominant pitcher make, which we all should understand. (For the record: those who quote sample size like it’s some cure-all to explain every sudden phenomenon, we non-smug, less-than-know-it-all baseball fans find you quite annoying. Moving on…)

A mixture of divine intervention and one mistake grip helped make "Mo" one of the best closers in the history of the game.

But if such an improvement can be made by Halladay and Lee to become successful and dominant pitchers, who’s to say the same thing couldn’t occur with Morton? Because he’s a Pittsburgh Pirate and not a Toronto Blue Jay or a New York Yankee?

When you package it with that kind of logic, it sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Let’s get something perfectly clear: I’m not polishing off Morton’s NL Cy Young Award or putting him on the mound for the first inning of this year’s All-Star game in Phoenix (although I do consider it a distinct possibility).

I’m simply saying that if these guys can turn it around, and this guy can go from replacement level utility player to league-leading slugger by making a slight adjustment, than maybe the reinvention of Charlie Morton isn’t that far-fetched of a scenario.

Especially if it’s working.

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a pitcher learned how to do something better than the way he previously did it and succeeded, would it?

The Mystery Of Clint Hurdle

Before I venture into this topic let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am a fan of Clint Hurdle. I was quite excited/relieved/satisfied when the Pirates hired him as their manager.

I am a fan of Hurdle’s outgoing and engaging personality, his experience in the game as a well-respected guy and a successful coach, his ability to relate to people (notably, his players), and his nearly too-good-to-be-true upbeat and optimistic demeanor. That combination of personality traits make him a good fit for a ball club that is searching for some positivity in a world of anything but. It also makes him the direct antithesis of John Russell, but I digress.

That said, I have recently seen him as a mystery; a collection of questionable actions and decisions that don’t necessarily add up.

Some of Hurdle's in-game decisions as manager have confused (and angered) the Pirates' fanbase

If you’re a Pirates fan and plugged into the Buccos’ Twitter-sphere, on any given day you’ll see varying degrees of frustration with Hurdle’s propensity for sacrifice bunting. You’ll see the same frustration (but on a lesser scale) with Hurdle’s affinity for aggressive base-running.

It’s the collection of the two I find particularly disturbing. In the best interest of scoring runs, I find it hard to believe a conservative hitting approach that gives away outs, plus an aggressive base-running approach that risks giving away outs could possibly result in a higher run-scoring total for a team that struggled to score runs previously.

The more glaring decision that stunned me came Monday during the Pirates’ loss to the Nationals in Washington. Hurdle brought in reliever Jose Ascanio in a 2-2 game with one out in the seventh inning and a runner on first. Ascanio’s first pitch was crushed by Danny Espinosa for what would be the game-deciding home run.

What’s curious about this scenario is that Hurdle specifically said the day Ascanio was activated off the disabled list and put on the 25-man roster that he would slowly bring Ascanio along and keep him out of high-leverage situations. When the specific question of inserting him in a tie game was raised, Hurdle said he wouldn’t put him in that kind of situation.

Having been there in person to hear what Hurdle said during that pre-game meeting, imagine my surprise to read that in the box score after missing the game on TV.

I guess my point is that given the results we’ve seen so far from some of the decisions he’s made, I believe Hurdle is a much smarter baseball guy than we’ve seen from him in recent days. Perhaps the failure to see that in the results are what befuddles me.

Other views from the cheap seats:

  • Given there is no clear-cut #1 prospect in this year’s Major League Baseball entry draft, I get the feeling regardless of whom the Pirates select: Rice 3B Anthony Rendon, UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole, Virginia LHP Danny Hultzen, or any other name, there will be a contingent of people in Pittsburgh who won’t be happy. So if I’m Neal Huntington or scouting director Greg Smith, I make my decision as if nobody’s paying attention. In fact, perhaps the team should take that approach in a lot of situations. Between top prospect Tony Sanchez signing off Twitter and problems with a local bar’s promotion, clearly they have their share of problems that really wouldn’t be problems if they just learned to ignore outside noise from time to time.
  • Dirk Nowitzki’s 48-point performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was one of the most outstanding postseason scoring exhibitions we’ve seen in a while, Larry Bird-esque even. Throw out his perfect 24-for-24 shooting from the free throw line and 12-for-15 field goal shooting is still quite impressive. But to square up for a combined 39 shots over the course of the game and miss only three times… wow. This is the type of game that many people think Dirk is capable of on a nightly basis, I being one of them. But we’ve also been waiting for a long time to see him do it consistently during the postseason. As a guy who has hashed out a healthy share of criticism for the big guy, I hope he can continue to carry his team in this vein and shed the “soft” tag that has been placed on him for quite some time.
  • At a celebrity golf outing last week I had the chance to interview former Steelers’ kicker Matt Bahr, who played for six different NFL teams over a 17-year span. When asked his opinion on what a solution to the current NFL lockout should be, Bahr said, “Get out on the field. Play the game. That’s my take on the situation.” And he walked away.