Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday Throwback - Charlie Morton

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

The 2008 starting staff for the Braves didn't seem terrible on the surface, but it took little time to blow up and with it, any chance the Braves could make a run at the playoffs. Tim Hudson got the opening day start in Washington with Tom Glavine following in the next game. Nate McLouth homered and drove in four in that game - more on him later. After Glavine, you had Jair Jurrjens, Chuck James, and the aging John Smoltz, who missed a start to open the year and many more after April 27. Glavine also missed a few starts leading to Jeff Bennett. Ugh. Jo-Jo Reyes replaced Smoltz which is about as far as you can possibly go from different sides of the spectrum. After James went down, Jorge Campillo was next in line. This is depressing just writing about...

Morton doesn't understand when he's supposed to cover home
Scott Cunningham | Getty Images Sport
After Glavine got hurt again, the next in line was Charlie Morton. A right-hander out of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut, Morton was the third round pick by the Braves in 2002. That third round only gave baseball Curtis Granderson, the sad Elijah Dukes, and Dan Ortmeier. You might not know the last name, but he was a great pinch hitter for me in Out of the Park. What? This is my blog, dammit.

Morton wasn't much of a prospect before a strong run in the Arizona Fall League in 2007. Over 21 innings, he K'd 20 to just eight walks and was touched up for just 15 hits. He continued his strong run with 79 innings with Richmond in which he kept his ERA around 2, K'd 72, and allowed the same amount of homeruns that he hit that season (clearly zero because pitchers can't hit homers). The Braves, desperate as hell as you may have noticed, called up Morton and said "go get 'em, kid." He won his first start on June 14, 2008 against the Angels, but was often either kind of "meh" or just bad during his forced call-up. In five of his 15 starts, he failed to go five innings. His greatest outing with the Braves came on my birthday, August 7. He scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings in Arizona, getting his third-of-four wins. His next three games - 9.2 ING, 16 H, 9 R, 9 BB, 10 K.

Frank Wren made starting pitching a priority entering 2009 and added Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Kenshin Kawakami - ordered by quality of pitching. Kris Medlen would replace an ineffective Reyes before being replaced himself by the strong rookie Tommy Hanson. Toward September, the Braves welcomed back Hudson. But what about Morton? After failing to beat out Reyes in camp, Morton headed to Gwinnett and was very strong for the G-Braves. In his final eight starts with Gwinnett, he gave up a run or less in seven of them, including a seven-hit shutout of Syracuse on May 29. That would be his final start in the Braves system.

Atlanta needed help offensively. While the pitching was definitely improved, the weak hitting of Kelly Johnson, epic failure of Garret Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur deciding to play like Jeff Francoeur led the Braves to search for help. Martin Prado helped with the issues at second base, but they still needed a center fielder because Jordan Schafer is a few things, but a starting center fielder in the major leagues is not one of them. With that in mind, the Braves packaged a trio of players (Morton, Jeff Locke, and Gorkys Hernandez) in a trade with the Pirates to get McLouth, who I profiled in this series back in April. Problem solved and everyone lived to love this trade.

Well, not so much, but McLouth was kinda decent in 2009...

After seven scoreless in a game against the Lehigh Valley for Indianapolis, the Pirates brought Morton to the majors to make his first start against Jurrjens and the Braves. He left after just one inning with an injury - this will become a theme. He returned ten days later and would serve as the fifth starter for the Pirates for the rest of the year. He finished the year with better overall numbers than he had with the Braves the previous year.

The next season would be a troublesome one for Morton, who finished 2010 with a 7.57. Not the airplane, the ERA. The Pirates placed him on the DL and sent him to a doctor. Not James Andrews, but a sports psychologist. After getting back on the mound, Morton was sent him to AAA to try to get him going and in his credit, his September numbers were not as awful. He would build on the mini-success to end 2010 and would set a new personal high in innings with 171.2 the following season. His big year included a pitching style change that Shelby Miller would later adopt. Morton utilized his 2-seamer over the 4-seamer, which turned him into a groundball pitcher seemingly overnight. The Pirates named him their "Breakout Player of the Year" and he had a 3.83 ERA with a pair of complete games and a shutout. He also was handed the moniker "Ground Chuck."  After the season, Morton opted for surgery to repair a torn labrum.

His 2012 started late and ended early as by June, it became clear Morton needed more surgery - this time, it was our old friend Tommy John. Almost a year to the date of that surgery, he was activated off the DL in 2013 and finished the year strong with 20 starts, a 1.28 WHIP, and his first league-leading effort in a statistical category - 16 hit batters! Regardless, it was a good season for Morton.

Over the last two seasons, Morton has stayed fairly healthy (for him) and just made his 22nd start of this season in a stinker against the Rockies, though the Pirates still won by six. All in all, Morton is just kinda good enough that you feel like you'd still like to have in the middle of the rotation (4.10 career FIP), but just not good enough to miss all that much. Still, many of us would take the many injuries of Morton over the epic failure of McLouth.

More Thursday Throwbacks
Freddy Garcia (2013)
John Thomson (2004-06)
Kent Mercker (1989-95, 2003)

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