The just-completed series against the San Francisco Giants featured two very important pitching starts for the Pirates. On Tuesday night, Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, made his big-league debut. Thursday, Charlie Morton returned to make his first start in over a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Not only is there a lot riding on the success of these two pitchers in terms of the fate of the 2013 team, but they figure to be important pieces for the Pirates rotation in the years ahead.
On the surface, the two outings appear to very different:
Cole's debut drew over 30,000 vocal and energized fans to the park, and the team responded with one of its best games of the year, scoring eight runs and playing solid defense. Cole contributed to his own run prevention by pounding the strike zone with fastball after fastball, drawing cheers each time. The first inning set the stage for rookie's fine evening, as Cole struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches and then stranded two runners after allowing two hits. In his first Pirates at bat, Cole helped his own cause by scoring the first two Pirate runs with a single, his first hit since high school. The Pirates went on to win 8-2.
On the other hand, Morton's start drew a healthy but noticeably less engaged crowd of 22,000 to the North Shore, and the team played one its worst offensive and defensive games behind him. (The Pirates committed a season-high three errors). Morton walked the first hitter he faced, hit the second, and then gave up a ground ball single to Buster Posey that scored a run. He then got out of the inning, striking out two of the next three hitters. In his first at bat Morton popped out to second. The Pirates ended up getting drubbed 10-0.
However if one digs a little deeper into the numbers, Morton's starts looks to look a little better in light of Cole's. This is not to suggest that Cole's wasn't a success, rather the point is Morton's start may have been slightly more encouraging than it initially appeared.
Let's start with batted ball types: (I include MLB averages just for perspective)
Morton induced a lot of ground balls and did not allow a line drive. Both Cole and Morton coaxed 11 ground balls out of the Giants, but only two of Cole's found a hole, while six of Morton's did. I do not recall the ground balls against Morton being hit noticeably harder than those off of Cole, but that is anecdotal.
Morton accumulated five strikeouts over his five innings pitched, while Cole picked up two.
The BABIP statistic is dramatically different between the two starts. Some of that may be due to luck on ground balls but, of course, some of that may be a consequence of Cole working from ahead more frequently than Morton (Cole's strike percentage was an impressive 72.8 percent to Morton's 62.7 percent) and thus getting softer contact. Again, anecdotally, I didn't notice much of a difference, however.
The ERA/FIP/xFIP slashes for the two starters' breakdown as follows:
Cole 2.84 / 2.91 / 4.48
Morton 3.60 / 3.46 / 4.60
Most interesting are the SIERA (Skill Interactive Earned Run Average) numbers. As defined by Baseball Prospectus, SIERA "estimates ERA through walk rate, strikeout rate, ground ball rate, eliminating park effects, defense and luck. It accounts for how run prevention improves as ground ball rate increases and declines as more whiffs are accrued." The idea is that over time inducing ground balls and accumulating strikeouts is good for run prevention. On this measure, Morton's start looks pretty good, with a 2.79 SIERA to Cole's 4.54.
So, in the end, there are some positive indicators from Morton's start: a high ground ball percentage, no line drives and a high strikeout rate. The fundamentals for a very good start are there. Morton was hurt by poor defense, perhaps some bad luck and hitting three batters with three of his offspeed pitches - an oddity that is unlikely to be repeated.
Certainly, one should not make too much of one start. However, while Cole's was undeniably a success, there is reason to view Morton's start as not far removed from being as successful, even if it didn't appear as such at first glance.