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Morton, Blanton, and Snider: Sunday thoughts

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Charlie Morton's curveball

Charlie Morton's 2015 has been, for lack of a less-overused word, inconsistent. For the most part Morton's been reasonably effective, with the notable exception of his June 21st start against the Nationals, during which he lasted just two-thirds of an inning and allowed nine runs.

I had the misfortune of seeing Morton's nightmare start in person, an event made especially memorable due to the following circumstances:

  1. The previous day, I'd attended Max Scherzer's no-hitter with my girlfriend, who's a Nats fan. I told myself at the time that at least Morton's start couldn't possibly be worse. I was wrong.
  2. It was really, really hot. Seriously. Hot. Like, unreasonably so. Almost beyond the power of beer to help.

Last Thursday's start, however, was much more successful. Morton struck out eight Giants en route to 6.2 innings of shutout ball. His outing included some dirty curveballs like this one. Morton's curveball has significantly more movement and greater spin than the average MLB curveball--take a look at this Statcast video for some examples. That's important not just to generate swings and misses, but because high-spin curveballs tend to produce ground balls.

That particular shot doesn't show it, but Morton has also increasingly used his curveball as a weapon against left-handed hitters this year.

Sinker-reliant pitchers like Morton often struggle with large platoon splits, but recent research indicates that curveballs can help neutralize opposite-handed batters. It's a bit soon to be sure, but it looks as though Morton's stellar curveball could be one way for him to improve his consistency against lefties.

Joe Blanton, relief pitcher

Undeniably, the MVP among the Pirates' deadline acquisitions thus far has been Joe Blanton. Blanton's most recent pre-2015 MLB tour of duty involved posting a 2-14 record and 6.04 ERA for the 2013 Angels. Not the most promising of seasons, whatever you happen to think of the fidelity of wins, losses, and ERA as performance measurement tools. He did manage a much-better 3.84 xFIP, suggesting that at least part of his ugly ERA and record were attributable to luck, but as a guy who'd significantly underperformed his xFIP for four years running, that shouldn't obscure what seems to be a fairly obvious conclusion: the 2013 version of Joe Blanton was something other than an effective major-league starting pitcher.

One could have been forgiven, then, for viewing Blanton's 2015 early-season success with a healthy amount of skepticism. The Royals apparently did, given that they dealt the 34-year-old away for the ever-popular "cash considerations." Blanton struggled as a starter in AAA earlier this year, and the history of aging, mediocre starting pitchers making successful comebacks is less than encouraging.

All Blanton's done since being acquired is toss fifteen innings of crucial one-run baseball. There have been some intentional adjustments--Blanton has become more of a fastball-slider guy than earlier in his career--but the biggest change has been in his velocity. See below:

As the graph illustrates, Blanton's downfall as a starting pitcher coincided with a steady decline in velocity. Not exactly an uncommon fate for an aging starter. But in 2015, all of his pitches have gained 4-5 mph of velocity--he's actually throwing his slider harder than he did in his prime.

This is one reason I don't believe that using Blanton to replace Jeff Locke in the rotation would be a good idea. Blanton's been effective in his current role, and it makes sense that having him pitch out of the bullpen is allowing his stuff to 'play up.' If he were to return to starting, there isn't much reason to think he could hold on to the velocity he's regained. If the Pirates believe that handing Locke the ball every fifth day is an unacceptable option (and I don't believe this is the case, at least not yet), Vance Worley, A.J. Burnett (if healthy), or even Radhames Liz would probably make more sense to replace Locke.

The return of Lunchbox

This week, news broke that Travis Snider will be returning to Pittsburgh (more specifically, to the Indianapolis Indians) on a minor-league deal. Snider was a fan favorite during his previous Pirates tenure, and it will be good to see him back in action.

There was significant backlash to dealing Snider away for pitching prospects Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley prior to the season, but it looks like an absolute steal now--both Brault and Tarpley have pitched very well in 2015, and with the re-acquisition of Snider the Pirates are poised to both have and eat their proverbial cake.

The question now, it seems, is whether Snider has anything left in the tank to contribute to the Pirates' pennant chase. Because Snider's 2015 has been a disaster. He's hit just .237/.318/.341, and while he contributed some fond defensive memories during his time in Pittsburgh, realistically speaking he's an average defender in both corners.

This is where I'd usually talk about how Snider's batting ball stats portend better things, or some portion of his struggles have been due to bad luck, but that's not really the case. Snider's hitting for less power, he's whiffing more, and he's chasing more bad pitches. There's not much of a mystery here--he just hasn't been very good.

If there's been anything redeeming about Snider's season thus far, it's that we might be able to ascribe some of Snider's struggles to a change in approach that doesn't seem to have worked for him.

As illustrated below, Snider's been markedly more aggressive this year than last year against every type of pitch:

As a team, the Orioles under hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh have an extremely aggressive hitting approach. It's certainly possible that the Pirates are banking on Snider rediscovering 2014's patience. For what it's worth the projection systems think he'll be a significant upgrade on Travis Ishikawa--Snider's blended ZiPS/Steamer projection for the rest of the reason is .247/.318/.405.

Given the relative paucity of left-handed bats available for the stretch run (with Ishikawa on the disabled list, Jaff Decker would be Snider's main competition), it's quite likely Snider will have the opportunity to take some meaningful at bats during the Pirates' pennant chase. Between Snider, Harrison, Mercer, Morse, and Ramirez, the bench, once such a concern, now appears to be a strength.