Former Pittsburgh Pirates (now Tampa Bay Rays) starter Charlie Morton just salvaged the Rays’ season, at least for the next 24 hours. He pitched five innings of three-hit ball, allowing one earned run with two walks and nine strikeouts.
Its hard not to wonder why this Morton is so different from the Morton you remember in the yellow and black. There are intricacies involved but the reasoning is simple.
He was a pretty heavy sinkerball pitcher early in his career, throwing it as much as 63 percent of the time in his last season with Pittsburgh. Today’s Morton owes a lot of his success to his nasty curveball, a pitch he’s developed over the last couple of years, that was somewhat pedestrian during his tenure with the Bucs.
These days, the two-seam/sinker has fallen out of favor and tends to be a liability for most pitchers who aren’t able to control it properly. Earlier in the decade, analytics (especially for pitching) was still in its infancy. At that time former pitching coach Ray Searage was highly regarded for his ability to work effectively with pitchers. Morton was struggling and Searage suggested some mechanical changes which helped with the action on his sinker.
The pitch became a legit worm-killer but as baseball adapted, its become almost obsolete, Morton soon had to find another way to get hitters out. Unfortunately, by the time he figured things out, he was a long way from the Steel City.
Its easy (and sometimes warranted) to look at a former player and not have frustrations about why/how a team would trade or allow them to leave via free agency, especially when they seem to find a level of success that they could not attain during their tenure.
Sometimes its just poor handling of a player. Just as often, there’s more to it than that.
The Pirates have made mistakes, albeit not much worse than other organizations, but do you believe that had Pittsburgh kept a player like Gerrit Cole, we’d be seeing the version that the Houston Astros run out to the mound every five days? Pitching coaches like Brent Strom are hard to come by and it will be up to the Pirates front office to find someone who can see and develop unique strengths, much like Searage did with Morton. It worked for the time being because the game had not yet evolved to exploit sinking fastballs; time and circumstance simply caught up with them.
Understand that analytics change and new data is becoming available more and more every season. Data that Searage and the Pirates may not have had earlier in the decade has served other teams well and allowed them to get performance out of a player that wasn’t possible years ago.
Sometimes players go to teams that are just a better fit, though it makes you wonder what was so wrong with the way the Pirates did things versus how the Rays (for example) do them.
Searage, along with bench coach Tom Prince and manager Clint Hurdle are now casualties of an under-performing organization. Looking at a former player who’s succeeding is better looked at as the fault of player development and not with the expectation he’d be the same player had he stuck with the team.