Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ground Chuck No Longer In Stock

When the Pirates chose not to re-sign first baseman Pedro Alvarez for the 2016 season, it wasn't a total shock, given his one-dimensional offense and cover-your-eyes defense. Moving second baseman Neil Walker wasn't a surprise either, given his advancing age and pending free agency, and it'd been rumored for months. But last week the Pirates made a trade that was unexpected. 

On December 12, the Pirates traded right-handed starting pitcher Charlie Morton to the Phillies for right-handed minor league pitcher David Whitehead. The trade, coming the Saturday after baseball's winter meetings ended, flew under the radar. It didn't get heavily analyzed, as the Alvarez and Walker moves were. Heck, it's taken me nearly a week to talk about it. (Hey, I've been busy.)

You probably hadn't heard of Whitehead prior to the trade. Me neither. Whitehead pitched last year at the Phillies' Clearwater team in the Class A Florida State League. He was 9-11 with a 4.44 ERA. The league average ERA was 3.22. He struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings and walked 3.4, a 1.8 ratio. The league averages were 7.2, 2.9, and 2.5, respectively. He was 23 last season, and the average Florida State League pitcher was 23 as well. So there's nothing here that screams out "future rotation stalwart." About the most exciting thing about Whitehead is that he attended the same high school as Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, and Buddy Bell. I'm sure he's a hard worker and I wish him much success, but he seems pretty unlikely to help the Pirates in 2016.

I think a more accurate way of looking at the trade is that the Pirates swapped the $9-$17.5 million that Morton will earn ($8 million in 2016 and either $9.5 million or a $1 million buyout in 2017) for whatever tiny amount Whitehead will earn in Altoona. The move's a salary dump.

That makes three. Alvarez and Walker were both arbitration-eligible, both likely to make more than they did in 2015: $5.75 million and $8 million, respectively. This year, they would've made, I don't know, $17 million collectively? Morton brings that up to $25 million. In return, they're taking on, by way of the Walker trade, Jon Niese's $9 million salary in 2016. So net, they're up about $16 million, maybe more. They're talking about spending it on pitching. The big-name free agents pitchers are gone--the Pirates weren't contenders for them anyway--but we'll see if they can grab a bargain arm or two and maybe add some depth at first base.

As for Morton, well, if you ever wasted your time in the comments section of any Pirates news articles or blogs, well, let's say he had his detractors. In seven seasons in Pittsburgh, he never stayed healthy enough to start 30 games in a season--he topped out with 29 in 2011, the only year he qualified for the ERA championship by pitching over 162 innings--and his Pirates ERA of 4.39 was 16% worse than the league average. He was one of the players profiled in Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball, an exemplar of pitching coach Ray Searage's philosophy of throwing sinking fastballs that produce a lot of ground balls. In 2011, 59% of the balls hit against him were grounders, the third most in the National League. In 2013, he allowed 63% grounders, the most in the league. In 2014, he was second at 56%. This year he was fifth at 57%. (In all years, I chose pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched. Morton pitched only 50.1 innings in 2012.) Over the past five years, there have been 36 National League pitchers with at least 600 innings pitched. Of them, Morton's 58% ground ball rate is easily the highest. He earned his Ground Chuck nickname.

Charlie Morton shouldn't be all that hard to replace. He's a slightly below-average pitcher with durability issues that aren't likely to get better now that he's 32. But he does need to be replaced. Playing in baseball's toughest division, with the perennial strong Cardinals and a Cubs squad that has made significant additions, the Pirates do need to do something to keep up.

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