Ninety-two pitchers qualified for the ERA title last season, and the worst of the bunch was Detroit Tigers right-hander Jeremy Bonderman, who had a 5.53 ERA. Kyle Davies, A.J. Burnett and four others also ended up with ERAs on the wrong side of 5.00.
Then there was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton; his ERA was 7.57, literally one of the worst in history for someone pitching as many as 79 2/3 innings, making 17 starts. Morton was terrible, so terrible that you could have given me 150 choices for a starting pitcher to draft this season, and Morton would not have been one of them. Yes, I would have chosen Bartolo Colon (and actually did in a league) ahead of him.
On Wednesday night, Morton shut out the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, who entered Wednesday leading the major leagues in runs scored, and he did so on just five hits. He walked two and fanned five. And it's not like this was his first good start, either. Morton upped his record to 5-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.62, and for the seventh time in eight starts, he induced 11 or more ground-ball outs. Even I have to say the new Charlie Morton is actually quite impressive, at least statistically, the most extreme ground-ball hurler in the game with a 77 percent rate, and he's available in nearly 90 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues.
But you know what? I can't blame most people for avoiding Morton. I'm avoiding him, too. I know, I know, the numbers tell the tale of a new pitcher, one with better stuff, improved control and an ability, it seems, to avoid home runs. A season ago, Morton was 0-8 in road games with an ERA of 9.00; this season, including his Wednesday performance (which finally made me pay attention to him), he's 4-1 on the road with a 3.15 ERA. At home his ERA is 1.74, though he has won just one of the three outings at PNC Park. Fine numbers, certainly, but it's just so hard to forget about that 7.57 ERA from 2010. It could take us years to forget a number like that.
Plus, even including Wednesday's gem, Morton has 29 strikeouts in 55 innings, with 26 walks. I suppose some pitchers can overcome a subpar strikeout/walk ratio like this, but none jump to mind, at least not this season. In fact, of the top 40 pitchers in ERA this season, none of them have a ratio even remotely this close. San Diego Padres right-hander Dustin Moseley would be the next closest, and I'm not buying him, either.
Not all pitchers need to miss bats to be successful -- Carlos Silva has been fantasy-productive at times in his career -- but this is dangerous territory. The margin for error is slim, and Morton, like Moseley, isn't exactly pitching for an offensive juggernaut, either. And while Morton has a flashy record and ERA on the road, his road WHIP still concerns me. Simply put, if a pitcher keeps allowing baserunners, eventually a good number of them will score. Before Wednesday, Morton's road WHIP was 1.57 (it's now 1.37). That's hardly impressive.
Morton entered the Reds game with a relatively normal batting-average-against rate and BABIP -- neither set off alarms, so to speak -- but check the splits. Right-handers aren't touching this fellow (.161 batting average against, two extra-base hits) but lefties have enjoyed facing him (.404 batting average against, 14 walks and three strikeouts). How can anyone remain successful with splits like this? The answer is he can't. I heard someone label Morton as the NL version of Cleveland Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin, who's also thriving with smoke and mirrors. Not that I'm touting Tomlin for AL Cy Young consideration, not with that unsustainable hit rate, but at least he's not walking people, and he's getting lefties out. Plus, Tomlin wasn't half-bad last season, while Morton was really, really bad. I applaud him for turning his career around, and in a way I'd like to see him sustain this, but I also have to be realistic. People are talking about him now, but the bottom line is his current success will be difficult to sustain.
People ask me via email, Twitter or just in the hallways of the Worldwide Leader how much time I need to believe in someone, and the answer is it's different with everyone. There will come a time, theoretically, that if Morton is still putting up impressive numbers -- and this ERA is hard to believe -- that I might buy in. But I'm not there yet. Not on Morton or Moseley. Now Bartolo Colon and his strikeout rate? That I'm buying ...