Charlie Morton may just be the most frustrating Pirates player in recent memory. One day he’d face the Reds and look a world beater. The next outing he’d face someone other than the Reds and get destroyed. He’d look like he was finally getting things figured out, then he’d need a major surgery to rebuild one of his joints. Even within starts, he’d be cruising along, explode in an inning, and then go right back to cruising. Consistently inconsistent is a trite expression, but no one does it more aptly describe than Ground Chuck.
In truth what more should anyone have expected? Generally speaking, he bounced somewhere between 3 and 5 in the rotation. He likely was oversold as a 3, or at the very least he never earned the spot. However, no one should complain about a guy in the back of rotation who could steal a few games by himself while keeping you in most. He generated a lot of weak contact and was tough on right handed hitting in particular. He didn’t strike out many, walked more than his share, but you can’t hit a grounder over the fence. In truth Charlie was underappreciated, even if frustrating, and more than a stray eyebrow should have been raised when he got dumped in the 2015-16 offseason.
Morton is no doubt having the best year of his career in Houston, but meanwhile his heir apparent seems to be emerging in Pittsburgh. Chad Kuhl is an easy comp to Morton. Billed as a sinkerballer and groundball inducer, Kuhl hasn’t lived up to those expectations. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been effective. In the second half of the 2017 season, he’s posted a triple slash of 3.36 ERA / 3.43 FIP / 4.30 xFIP. The first half numbers were a little rugged, but if you take his 4.56 xFIP and use that like it’s a crystal ball, you take that 4.56 ERA from the back end. Charlie Morton’s career ERA is at 4.45. The groundball percentage from Kuhl is unchanged from the first half to the second half coming in at a lower than expected 42.1%. Consider though, it took Morton three years in the Pirates organization before he posted a ground ball rate that was more than a hair over 50% in the majors.
The radio circuit nicknamed Morton “Electric Stuff” tongue in cheek because it was a phrase the front office used to describe his upside and ability when he really struggled with a 7 plus ERA for the Bucs in 2010. What I heard in that phrase to describe Morton was not just a jeer, but also an issue of unclaimed potential. In truth, Morton had the stuff package to emerge as a solid three, but for whatever reason never did. It made him a frustrating pitcher to watch, feeling like there was another level he could achieve and then watching him not get there. Chad Kuhl feels the same way.
While Charlie’s electric stuff was about movement, Kuhl took the jump to power pitcher in 2017 adding roughly 2 mph to his already solid sinker velocity. Kuhl’s secondary stuff isn’t as good, though Morton never had much more than a get-me-over change and eventually abandoned the slider he started his Pirates career with. Kuhl’s slider and change were too close in velocity and there wasn’t enough separation between them and his sinker. The curveball he added midyear seems like the missing link. It’s not a great curve, but having to think about it may give hitters a little bit of a mental disadvantage. While the secondary stuff needs work, you still expect a lot from a guy who can flirt with triple digits as a starter. What Kuhl does have going for him is zero expectations created for him during his minor league career. Still, if the curve improves and the sinker stays a plus offering, expectations will change for him and should. A guy who can throw that hard and not produce like at least a number 3 would get under your skin.
Chad Kuhl will also drive you nuts with the walks, as well. Kuhl has some location issues and struggles to hit his spots especially late in outings. He might not always get it over, but by and large he’s in the proximity of the zone. Morton, on the other hand, was downright wild at times combining for 27 hit batsman and wild pitches in 2014, good for third most in the league and in fewer innings than either player ranked ahead of him. Morton didn’t always know where the ball was going once it left his hand due to amount of movement his pitchers had, but neither did the hitter. In truth, Morton’s wildness lent itself to his effectiveness. Kuhl seems far more likely to snap out of his free pass problem. He never walked more than 2.5 batters per nine in a minor league season and he’s up almost 1.5 per nine compared to his cup of coffee season in the majors last year. At the same time, he’s getting the job done himself and striking more batters out this year. Still that track record of efficiency and stiff control makes you wonder if he can find it again in the majors once he truly gets his feet wet. If he does, you also wonder just how good he can get.
Charlie Morton frustrated Pirates fans because he always felt like he could have performed better or the team could have gotten more out of him over the course of an entire season. I’m beginning to feel like there should be more to Chad Kuhl as well, though for different reasons. In truth, the two are more similar in theory than anything as Kuhl still hasn’t proven to truly be a strong groundball inducer at the major league level. Their stuff packages are also quite different. Kuhl’s high end fastball and track record to limit his walks makes me think he could become a three in the rotation at least, maybe even as high as a two. I felt the same way about Morton thanks to his movement and his curve and it drove me crazy especially by his final season. The book still isn’t written on Kuhl’s Pirates career of course, but let’s hope it has a happier ending than Morton’s.