Closing Time: Charlie Morton, an ace with a deuce

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) sets to deliver a pitch in the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, July 7, 2014 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Adams' homer gives Cardinals 2-0 win over Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) sets to deliver a pitch in the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, July 7, 2014 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

If you like to take chances with your pitching plays, Monday was your kind of night. All sorts of long shots came in on this slate, from the mound anyway.

There was Daisuke Matsuzaka spinning seven scoreless innings, Ian Kennedy laughing in the thin Colorado air. Scott Carroll was next to untouchable at Fenway, recording 20 outs against one hit. Kevin Correia was sharp for seven innings in Seattle. Chase Anderson was terrific, too.

This isn't to suggest the name brands didn't uphold their end of the bargain. My two favorite pitchers to watch, Adam Wainwright and Hisashi Iwakuma, combined for 14 bagels. James Shields got off the skids, mowing down the Rays with ease (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 10 K). Mike Leake keeps rolling along; he might be the most underrated pitcher around. Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels had the strong outings you'd expect. (Some of these guys got wins, some didn't. The balls roll funny for everybody, kid.)

And then there's Charlie Morton of Pittsburgh. What group does he belong in? Is he merely a streamer to consider, or someone we can use all the time?

Morton had to settle for a no-decision at St. Louis, though he was just as good as Wainwright on this night. Heck, maybe Morton was better. The Pittsburgh righty allowed just one hit over his seven scoreless innings (2 BB, 5 K), while Wainwright finished with a 7-7-0-0-3-5 line. The bullpens (and Matt Adams) ultimately settled the game.

If you gave up on Morton a few years ago, you're not alone. He posted a 3.83 ERA in 2011 but it came with a nightmarish WHIP (1.53). Hip and elbow problems, and eventual Tommy John surgery, ruined the next season. He was solid in his return over 20 starts last year (3.26 ERA), though the WHIP was still on the borderline (1.28) and his strikeout rate wasn't much to write home about (6.6/9). We looked at Morton and saw a guy with reasonable control and a lofty ground-ball rate, but nothing exciting. Morton wasn't a trendy sleeper entering his Age-30 season; no one was talking about a possible breakout year.

Well, it's the second week of July. It's time to give Morton his due, recognize improvement. Although he's been absurdly unlucky with run support (and thus carries a 5-9 record), a 3.10 ERA and 1.18 WHIP will play in any format. He's pushed his strikeout clip up to 7.5/9, and he's still getting bushels of ground balls (55.4 percent). He should be owned in more than 22 percent of Yahoo leagues.

The biggest knock on Morton before this year was his inability to handle the platoon battle. He'd routinely get knocked around by left-handed batters, and it put a significant cap on his upside. Well surprise surprise, that hasn't been an issue in 2014. He's dominating against both sides of the plate this year, and he's actually been more effective when at the platoon disadvantage.

This is where Morton's curveball drives the story. He's throwing it more often this year, he's throwing it with more success, and he's using it as a weapon against lefties. And although Morton is actually getting less swinging strikes overall, he's inducing more swings out of the strike zone. That's a notable part of his success.

Only six pitchers have a higher grade on their curve than Morton this year (one of them, incidentally, is Wainwright). Take a long look at the list, and catch these guys when you can. A curveball specialist is a blast to watch, at least when the bender is bending. (On the wrong day, a flat day, big numbers are likely. But you can say that about almost any pitcher in the game.)

Morton's at 229.1 innings since his Tommy John surgery, posting a 3.18 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. That's too big of a sample to ignore. Over the last calendar year, he has the 24th-best ERA in baseball. These are large banks of data in Morton's corner. 

Okay, he'll never be a dominant strikeout guy, and he's useful in more of a support role for our numbers racket. Morton still hits too many batters (hat tip, Johnny Topz), a by-product of pitching inside. But his low ownership tag doesn't make sense to me. Time to fix that number, gamers.

Give that man his key card. Welcome to the Circle of Trust, Ground Chuck.

Speed Round: It was a good day for comebacking Orioles, as Manny Machado, Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy all went deep during an extra inning victory in D.C. Machado had five hits, back in the No. 2 slot, while Steve Pearce was on the bench (no DH in an NL park, someone had to rest) . . . There's no pop in his bat these days, but let's hear it for Ichiro Suzuki, anyway: .304 average, .359 OBP, still a good defender. He's going to be a useful player until the day he retires . . . After watching Tommy La Stella go 2-for-30 at the top of the lineup, the Braves have buried him over the last week and a half. For an organization that consistently wins, Atlanta sure does a lot of funny things. Have fun with B.J. Upton . . . Joey Votto finally went on the DL, which was inevitable. Hope you cashed out while you could . . . The Marlins say Casey McGehee isn't going to be traded, which is pretty funny. What if the Astros come with a big offer? . . . The Cardinals have interest in struggling Boston righty Jake Peavy. At this stage of the game, a shift back to the NL is just what Peavy desperately needs . . . Andy Dirks (back) might rejoin the Tigers later this month, just to make that outfield as complicated as possible. I still think J.D. Martinez will be fantasy-relevant for the full summer . . . If anyone scores an extra Iwakuma Bobblehead this weekend, get in touch with me . . . Bronson Arroyo needs Tommy John surgery, but it's not going to affect his guitar-playing career. We'll miss you, picker . . . Carlos Gonzalez (finger) started his rehab assignment and could be with the Rockies before the first half ends. Nope, I'm not bailing on Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson - they'll still play most of the time. It won't get too messy until Michael Cuddyer returns, and that could be mid-to-late August. Heck, we can't be sure he returns at all. 

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