Morris doesn’t let age get in his way

Every notable statistic indicates Curve right-hander A.J. Morris has been one of the most successful pitchers in all of Double-A so far this season.

The only number working against Morris is his age, because at 27, he’s at least four years older than what organizations typically want in a Double-A pitcher.

Still, when a guy has a 1.46 ERA and all sorts of other impressive measurables, the age issue becomes a little less relevant.

“Any pitcher, whether you’re 27 or 21, everybody wants to start off on a good note,” said Morris, who pitched seven shutout innings Saturday night.

Morris’ outing and a pair of home runs, including a two-run shot from Stetson Allie in the first inning, carried the Curve to a 3-0 win over Richmond before 3,941 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Alen Hanson also hit a solo shot in the sixth.

Morris’ 1.46 ERA leads the Eastern League, plus he’s third in all of Double-A. Furthermore, he’s sixth in ERA when looking at all pitchers in Double-A, Triple-A or the majors.

If it was just the ERA, maybe Morris’ hot start could be overlooked a bit. But these are some of his other outstanding numbers:

n .181 opponents batting average

n Only 23 hits allowed in 37 innings

n A 1.00 WHIP

n One stat that often gets overlooked, he has a 2.07 groundout-to-flyout ratio, which means gets a ton of groundballs. He ranks fifth in Double-A in that category.

Morris (4-0) doesn’t have overpowering stuff, throwing primarily around 90 mph and topping out at 93, which some would consider a concern for a righty. He also has a lot of balls put in play, but it’s generally been with weaker contact on the ground this season.

Some of those things, coupled with his age, could work against Morris getting opportunities at the higher levels. But as long as he keeps getting batters out and putting up zeroes the way he has, the Pirates won’t be able to ignore him.

“I don’t think he can be a prospect, but he can be somebody that can take advantage of the opportunity,” Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. “He is a kid who competes every time he goes out there. He throws the ball around the plate and good quality, the ball moves a lot. He knows how to pitch.”

Morris threw 77 pitches Saturday, 58 for strikes (75 percent). He gave up six hits while striking out four and walking one in the most effective outing by a Curve starter all season. And to think, he wasn’t even a starter at the beginning of the year as he was in the bullpen.

“It’s strike one. Strike one makes him really effective,” Garcia said of Morris’ ability to get ahead of hitters. “He understands the strike zone, and he throws the ball over the plate. Basically, that’s what it is.”

Morris might not be a typical Double-A pitcher now, but he’s no stranger to success in his career.

In college at Kansas State in 2009, he was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the nation’s top player and that year went to Stephen Strasburg. He then was a fourth-round draft pick of the Nationals in 2009.

His career suffered a major setback in 2010 when he underwent reconstructive shoulder surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff. He missed all of 2011, returned in 2012 in the Cubs’ organization and made it up to Double-A for the first time last year, going 4-2 with a 4.75 ERA in 31 games (10 starts) for Tennessee.

The Pirates selected Morris in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December, but no matter how optimistic they might have been about him at that point, they have to be very pleasantly surprised by his dominant start.

Morris doesn’t get too caught up in what he’s accomplished, focusing instead on what he has to do every day to keep it up.

“That’s where you get in trouble is when you start being upset or being happy with your previous outings and not really focusing on what you have to do next,” he said.

Garcia said Morris will have to keep proving himself each and every time out, which is true for all players but especially older minor leaguers who may not rank high on an organization’s priority list.

“He’s doing a very good job,” the manager said.

As long as Morris keeps that up, he could wind up becoming a fascinating success story in the Pirate organization.

“Everybody’s goal is to get to the big leagues,” Morris said. “That’s a big goal. Right now I’m looking at small goals, whether that’s working on fastballs or changeups or sliders. I’m really more focused on getting better each day.”

Game recap

Key player: RHP A.J. Morris pitched seven shutout innings for the Curve.

Key play: 1B Stetson Allie belted a two-run homer in the first to give Altoona a quick lead.

Key stat: Morris’ 1.46 ERA leads the EL, is third in Double-A and sixth among all pitchers in Double-A, Triple-A or the majors.

How they scored

Bottom 1st: Hanson singled, scored on Allie two-run homer (2-0).

Bottom 6th: Hanson solo homer (3-0).