Pittsburgh Pirates should learn from an old friend on how to improve Quinn Priester

The Pirates could take Quinn Priester from a middle/back of the rotation arm to top of the line ace if they take notes from an old friend.
May 14, 2024; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Quinn Priester (46) delivers a
May 14, 2024; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Quinn Priester (46) delivers a / Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) delivers
Sep 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) delivers / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Former Pittsburgh Pirates' first-round pick Quinn Priester hasn't looked like what you'd expect from a first-rounder. He's looked better this year and has a 4.33 ERA, 8.1% walk rate, and 13.8% K%, but he has been extremely home run prone with a 2.33 HR/9 rate. But with a ground ball rate above 60% and a flyball rate of just 25%, this might even out over time, given the massive 29.2% HR/FB ratio. His 4.28 SIERA and 4.24 xFIP, the ladder of which adjusts for an extremely high HR/FB ratio, both say his ERA is what he's pitching to.

While Priester has looked better, he still hasn't looked any better than an average middle-to-back of the rotation arm. That doesn't mean he's a complete bust, but the Pirates might be able to fully unlock Priester's potential if they learn a lesson from an old friend who had a similar pitching style to Priester now before changing it up and becoming an all-star and one-time Cy Young finalist but for another team.

That old friend is Charlie Morton. Morton pitched with the Pirates from 2009 through 2015. Like Priester, Morton's key abilities with the Pirates were sinkerballs and ground balls. Morton earned the nickname "Ground Chuck" for his ability to induce ground balls. He had a 55.8% GB%, the 23rd highest in baseball during seven seasons in Pittsburgh (min. 300 IP). He induced so many grounders by using a sinker, which he employed about 50% of the time. Morton also threw similarly as hard as Priester, sitting at 93.4 MPH (Priester is at 93.2 MPH). 

Priester's game right now also focuses on inducing ground balls. He has a 62.5% GB% so far this year. Since making his professional debut in 2019, Priester's ground ball rate in the minor leagues is 53.8%, the 26th highest among any minor league arm with at least 40 games started since 2019. The sinker isn't as big of a part of his arsenal as it was for Morton, but it's still his most used pitch by far, and he has thrown it 33.9% of the time in the Majors.

Morton also has similar stats with the Pirates as Priester has with the Bucs in 2024. He had a 4.39 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and 4.03 FIP. Morton was never a massive strikeout pitcher and only had a 16% K%, but a solid 6.2% walk rate. Inducing that many ground balls helped him keep a strong 0.69 HR/9 rate. But the way Morton pitched after he left the Pirates is where they can learn how to make Priester better.

The Pirates traded Morton to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2015-2016 off-season. He barely played in red pinstripes, though, because of an injury, but he would take off dramatically in Houston the following campaign. Since his first season with the Astros in 2017, Morton has a 3.53 ERA, 3.51 FIP, and 1.19 WHIP with the 'Stros, Tampa Bay Rays, and Atlanta Braves. He has started at least 30 games for five straight seasons (not including 2020, for obvious reasons), has gone to two All-Star games, and was a Cy Young finalist in 2019. 

Pirates should take notes from Charlie Morton's breakout to improve Quinn Priester.

This is where the Pirates need to pay attention, and on the off-chance that someone in the Pirates' organization who deals with pitching development is reading this, take some notes and read carefully. The Astros made Morton more of a strikeout pitcher than a ground ball pitcher. He still carries a quality 46.1% GB% since '17, but his K% is 27.8%, over 10% greater than it was in Pittsburgh. The first thing they did was make him throw harder. In 2015, the last season Morton wore a Pirates uniform, his sinker averaged 92.5 MPH. In his first year with the Astros, he bumped that up to 94.9 MPH. His fastball velo took an even more dramatic rise from 92.8 MPH to 95.7 MPH.

The second thing they did was prioritize the fastball. In 2018, the sinker became a secondary pitch for Morton, the first time since 2010 he had thrown his four-seamer more than his two-seamer. On top of that, Morton was throwing his four-seamer even harder, sitting at 96.1 MPH. His curveball was always a good breaking ball (similar to Priester's), but now it was playing up because he was mixing in a mid-90s four-seamer, as well as a still effective sinker.

His curveball has slowly overtaken his fastball usage over the last three seasons, but Morton is still averaging 94 MPH. He is 40 years old, and he can still throw his fastball just as hard, if not harder than he did during his last season in Pittsburgh, which was nearly a decade ago now. He currently has the second-lowest ERA of his career at 3.14 (his career best was 3.05, set in '19).

We know Priester can throw a mid-90s fastball. In MLB Pipeline's write-up about him in 2019, he touched 97 MPH. FanGraphs reported that Priester was even able to hit 99 MPH in 2021. Even as late as August '21, Baseball America reported similar stuff that Priester was hitting mid-90s and upwards of 98-99 MPH.  Even last year Priester hit 95+ MPH with his sinker and four-seamer 19 times, topping out at 97 MPH.

Morton did not succeed because the Pirates of the 2010s preached a heavy pitch-to-contact strategy and almost forced it on every one of their arms. The Pirates of today aren't like this, at least with their pitching development (though I don't know if I can say the same with their hitters). The Pirates have the chance to redeem themselves with Priester, who currently pitches similarly to how Charlie Morton pitched back in the day. 

Reintegrating a harder four-seamer with more spin as well as a faster sinker into Priester's arsenal is worth a try. It might play well off his already elite curveball and even his sinker might also play up as a secondary offering. Now that he's back at Triple-A, this would be a prime opportunity to see if a change would help him play above what currently looks like a back-of-the-rotation type projection.