Charlie Morton, Free Agent

Let me give you an interesting blind resume. Well, not blind really, because you’ve presumably read the title of this article already, but humor me. Our “anonymous” starter has been one of the best pitchers in baseball of late. Over the last four years, he’s compiled a 3.34 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.46 xFIP. He’s done it with strikeouts — 28.4% and 10.6 per nine innings — and with grounders — his 1.61 GB/FB ratio helps him suppress home runs to the tune of 0.73 per nine innings.

Looking at seasonal production is confusing with 2020, so we’ll use a slightly different benchmark: WAR produced per 30 starts. On that list, our “mystery” pitcher places 20th in baseball over the last four years. Depending on how you define an ace, he might be one; at the very least, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the game.

This isn’t a true blind resume, of course. It’s Charlie Morton. The former Pirates prospect turned his career around in Houston, and he’s done more of the same in Tampa Bay. He’s also developed a reputation as a playoff monster, and while I’m not here to debate whether playoff aces exist, he was excellent this postseason; 20 innings of 2.7 ERA, 2.59 FIP excellence.

Why is this resume relevant? On Friday, the Rays declined Morton’s 2021 club option. Morton was due to earn $15 million in 2021, the result of a complicated contract that could deflate based on Morton’s health. The Rays are, to put it charitably, frugal — Morton was their highest-paid player by far last year, and they’ve had one of the five lowest payrolls in baseball in each of the last 10 years.

That said, let’s delve into Morton to figure out what the team declining his option means. Is it a referendum on Tampa Bay’s voluntary extreme penury? Is it a sign of a cold free agent market to come? Or are the Rays simply unconvinced that Morton will deliver the top-end starter performance he’s shown over the last four years?

When you assess at most teams’ financial situation, you can look at which players are nearing the end of arbitration, due a contract extension or free agent payout. With Tampa, however, it doesn’t work that way. They run payrolls so low that players moving from pre-arb minimum salaries to still-suppressed arbitration payouts can lead them to make salary-related trades. This year is a doozy for the Rays: five players will reach arbitration for the first time, and another three will head into their second year of the process. Yandy Díaz will also likely qualify for a first year of arbitration, though he might just miss the Super Two cutoff.

Here’s that group, along with their listed 2020 salaries (no prorating) and arbitration projections:

2021 Salary Projections
Player 2021 Status 2020 Salary ($m) 2021 Projection ($m)
Yandy Díaz Super Two? 0.577 ?
Yonny Chirinos ARB1 0.577 1.6
Ryan Yarbrough ARB1 0.579 2.9
José Alvarado ARB1 0.573 1.05
Ji-Man Choi ARB1 0.85 1.85
Joey Wendle ARB1 0.576 2.15
Tyler Glasnow ARB2 2.05 3.95
Hunter Renfroe ARB2 3.3 3.95
Manuel Margot ARB2 2.475 3.2

That’s roughly $10 million in new outlays, and Kevin Kiermaier and Blake Snell are contractually due raises totaling another $4 million. They can offset some of these costs by non-tendering Renfroe and potentially even Yarbrough, but that’s still a hefty sum. They also probably expect to sign some players to extensions this offseason; to keep Tampa’s perpetual surplus value machine running, locking down a few key contributors is a must.

Let’s assume they work out extensions for Glasnow and one other player. That puts them well higher than last year’s salary, and even if you don’t think 2021 will be financial Armageddon, it’s a safe bet that Tampa Bay isn’t wildly enamored with the idea of increasing their payroll next year. If they want to cut down on contracts worth more than $5 million next year, that’s Morton, Kiermaier, Snell, and Yoshi Tsutsugo. Kiermaier’s contract is likely underwater, Snell is a team pillar, and Tsutsugo doesn’t make much and might be hard to move. It’s not rocket science — though the Rays employ their fair share of rocket scientists.

Interpreting Morton’s option as some referendum on the state of the free agency market is significantly more confusing. The Yankees guaranteed Zack Britton $27 million over two years rather than risking letting him leave in free agency (it was a complicated contract, to say the least). The Marlins are paying Starling Marte $12.5 million rather than letting him leave. Morton is easily on the right side of this divide, which makes the Rays’ decision all the more interesting.

If the Rays didn’t want to keep Morton, could they work out a deal where they exercised his option and then traded him? I’d basically argue no. Morton’s surplus value isn’t huge — you could easily convince me he’s worth $20 million next year, but $5 million in total surplus value isn’t really enough to move the needle. It might also be difficult to work out trade partners in the post-COVID landscape, and Morton is a beloved Ray; shopping him around for some marginal economic improvement would be tremendously unpopular in the clubhouse, which isn’t worth nothing.

The Rays are also looking to re-sign Morton at a lower rate, though I’m doubtful that they’ll work anything out given their payroll situation. Aaron Loup and Mike Zunino are the only two other members of the playoff roster leaving unless some non-tenders flow through — the aforementioned Renfroe one is a possibility, and they’ve already waived Chaz Roe. That would open up a little payroll room, but probably not enough to entice Morton back.

For his part, Morton has discussed retiring rather than playing anywhere other than Tampa Bay. His family lives nearby, and he’s earned enough money that failing to cash one last check would hardly impact his quality of life. That might give the team an edge in re-signing him, and it would also make the trade market more difficult: imagine trading for a free agent who has said on the record he might retire rather than join your team.

There is, of course, one other option: maybe the Rays just think Morton is bad now. It wouldn’t be a complete shock if a 37-year-old pitcher couldn’t keep up his previous form. He missed time with injury in 2020, and recorded his lowest strikeout rate, highest ERA, highest xFIP, and lowest groundball percentage since he turned his career around. Could this be a story about Morton’s decline?

I don’t think so. That’s not to say you can’t tell this story — in addition to all the details I mentioned above, his four-seam fastball velocity was also off a tick this year, down to 93.8 mph from last year’s 95.0 and 2018’s 96.6. It sounds bad — except it’s not. Batters didn’t fare any better at making contact with the pitch; his 25.1% whiff-per-swing rate is right in line with recent history. His overall swinging strike rate, in fact, was higher than the average of the previous three years.

If you look at the last four years as a block, velocity helps Morton miss bats, but only a little bit. Here are all of his fastballs from those years, bucketed by velocity:

Charlie Morton, Fastballs by Velo
MPH Pitches Whiff/Swing% SwStr%
0-91 30 21.4% 10.0%
92 86 20.9% 10.5%
93 260 25.4% 12.7%
94 572 27.4% 12.6%
95 632 27.9% 12.7%
96 463 25.9% 13.0%
97+ 217 19.5% 10.6%

He hasn’t thrown a lot of low-velocity fastballs, but he doesn’t suffer overly much when he does. His whiff rate goes down — hardly a shock — but it’s not falling to unplayable levels or anything like that. A further velocity decline would be unwelcome, but he doesn’t appear to be at the precipice of suddenly losing all effectiveness.

Also: he might not actually be losing velocity. This was a weird season for everyone, and Morton threw harder as the year went on:

Like Fine Wine?
Month 4S Velo (mph) 2S Velo (mph)
July 92.7 91.8
August 93.7 93.4
September 94.5 94.1
October 94.7 94.4

Sure, he threw shorter outings in the playoffs, but that’s the trend you’d expect to see for an old pitcher working back into form, which makes worries about his fastball seem overblown. Every pitcher sees a velocity decline at some point, but focusing on that aspect of Morton’s game is much ado about nothing.

Should prospective Morton-covetous teams worry about his age independent of his fastball? I mean, yes. 38 is a ripe old age for a baseball player. Projection systems already do the worrying for you, though, and they’re optimistic on 2021 Morton. Steamer sees him as having an ERA right around 4, with a 25.1% strikeout rate and 8.2% walk rate. That might not sound great to you, but over 200 innings pitched, that would be a 3.5 WAR pace, or 2.6 WAR in a more modest 150 innings.

For a sanity check, I ran a quick test of my own. I looked at every pitcher who pitched at both ages 37 and 38 since the 2010 season. This cuts out a group of players who pitched at 37 and then retired, so it’s absolutely not a representative sample. As a rough cut, however, it’s a decent approximation of Morton’s cohort.

Those pitchers unsurprisingly got worse at 38. They ran an ERA roughly 18% higher, struck out 6.2% fewer batters, and walked 2.3% more (both on a rate basis). They were also called upon less frequently; on average, they threw 16% fewer innings in their age-38 season. That’s likely a mixture of injuries and ineffectiveness, but either way, older pitchers pitch less — seems reasonable. In all of the cases except innings pitched, I weighted each pitcher’s performance by the lesser of their age-37 and age-38 batters faced; face only 20 batters in one of the seasons, and your ERA, which could go wildly one way or the other in such a small sample, will hardly make a dent in the average.

Please don’t take these numbers and apply them to Morton’s 2020. That’s not the point here. What it means, instead, is that if you had a true talent estimate for how good Morton projected to be in 2020, and received no new information from that season, you would then need to lower his strikeouts and increase his walks.

This sounds counter-intuitive — shouldn’t you just be able to apply those changes? After all, that’s the average change from age 37. Think of it this way, though: the pitchers who got lucky in their age 37 season, relative to their true pitching talent, will naturally get worse by a greater amount in their next year. The ones who got unlucky relative to true talent would project to improve before the effects of aging. Without knowing whether Morton got lucky or unlucky relative to his true talent in 2020 — or, I suppose, pitched exactly at that level — we can’t blindly mark him down relative to this year’s performance.

Here’s another way of thinking about it. If you think Morton was a true-talent 3.50 ERA pitcher this year, and that he’ll throw 150 innings both this year and next — debatable assumptions both — increasing his ERA by a factor of 1.18 would result in an extra 10.5 runs next year. This is all extreme back-of-the-envelope math, but if you’re looking for some justification that Morton won’t be a useful starter next year, keep looking.

What does this all mean, when taken in sum? First, the Rays are more or less sui generis. Looking at their payroll moves and generalizing to the league as a whole will give you a wildly inaccurate picture of how baseball teams value contracts, because the Rays are nothing like an average team. They trade away players before they reach arbitration, twist themselves into pretzels to squeeze more juice out of minimum-salary role players, and generally treat money and talent differently than every other contending team.

Second, the Rays aren’t doing this because they think Charlie Morton has turned into a pumpkin. They used him like a solid starter in these playoffs, and even if he’s not the Big Game Chuck that his playoff performances might imply, he’s a good starter in a game starved for competent pitching. Nothing specific in the data, and nothing general about old pitchers, says otherwise.

Morton’s case is even weirder than those two factors, however. He’s also expressed indifference to pitching again — the whole wrestling with retirement thing gives the Rays a little more leeway than they might otherwise have. He and the team might easily reach an agreement later in the offseason after he’s had a few months to think about his future, provided the money is there. He might be done regardless — maybe the Rays didn’t pick up his option because it didn’t matter. Heck, he might change his mind and decide to pitch elsewhere, and I’m fairly confident he could find a team to give him $15 million if he went that way.

Charlie Morton is a free agent, and it feels like pitchers of his quality shouldn’t simply land on the ground for a random passerby to pick up. You’re not wrong to think that, and it still will likely be a cold winter for free agents. But that’s not the reason Morton is on the market, at least not entirely. He’s a confusing case, and working out what he means for the free agent market isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents, or of strikeouts and walks. Should he pitch next year, Morton will probably be solid again. It’s just a matter of whether, where, and for how much.

Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Ah yes voluntary extreme penury