Charlie Morton Is the Unluckiest of the Playoffs

When Charlie Morton was a Pirate and this author a beat reporter covering Pittsburgh’s ball club, I became familiar with Morton through a number of conversations.

He was one of the first players I encountered who discussed having employed PITCHf/x data to better understand his performance, to move away from the box score as a means of evaluation. He would have phone calls with his father during which they discussed the velocity and movement from his appearances as recorded by pitch-tracking technology. Morton struggled mightily at times early in his career with Pittsburgh and Atlanta before that, but not all of it was his fault. He was one of the first pitchers with whom I spoke who wanted to better understand how to separate his own performance from those other variables that lead to run-prevention and -allowance. He wanted to know how he could better control what he could control. Data helped keep Morton sane.

This is pertinent today, because we might not see a better performance lead to a poorer pitching line this postseason than the performance and line produced by Morton on Monday night.

The results of Morton’s Game 3 start against the Yankees are ugly: 3.2 innings, six hits, seven runs. If that’s all you knew about it, you’d assume he was awful. But Morton actually looked… good.

Morton’s stuff has seen a spike this season, a point noted by this author earlier in the year. The right-hander’s darting fastball hit 98 mph Monday; his curveball, which has one of the top spin rates in the game, had good shape and location; and, yet, it all fell apart. It unraveled because it’s baseball, and because it’s Yankee Stadium II.

Morton had one of the unluckier pitching performances you’ll see — and certainly the unluckiest of the postseason to date.

As of press time, 23 games have been played this postseason. In those games, there have been a total of 17 batted balls that have fallen for hits after leaving the relevant hitter’s bat with a hit probability of 15% less. Morton failed to make it through four innings Monday and yet he suffered three such instances. Nor does that total even even include the Todd Frazier home run, about which Jeff expertly wrote earlier today, a ball that isn’t a home run in every ballpark.

Let’s examine Morton’s misfortune in greater detail.

With two outs in the second inning, a ball left Starlin Castro’s bat with a 57.7 mph exit velocity and 10% hit probability. The ball smashed into the dirt just before home plate, rolled slowly toward Alex Bregman, and resulted in an infield single.

Aaron Hicks followed with a single and then Frazier sent one less high and less far than most home runs, but still unequivocally gone.

Frazier slashed a low-and-outside 95 mph fastball over the shallowest right-field wall in the game for a three-run homer. It represented all the run support Yankees pitchers would require.

But Morton’s poor fortune didn’t stop there.

In the fourth, Gregory Bird led off the inning with a pop fly down the left-field line. Thanks to a 43-degree launch angle, the ball hung up in the night sky for quite some time. Yet, somehow, Cameron Maybin, a competent and rangy outfielder, couldn’t reach it. He hesitated and was lost.

Maybin explained to the New York Post and other reporters what the heck happened.

“It’s a long run. Once I got there I kind of froze,” Maybin said. “It’s one of those things where you realize you’re by yourself, and in my head, I was thinking about if I missed it’s probably gonna be a triple. It’s just a tough play.”

To error, to hesitate, is human.

That “double” had a 4% change of landing safely, which tied for the lowest probability for a successful base hit in the postseason, matching a weakly struck ball off the bat of Cody Bellinger that fell in for a hit against Andrew Chafin on Monday.

Morton then retired two batters and walked Frazier before allowing another successful base knock with a sub-15% hit probability. It was a grounder with a 12% mark off the bat of Chase Headley. Bird scored to make it 4-0 New York.

Morton hit the following batter, Brett Gardner, with a pitch and, with that, his night was over. He would be charged with three more runs following Will Harris’s entrance. Harris tossed a wild pitch with the bases loaded and allowed a three-run homer to Aaron Judge.

One could argue that, despite conceding seven earned runs, Morton was solid.

A .323 wOBA is actually three points lower than the mark produced by non-pitchers this season. By that measure, then, Morton’s performance was pretty good — especially considering the competition. But the box score doesn’t account for these kind of considerations. It only reports on the events that occur.

The experience won’t be foreign to Morton, who’s always been a bit unlucky. His career ERA (4.41) is nearly a half-run greater than his xFIP (3.98). He’s had to endure Tommy John surgery while also suffering a number of other injuries.

Morton recently told Fox Sports he may retire after the 2018 season. That’s a bit of a surprise: his stuff has never been better, the money in the game never bigger.

But after nights like Monday, who can blame him?

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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It would be a shame if he retired after 2018