HOUSTON — The Charlie Morton I knew in Pittsburgh was nothing like the Charlie Morton sitting before a conference room filled with national media members in the depths of Minute Maid Park on Friday afternoon.
The Morton we have seen this year in Houston, the Morton we have seen excel at times in the postseason, is a completely different iteration of the pitcher we saw for the Pirates. Morton will start Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers on Saturday.
The Morton I knew in Pittsburgh was a ground-ball artist, he was in many ways the Pirates’ ideal prototype pitcher during their 2013-15 run of three postseason appearances, a three-year period when they won 280 games. Morton leaned on a darting, ground-ball-inducing two-seam fastball and was directed, and believed in, pitching to contact. He was supported by a dramatic increase in infield shifts. I know this story seems rather dated, and the story has been told, but it really wasn’t that long ago that this was a cutting-edge philosophy.
Return to the present, and Morton is a bat-missing arm. He’s averaging a career-best 96.1 mph with his four-seam fastball and he’s averaging 95.1 mph with his sinker. Among pitchers who threw at least 90 innings this season, Morton ranked seventh in fastball velocity sandwiched between Stephen Strasburg and Michael Fulmer. He still has the hammer curve he’s always had, but he’s throwing it a career-best 28.4% rate along with more four-seam fastballs and more four-seamers up in the zone.
What’s the result? In case you are unfamiliar, Morton posted a career-best 26.4% strikeout rate (Career average 17.4%) and a career-best K-BB% mark of 18.3% (8.9%). His FIP (3.46) and xFIP (3.58) were also career bests. Morton is an example of a player, who rather than resisting the game’s trends, its currents, has ridden with them.
Morton hit 99 mph — Charlie Morton hit 99 mph!!! — against the Yankees earlier this year. It was the fastest pitch of his career.
In the same game he threw a 98 mph two-seamer:
We’ve written quite a bit about Morton this season. I wrote about how Morton’s stuff had never been more electric. FanGraphs colleague David Laurila wrote this week Morton’s thoughts on baseball and life.
But I hadn’t been able to speak with Morton this year about his changes, our paths had not crossed until I asked for the microphone to be passed my way in the conference room Friday. While such a large press conference setting is not always conducive of introspection, candidness and thoughtfulness Morton delivered all that in his response, an extended answer I will break up for the purpose of this post.
But the essence of Morton’s incentive to change, the essence of his pivot, can be reduced to one thought.
“I got tired of giving things up to fate,” Morton said.
What’s interesting about Morton is he is one of the first players I encountered to use PITCHf/x data — we’re talking about nascent PITCHf/x data — to understand his actual performance, to compare his day-to-day performance to a baseline, to better understand what he was in control of.
Morton arrived here — throwing as hard as he can — because he wanted to be more in control and that starts with missing bats. And really pitchers (velocity, strikeouts) and hitters (home runs), have each endeavored to be more in control by keeping the ball out of play this season. We’ve seen more of it in the World Series. It seems no one wants the ball to be handled by any of the eight defenders in fair territory.
“In 2015 I came back [from hip surgery], and I was pitching pretty well through my first few starts. I think I made five starts that I felt really good [about], and I made that start in Washington. I gave up like nine runs in two-thirds of an inning or something like that,” Morton said. “And that pretty much set my season on a course, volatile, like a roller coaster, a good one, bad one. And what I found was that my success really hinged on quality of contact and where the ball went after it was put in play.
“It just seemed like I was at a point in my career where I got tired of that.”
At the end the spring of 2015, Morton’s velocity had fallen to the low 80s.
“No idea where my speed went,” he said. “I mean, I’d get traded out of Pittsburgh. I got booed off the field my last start I made there. It was an awful feeling.”
But toward the end of 2015, Morton recalled playing a game of catch between and “just kind of angrily throwing the ball.” In one of his last few starts of 2015, he just started throwing “as hard as I could.” And his velocity did pick up at the end of 2015, and then it spiked remarkably at the beginning of 2016, before a hamstring injury derailed his season.
It was at the end of 2015 and the following winter when Morton decided to conduct his own private experiment.
“I changed my workouts after that season. I tried eating a little bit better, nothing crazy. But I also started messing with my mechanics,” Morton said. “I didn’t work with anybody. I just listened to my body. And I don’t think I made any substantial changes, in terms of my mechanics, but I think I started trusting myself, what my body was telling me, what my arm was telling me, everything, my timing.
“And I went to spring training with the Phillies last year, I’m pitching against the Yankees in my first start, and I look up and I’m 94 to 96. After coming to spring training the previous year, a good five miles an hour slower than that, five, six miles an hour slower. And it was from then on that I started noticing, ‘Hey, it’s harder to hit 95 miles an hour out of your hands than it is 91, 92, down in the zone.’ I started pitching kind of all over the place. I started elevating the cutter. I started throwing a curveball a lot more. … And then I hurt my hamstring and I missed the rest of the year. I’m wondering next year  is this the last year if I’m even going to have a job? The Astros called up and offered me a two-year deal for an absurd amount of money and the rest is history.”
While some raised eyebrows at the Astros’ decision to give the inconsistent Morton, a pitcher with a considerable injury history, a two-year, $14 million deal, the Astros had noticed the velo spik at the beginning of 2016. The shape and depth of the curve had always been present.
The Astros have a significant number of R&D staffers and it was with their information and Morton’s raw stuff that a quality starting rotation option was remade.
It’s not that the previous version had not been effecive, but Morton had needed to adapt in a quickly changing game when hitters began to better and better pound the low strike.
Morton’s four-seam location in 2015:
Morton’s four-seam location in 2017:
Morton has nearly tripled his four-seam usage this season compared to 2015 (5% to 13.6% this season) and he’s reduced his sinker usage from 62.6% in 2015 to 40.6% this season. He’s throwing more cutters and elevating them.
“I don’t know if it was the injury, but something allowed me to reset. Getting traded, that was a part of it. That was a huge — that was emotional, like professionally, a huge change for me. It was kind of like a reset. ….This is like a second chance,” Morton said. “When the Astros called after not expecting another job this year, realistically, I thought I was going to have an invite to big league spring training and then have to earn a job in the spring.”
With time running out during his media session, with manager A.J. Hinch scheduled to arrive at the podium, the moderator cut off Morton and gave a happy conclusion to the tale: “And now you’re in the World Series.”