Last night, with the franchise’s first championship hanging in the balance, Astros manager A.J. Hinch handed the ball to Charlie Morton. He never asked for it back, and four innings later, the Astros mobbed Morton on the mound. They are champions today in part because of Charlie Morton, and there was perhaps no more fitting player to get the last out of the 2017 season, because Charlie Morton embodies so much of what baseball is today.
I won’t belabor the backstory too much, because you’re probably familiar with what Morton used to be: a generic pitch-to-contact starter who couldn’t get lefties out. In fact, his struggles against southpaws were so significant that, when the Astros signed him last year, I called him “Bud Norris with health problems.” While acknowledging that there were parts of his arsenal that made him interesting — Jeff saw this far more clearly than I did — I included the following table in that post, suggesting that Morton was not likely to solve the Astros’ pitching problems unless he could figure out how to get left-handed batters out.
During his career up to this year, Morton was the worst regular starting pitcher in baseball against left-handers. This is a pretty glaring flaw, and despite his velocity bump and high-spin curveball, I maintained some skepticism about his potential. Let me now present a second table.
Morton didn’t just get better versus left-handers, he held them to the second-lowest wOBA of any right-handed starter in baseball this year. After spending nearly a decade as a contact pitcher who couldn’t get left-handers out, he posted the highest strikeout rate against lefties of any righty starter. After running one of the largest platoon splits in baseball for the first 900 innings of his career, Morton just turned into an entirely different pitcher.
Let’s look back at what Morton used to be. Here’s a couple of GIFs from a random start in 2014, when Morton was facing the Marlins. First, here’s his fastball.
And here’s his curve.
That basically was Morton’s repertoire: 91 mph two-seamers and a looping 78 mph curve. He threw some changeups occasionally, too, but they were terrible, so he was mostly a two-pitch guy with below-average velocity who compensated by throwing strikes.
Now, for comparison, here’s Morton’s fastball and curve from last night. This was his fastball to Corey Seager, one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball.
And because this at-bat might be the lingering memory of this game for me, here’s the three pitches he threw to Cody Bellinger in the seventh.
That’s 99 on the hands to Seager, shattering his bat with an unhittable fastball, follows by three just knockout curveballs to Bellinger that said good morning, good afternoon, and good night. There were some great pitchers in this series; on just raw stuff, though, no one could really match Morton’s overpowering fastball/curveball combination.
By DNA, he’s the same guy, but as a pitcher, the 2017 version of Charlie Morton bares little resemblance to the guy who came up with the Pirates. And, in that way, Morton is the personification of what we saw on a league-wide level this year. The idea of a static skill set, that you are what you are, just doesn’t really exist anymore.
Morton added velocity because, in his own words, he just “tried to throw harder.” But while the 98s and 99s draw your attention, it’s really that curveball that made Morton what he has become. By linear-weight values, Morton’s curve was the third-best in baseball this year, and his ability to attack left-handers with a power swing-and-miss curve gave him something he’d never really had before.
Whether it’s Morton on the mound or Jose Altuve, Chris Taylor, and Justin Turner at the plate, we’ve entered an age where players are developing elite skills seemingly out of nowhere. Weaknesses are becoming strengths, and players are dramatically altering everything we know about their abilities. There are still differences in ability, of course, and no one can simply choose to make himself Mike Trout, but skills these days feel far more malleable than they have in the past.
And for all the talk of market inefficiencies and roster construction, this feels like the area where data and analysis are really changing the game. For most of the last 20 years, the statistical revolution was about helping the front office figure out which players weren’t being properly valued. These days, however, the data is being used not to just identify potential bargains, but to help the players themselves become something they weren’t previously.
Baseball will always have bigger-than-life stars, guys who were born with gifts of which others can only dream. But Morton is a reminder that talking about any player’s “ceiling” is basically a fool’s errand. If one can go from throwing 90 to 99 and turn his looping breaking ball into a devastating power curve, then every player’s upside is turning into the best player in the game. So many of this year’s elite players weren’t supposed to be superstars.
And yet, when the games mattered most, it was Morton facing guys like Taylor, a former slap-hitting shortstop who got to the majors with his glovework, but now is an offense-first outfielder who hits the crap out the baseball. This series had the Correas and the Seagers and the Kershaws, sure, but don’t let anyone tell you the Astros are champions simply because they lost 100 games three years in a row. They’re also champions because they gave Charlie Morton $14 million as a free agent, got mocked for it, and then watched him throw the best stuff in the World Series.
So much of baseball in 2017 feels like it came out of nowhere, so it is fitting that Morton ended this season by throwing the kind of heat usually reserved for No. 1 picks. Being great isn’t just for those born with it anymore. With hard work, Charlie Morton became something else this year, and because of that effort, he and his teammates can call themselves champions.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.