Morton was the first major-league player I encountered who exhibited a real interest in analytics. He developed an appreciation of numbers from his father, Chip, an accountant and former Penn State basketball player. As Morton struggled with inconsistency early in his major-league career — he posted a 6.15 ERA with the Braves as a rookie in 2008 — he turned to PITCHf/x information to better understand his stuff and performance beyond a traditional box score. He found PITCHf/x data and fielding-independent numbers kept him sane. He found advanced statistics and PITCHf/x provided a better baselines of performance to study. His father dove into the data, too, and they often had phone calls discussing the quality of his stuff, the velocity, and horizontal and vertical movement, etc.
Earlier in his career with the Pirates — and with the help of Jim Benedict and Ray Searage — Morton had dropped his arm slot and and adopted the two-seamer as his primary pitch. His new, and present, delivery reminded many of Roy Halladay. The Pirates had Morton watch video of Halladay. And at times, Morton’s stuff — his darting sinker and bending curveball — also resembled former Philadelphia and Toronto ace’s. In Pittsburgh, during the good times, he earned nicknames like “Electric Stuff” and “Ground Chuck.” He posted a 62.9% ground-ball rate in 2013 to go along with a 3.26 ERA and 3.60 FIP. He earned a three-year contract extension after the 2013 season.
But his stuff was never consistently electric, and he never consistently remained on the mound long enough. His resume is littered with DL stints, including one for Tommy John surgery. He was traded to Philadelphia in 2016 in something of a salary-dump deal. In the spring of 2016, Morton was coming off a 4.81 ERA season when he made just 23 starts. He was booed off the mound in his last start as a Pirate. He looked like an injury-prone ground-ball specialist who was going to continue to struggle against lefties due to the lack of a third pitch.
With the Phillies, though, Morton made a transformation. Matt Gelb reported on Morton’s velocity jump back in the spring of 2016 for Philly.com:
“For some reason,” Morton said. “I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard one game. I wound up throwing it harder.
“I feel like my arm is working really well … My timing is really good. I feel like my arm is quicker. I’m maintaining my pitch speed throughout the game, which is really promising. It’s not just I go out there, throw hard, and it fades away.”
Last spring, the analytically inclined Morton appeared to do less thinking. Perhaps concerned that he was running out of answers, he made a very uncomplicated decision: he was going to try and light up the radar gun.
And he did.
His two-seam fastball velocity jumped from 91.8 mph to a then-career-best 93.3 over four April starts last season. His swinging-strike rate jumped to a career-best 12%, his ground-ball rate remained elite (63%), and his K rate jumped to 26.8%. He had never reached 20% in any single season for his career.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case with Morton, his plans were derailed by injury. This new version of Morton missed the rest of the season after tearing his hamstring in April. Still, in November, after Morton had lost another season to injury, Jeff Sullivan tried to sell us on him.
We should listen to Jeff. Always listen to Jeff.
And the Astros should be applauded for their foresight in signing Morton to a two-year, $14-million, incentive-laden deal, a contract that looks like one of the best offseason bargains this side of Eric Thames — even if Morton continues to be unable to pitch a full season.
As you might be aware, Morton’s velocity is up again. His two-seamer is averaging 95.7 mph now, his strikeout rate is a healthy 27%, and he has a 3.30 FIP early this season.
Morton hit 99 mph — Charlie Morton hit 99 mph!!! — against the Yankees on Sunday night. It was the fastest pitch of his career.
While that particular pitch wasn’t located well, this darting 98 mph offering of filth was located perfectly, and was as nasty a pitch as you will see in the majors:
Morton’s average two-seam velocity is the third fastest among qualified pitchers this season, trailing only Wily Peralta and Gerrit Cole’s. His two-seamer has always had excellent run, and has produced the 61st best ground-ball-to-BIP ratio of the PITCHf/x era, according to Baseball Prospectus’s leaderboards.
Morton has always has a fastball that featured positive attributes beyond mere velocity. Now that it has plus-plus velocity, it looks like a truly special pitch. He has always had a quality curveball. But one element that has held Morton back throughout his career is his inability to execute or trust a changeup, or another third pitch. He’s experimented with a split-change grip, but he’s rarely thrown it. Lefties have crushed him for his career, posting a .370 wOBA versus (.300 wOBA mark vs. RHH) against Morton. What’s strange about his 2017 to date is that he hasn’t changed his pitch mix significantly; he’s still primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher. But this season lefties have posted a .252 wOBA against him.
What’s going on?
Well, small sample, of course. But there’s something else going on, too. For his career, Morton has thrown curveballs at a 22% rate against lefties. In his last (mostly) full season, 2015, he threw the pitch at a 25% rate against lefties. This season? A 35% rate.
Consider his curveball against Didi Gregorius on Sunday night:
And a curveball against Aaron Hicks, who has become one of the more disciplined hitters in the game:
That’s a legit swing-and-miss offering.
If Morton continues to throw his darting two-seamer and to neutralize lefties with increased curveball usage, the Astros might really have something. Astros GM Jeffrey Luhnow told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times he thought he had something this spring.
“I do believe that Charlie Morton isn’t a back-of-the-rotation guy,” Luhnow said early in the exhibition season. “He hit 97 three times in the first inning yesterday, with a lot of sink on his pitches and good secondary stuff. A healthy Charlie Morton could work himself into the conversation with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers at the top of our rotation.”
Luhnow said in a radio interview with 790 AM in Houston that Morton “checked all the boxes” in regard to his skill set and noted that Morton’s injuries had rarely been tied to his arm.
So why weren’t more teams interested?
There is the very real injury history, sure. But that also helped make Morton a bargain even if he is only, say, a 160-inning pitcher.
There was the small sample of his improved stuff last year that teams likely were skeptical in trusting.
But the Astros should be applauded for digging deeper and taking a bold step. With the data tools available today, we have a better understanding of true talent level and the underpinnings of success and failure. We better understand when skills stabilize. And it should allow teams to better trust some small samples of work, of skill growth. Sure, there is risk in signing any arm, but Morton carried more upside than most reclamation-project arms this offseason. In some ways, he was similar to Rich Hill’s 2015 small-sample breakout. The believers were rewarded. It’s a reminder that fortune favors the bold, fortune favors the teams willing to dig and look beyond the conventional wisdom or narrative surrounding a player.
Few saw this version of Morton coming, but if we were looking in the right places, we should have.