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New Rays’ pitcher Charlie Morton is the best he’s ever been

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He’s peaking in his mid-30s, which should make all the other mid-30s of the world pretty jealous.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Morton is officially a member of the Rays. Morton and the club completed a two-year, $30M deal on Friday, the team announced. The deal also includes a third year option that could be as low as $1M if Morton misses significant time over the first two years because of injury and could be worth as much as $15M if he remains healthy.

Morton made his first appearance on the American League All-Star team in 2018 and gives the Rays a front line starter to pair with Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow as they seek their first postseason appearance since 2013. Tampa Bay’s formidable rotation now projects to include Snell, Morton, Glasnow, with the “opener strategy” employed in the two other starts per week.

The 35-year-old is coming off a season where he posted career bests in ERA (3.13), strikeouts (201), and innings pitched (167). This graphic from DRaysBay’s graphic specialist Dominik Vega highlights in further detail how stellar his 2018 was.

When healthy, Morton has some of the most electric stuff in baseball. Plain and simple.

His pitch repertoire, via Brooks Baseball:

In 2018, he has relied primarily on his Curve using a Knuckle Curve grip (80mph), Sinker using a Two-seam Fastball grip (96mph) and Four-seam Fastball (97mph), also mixing in a Splitter (88mph) and Cutter (89mph). He also rarely throws a Slider (87mph) and Change (88mph).

While there are seven pitch types there, Morton’s portfolio really only goes five pitches deep, with his four-seam (28.81%), sinker (29.28%), curveball (29.57%), splitter (5.95), and cutter (5.15%) — excluding anything below five percent usage.

When looking at his past pitch usage, it’s easy to notice that his strategy with the four-seam has completely changed compared to the middle part of his career. Since our focus is on current Morton, let’s take a look at his pitch usage from his 2017-18 seasons with Houston.

Morton throws a hard fastball and throws it a lot — and it’s worked alongside a good curveball (more on that soon) — but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, he is best known for elevating his fastball velocity late in his career.

The changes began a few seasons ago, while he was with Philadelphia averaging roughly 92-93 mph on his fastball pitches. As he told Matt Gelb of the

”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.”

The usage of his fastball stemmed from a greater confidence in himself to trust his stuff, which lead to the Astros believing they could turn him into an ace. Finding an effective pitching strategy takes time for every pitcher in their career. For Morton, finding that strategy started by trusting his instincts.

“Listening to my body. […] I don’t think I made any substantial changes, in terms of mechanics, but I think I started trusting myself, what my body was telling me, what my arm was telling me, everything,” Morton told Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan. “It was from then on that I started noticing, ‘Hey, it’s harder to hit 95 miles an hour on your hands than it is 91, 92 down in the zone.’ I started pitching all over the place. I started elevating the cutter. I started throwing a curveball a lot more.”

About that curveball

Morton’s curveball is his bread and butter.

According to the Brooks Baseball algorithm, his curve “generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ curves, has sweeping glove-side movement, has a sharp downward bite, is slightly harder than usual and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ curves.”

Call him a late bloomer, but Morton is just getting better, even now.

Morton saw his whiff percentage increase across his entire arsenal last season, with the curveball at the forefront of the career-altering development — making hitters miss 19.51 percent of the time against his nastiest pitch.

Clearly the Rays like this type.

Morton threw his curveball last year a whopping 29.57 percent of the time in 2018, and the pitch didn’t disappoint: he held opponents to a .142 average, .259 slugging percentage, and .212 wOBA.

It’s so odd to see a guy peak in velocity this late in career, but when his process changed, the results followed, with Morton posting 6.3 fWAR over the last two years as opposed to 7.8 fWAR over the first nine seasons with the Braves, Pirates, and Phillies.

He’s really good, has been really good, and the projections think he will continue to be really good. His Steamer projections project a 3.48 ERA, 26 starts, 152 innings, 168 strikeouts, 10.00 K/9, 3.28 BB/9, and 2.8 WAR.

Here’s the thing: the Rays don’t even need him to throw the projected 152 innings. If he can go two times through the lineup, obliterating right-handed hitters like he has the past two years (his 2018 numbers against RHB were silly good), he will be the sidekick the Rays need alongside their Cy Young-winning southpaw. And perhaps the best strategy will be to limit his innings early on, doing everything in control to prevent another injury for the highly-acclaimed but injury-prone Morton.

“For me, Charlie has been probably the best teammate and one of the kindest souls I’ve come across, not only in baseball but in general,’’ now former Astros teammate Lance McCullers Jr. told the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin. “Talking about a guy who goes out there and competes for his team whether he feels great or is not feeling great. He shows up in the big moment whether you need a big start or big outs, he’s always there to get them.”

He pitched the Astros to victory in Game 7’s of the ALCS and World Series in 2017, with the latter performance including the final out.

Were his numbers and projections likely the deciding factor for Rays executives in making him the largest free-agent signing in team history? Yes. Did the team also sign him for his playoff battle-tested past?

Absolutely they did.