In a somewhat surprising move this winter the Tampa Bay Rays signed Charlie Morton to the largest free agent contract in the franchise’s history. The Rays signed him to lead a young pitching staff to the playoffs.
Morton rewarded the Rays with the 17th most productive season in major leagues with 6.1 fWAR and was the most valuable free agent signed last winter. When the Rays needed a stabilizing force in the rotation he has been everything they could have dreamed for and more. He set career bests in innings (194.2), strikeout rate (30.4%), WHIP (1.08), ERA (3.05), FIP (2.81), and xFIP (3.28).
Now we’re here. This is the big moment for which Morton was recruited. Tonight he gets the ball in a win or go home game.
The Pitch Mix
Morton was a very good pitcher with the Houston Astros in 2017-18, but in 2019 he’s taken another step forward. His 6.1 fWAR ranks sixth in MLB, 5.8 RA9 WAR comes in 14th, and 5.1 rWAR comes just outside their top 10. In 2019 Morton has been an elite pitcher.
The curveball has been the pitch that has made Morton a successful major league pitcher. During his time with the Astros he threw the pitch 29% of the time, but with the Rays he’s cranked that up to just over 37%. The effectiveness of the pitch has remained with a 18% swinging strike rate despite the increased usage.
Morton’s fastball has lost about one mile per hour over last year. He throws a combination of fourseamer and sinkers. In the previous two years he threw almost 60% fastballs. This year that has dropped to just under 50%. The swinging strike rate on his fourseam fastball has increased from 11% to 15%.
Morton has also added a new-ish pitch this year, a slider. It’s a sweeping slider that comes in around the mid 80s in contrast to his more up and down curve that sits in the high 70s. After not throwing it for many years he added it just over 1% of his overall pitch mix last year. This year that has spiked to almost 10%. It’s a pitch he’s more likely to use against right handed batters (12%). With a 15% swinging strike rate it gives something else for batters to think about.
History against the Athletics
This year Morton has allowed two runs or fewer in 22 of his 33 starts including both of his starts against the Oakland Athletics.
In his first start he held the Athletics scoreless for 7.0 innings allowing only two hits and striking out seven on June 10th.
Just ten days later he faced the Athletics in Oakland. This time he allowed four hits in 6.1 innings. Jurickson Profar did hit a solo homer for the lone run against Morton.
Since 2017 Morton has thrown 39.1 innings against the Athletics with a 2.97 ERA, 3.66 FIP, and 3.97 xFIP. Oakland hitters only managed a .203/.293/.345 line and put up a .282 wOBA against Morton.
The Wild Card Game
Teams have typically tried to stack as many left handers as they can against Morton;. he has faced a slim majority of hitters from the left side (51.3%).
The Athletics lineup, however, is heavy with right handed bats. Their only real left handed threat is Matt Olson. Olson has smashed righties so Morton will have to navigate around him. Jurickson Profar, a switch hitter, got Morton for a homer earlier in the year, but has shown minimal splits over his career and put up a 79 wRC+ vs RHP this year. Seth Brown has been a pleasant surprise after being called up in late August. These are likely the only three lefties the Athletics are likely to send to the plate against Morton.
As Morton has allowed just a .202/.266/.296 line and .247 wOBA against right handed batters this year. This should be a very favorable matchup for Morton.
There is nobody else that the Rays would want on the mound with their season on the line no matter who they were facing, but the Athetic’s righty-dominated lineup makes Morton a particularly good choice for tonight. Charlie Freakin’ Morton, you’ve got this.