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Charlie Morton is a fine wine

...and this year, he decant lose

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Rays gave Charlie Morton the richest free agent contract in club history, he was coming off a special two year run with the Houston Astros, which included a World Series championship in 2017. In said championship, Morton pitched the final four innings to close out game seven in a Madison Bumgarner-esque fashion. It was the perfect cap to the beginning of his career resurgence.

Morton was even better in 2018 in terms of run prevention thanks in part to a better strikeout rate, but went backward in FIP due to a slightly elevated walk rate and a home run rate well above the league average (which one might expect pitching half his games in Minute Maid Park):

Charlie Morton 2017-18

Year Record GS ERA K% BB% HR/FB% FIP xFIP fWAR
Year Record GS ERA K% BB% HR/FB% FIP xFIP fWAR
2017 14-7 25 3.62 26.4% 8.1% 12.5% 3.46 3.58 3.1
2018 15-2 30 3.13 28.9% 9.2% 14.5% 3.59 3.42 2.9

Whether you’re an ERA person, a DIPS (Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics) person, or even a Wins person, Morton proved his reinvention was no fluke. Even entering his age 35 season, most projection systems forecasted a mid-3’s ERA. It’s no wonder the Rays, as strategic as any organization in baseball, decided to make him their flagship offseason acquisition.

Though we already knew he was aging backwards, Morton seems to have gotten even better in 2019:

Charlie Morton 2019

Record GS ERA K% BB% HR/FB% FIP xFIP fWAR
Record GS ERA K% BB% HR/FB% FIP xFIP fWAR
8-0 14 2.10 30.2% 8.0% 7.3% 2.66 3.33 2.6

This year, Morton has effectively increased his strikeout rate, reduced his walk rate, and limited home runs to a near extreme degree. And while it’s fair to wonder whether the latter will regress, it’s worth noting that he’s also limited hard contact in general, ranking in the 84th percentile or better in xBA, xwOBA, and Exit Velocity, and in the 90th percentile or better in xSLG and actual wOBA. Additionally, his 2.6 fWAR is second in the American League only to Chicago’s Lucas Giolito.

How is he doing it? Allow me to throw you a curveball...

Better yet, allow Charlie Morton to throw you a curveball...

...

... it’s his curveball.

And while it’s no secret the Rays starters love their curveballs, no one loves them more than Morton:

Rays starters curveball usage

Pitcher 2019 CB Usage
Pitcher 2019 CB Usage
Morton 36%
Blake Snell 30%
Tyler Glasnow 30.5%

How high is that percentage? Not only is Morton dropping the hammer more in ‘19 than he has in his entire career, it’s his most used pitch by a wide margin:

Morton’s increased curveball usage seems to be no accident—the pitch ranks in the 94th percentile in spin rate, as well as 2nd in all of baseball in Statcast’s Horizontal Movement Above Average.

And even though hitters are seeing more curveballs from him, they haven’t had more success.

Charlie Morton curveball results

year # of CB xBA xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV (MPH) Whiff%
year # of CB xBA xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV (MPH) Whiff%
2017 402 .127 .217 .176 .179 82.7 43.3%
2018 482 .126 .250 .212 .199 83.0 46.3%
2019 255 .144 .173 .142 .170 82.8 44.2%

DRaysBay site manager Danny Russell talked with Morton about this very topic over the weekend:

It actually started in Philly... They were the ones that pulled me aside and suggested I throw my off-speed more. When I got to Houston, they encouraged it even more, and when I came here, they encouraged it even more...

...And because I’m throwing it more, I have a better feel for it. So I’m throwing higher quality curveballs as a result of that.

They say that too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. But in the case of Charlie Morton and his curveball, too much of a good thing has become a great thing.

Some places you go, they want you to establish the fastball, pitch off the fastball, and then mix. While places like here, and in Houston, they want you to throw your best pitches more. I don’t think there’s a wrong way of doing it, but for me, mixing the curveball more has been really beneficial.

Morton’s last three starts have been particularly exquisite, combining for 21 innings, allowing just two runs. And while he’s been consistently great all year, it appears he’s pitching his best baseball right now, providing the length to go along with the quality.

At this rate, he is a legitimate Cy Young candidate.

If Morton is indeed a fine wine, then perhaps the Rays were the perfect place setting for Morton to terroir the American League.

***

Danny Russell contributed to this article.