While you weren’t looking, along with 28 or 29 other teams, Charlie Morton has become an ace.
Tampa Bay Rays starter Charlie Morton breezed through the Detroit Tigers’ lineup Wednesday night, with seven scoreless innings as he allowed five hits with eight strikeouts and zero walks over 83 pitches. He’s now 7-0 with a 2.30 ERA, an 11.0 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 this season over 13 starts (74.1 innings).
Over his last eight starts, Morton has a 1.70 ERA with a 57:15 K/BB ratio over 47.2 innings. Going back over his last 20 starts, to August of last season, he is 10-0 with 121 strikeouts and 37 walks over 104 innings.
Coming off two excellent seasons with the Houston Astros, Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays during the offseason. Age (35) was surely a factor in a lack of a market for Morton, but in light of the deals Lance Lynn (three years, $30 million), J.A Happ (two years, $34 million), Nathan Eovaldi (four years, $68 million) got, the Rays got a huge bargain.
Prior to landing with the Astros, Morton had a 4.54 career ERA with a litany of injuries and had only made four starts for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016 due to a torn hamstring suffered while running out a ground ball. His K/9 rate over that small 2016 sample increased to 9.9, but the Astros clearly saw something and created a whole new pitcher (3.36 ERA over the 2017 and 2018 seasons).
So what happened?
Multiple pitchers have credited the Astros’ analytical approach with helping them reach a higher level of success, or sustaining renewed success in the case of Justin Verlander. But Morton might be that organization’s greatest achievement.
Morton has been, and still is, essentially a four-pitch pitcher (fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup). But over his two years in Houston his four-seam fastball velocity rose to 96 MPH or more (96.6 MPH in 2018), while his curveball velocity has dropped (78.8 MPH this year with the Rays). In very basic terms, better separation has fostered a new level of success. Making his fastball and curveball look the same until it’s too late for a batter to react correctly, under the simple yet analytic principal of Effective Velocity, has also pushed Morton to a new level.
Morton is throwing his fastball less so far this year than did in either of his two seasons with the Astros (47.8 percent, according to FanGraphs), and substantially so compared to last year (58.3 percent), while nearly doubling the rate he’s throwing his cutter (12.0 percent this year; 6.2 percent in 2018). He’s throwing his curveball a lot more so far in 2019 (36.1 percent), as his changeup usage (4.1 percent) continues a downward trend.
The Rays have been at the forefront of analytics usage, as have the Astros in recent years with rare big misses. Together they’ve made Morton into a legit late-career ace, and the other 28 teams (29 if you want to count the Astros not re-signing him) have missed out on a pitcher who’s as close to Greg Maddux as we’ve seen since the original called it a career.