Times are desperate, man. You know what kind of shape the free-agent market for starting pitchers is in. I hope you like Edinson Volquez, because you can’t even get a Jeremy Hellickson, and there’s only one Rich Hill to go around. Everyone knows the market is bad. Even the pitchers who make up the market know the market is bad. Out of this bad market, the Astros have plucked Charlie Morton, for two guaranteed years, and at least fourteen million guaranteed dollars.
Morton is newly 33. He appeared in four games last year before getting hurt, and his career ERA is 19% worse than league average. The Phillies let Morton walk, instead of exercising a $9.5-million option. The thing about front offices thinking so similarly is that you can’t just say “oh, the Phillies were being stupid.” No one is stupid. In Morton, the Phillies saw downside. In Morton, the Astros see upside. It’s always interesting when this happens.
And me, I’m an optimist. I’m a believer in people, and though that does come back to bite me, I see reasons to believe in Charlie Morton. I like him as an upside play, as a guy who could affordably knock your socks off.
I should start by reminding you that two years and $14 million isn’t much of a guarantee anymore. It still feels pretty big, but Bartolo Colon got nearly that much money for one year. Last offseason, Mark Lowe got two years and $11 million. Antonio Bastardo got two years and $12 million. Mike Pelfrey got two years and $16 million. Morton, for the sake of reference, got a smaller guarantee than Pelfrey did. Hellickson is going to earn more just this year after taking the qualifying offer.
So, why didn’t the Phillies try to bring Morton back? This can probably be explained by pointing to his medicals. The fact of the matter is that Morton has never made 30 major-league starts in a year. Last season, again, he made four. Here are issues that have sent Morton to the disabled list:
- left oblique strain
- right shoulder fatigue
- right hip surgery
- right elbow inflammation
- Tommy John surgery
- right hip inflammation
- sports hernia
- right hip surgery
- left hamstring surgery
He’s had problems with his lower body, he’s had problems with his upper body, and he’s had problems in the middle. He’s not young anymore, and one doesn’t get increasingly durable with age. Morton is a major health risk, as much as any pitcher you can imagine, and I doubt the Phillies felt comfortable with the investment.
That’s where the Astros come in. Bad medicals present an opportunity. Every team’s medical staff can identify a player who’s a risk. The part people can’t do is predict the future. Last winter, it was said that Kenta Maeda came over with some terrible medicals. He made 32 starts, and then another three in the playoffs. Maeda’s health risks haven’t gotten any smaller, but he showed he could make his turns. The Dodgers bet on Maeda’s talent. The Astros are betting on Morton’s talent.
And that’s where this gets really interesting. You’re probably familiar with Morton’s general profile — ground-ball righty. Now, I’m going to borrow a couple images from Brooks Baseball. Here’s one of them:
That’s a plot showing average pitch velocity, and last year, over a very small sample, Morton showed significant gains. He threw harder, and he noticed he was throwing harder. If you look over Morton’s entire history, three of his four games with the best average fastball velocity came last April, right before he blew out his hamstring. In 2015, he sat around 92. Last April, he was topping 94. Going over all the starters who threw at least 10 innings in each of the last two seasons, Morton has the third-biggest velocity improvement, behind only David Phelps (+2.9mph) and James Paxton (+2.6mph). Something was happening.
And while Morton was throwing harder, he was also throwing differently. Ever since Morton tried to reinvent himself as another Roy Halladay, he’s leaned on a two-seam fastball. Look what he did in a few games with the Phillies:
Morton’s primary pitch remained the sinking fastball, but he went from throwing it about two-thirds of the time to throwing it about half the time. He kept throwing his high-spin curve, and he kept throwing his splitter, but he also introduced, or re-introduced, a cutter that pushed 90mph. As Dave already noted, Morton has historically been awful against left-handed bats. That’s not uncommon for sinker-baller righties. A good cutter could help with that. Better velocity would also help with that.
Time to have a little fun. In the middle of last April, there might’ve been no hotter hitter than Bryce Harper. Below, you get to watch Charlie Morton strike him out on four pitches.
The gun there shows 95, and Morton’s two-seamer has incredible run. It also sinks more than almost any other starter’s two-seamer. It’s a rare pitch for a starter to have, but Morton has it in his pocket.
Not every pitch can be a great one. At least the break looks sharp.
Splitter, below the zone, 88. The year before, Morton’s splitter averaged 84.4. It’s exciting when a pitcher gains one mile per hour. It’s a sign the pitcher is going to be more effective. Bigger gains are even more appealing.
And there’s the putaway. Morton didn’t throw a cutter in this sequence, and, ultimately, he didn’t need to. His other pitches were already good enough. You wouldn’t ordinarily think of Charlie Morton as possessing an electric repertoire, but, I don’t know what to tell you. What he was throwing last April speaks for itself.
So the chance the Astros are taking is that last April’s Charlie Morton isn’t gone forever. Where the Phillies, justifiably, see an enormous injury risk, the Astros see a guy with upside, a guy who started 23 games the year before. The year before that, he started 26. Morton does have almost 900 big-league innings under his belt, and in his most recent innings, he threw his best-ever stuff, with a new pitch to use against lefties. Given a market so uninspiring, the Astros found themselves a sleeper.
Doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. Morton could get hurt again. Heck, based on the history, he probably will. But when Morton takes the mound, he could be a starter who gets both strikeouts and grounders. Those are some of the most valuable starters, and you can’t blame the Astros for seeing Morton’s good side.