Not to be confused with a certain sub-Mendozan Detroit Wolverine of yore, this Charlie Morton was a cold-weather prep arm who went to Atlanta in the third round in 2002. Considered raw and highly projectable when drafted, Morton was lauded for his arm speed and ideal starter’s frame. He struggled consistently if not mightily through his first five professional seasons, failing to post a walk rate under 4 per 9 or an ERA under 4.50 at any turn through A-ball, ultimately converting to a swing role at High-A in 2006. He continued to scuffle in a predominantly relief role at Double-A in 2007, before turning some heads with all-of-a-sudden mid-90s gas and a quality cambio in the AFL that year. Best of all, he carried the breakout into a 2008 return to the rotation, dropping a 2.05 FIP over a dozen starts to force a big-league debut that went… well, it was a big-league debut, so let’s call it a win.
Sent back to Triple-A to start 2009, he subsequently shipped off to Pittsburgh that summer as part of the return haul for Nate McClouth. A disastrous—and I mean disastrous—2010 followed, in which batters pummeled both his four- and two-seam fastballs at a .568 slugging percentage en route to scoring over 7 ½ runs per 9 off him. He went 2-12 in 17 starts for a Pirates team that lost 105.
2011 brought the dawn of a new era, as he dropped his arm slot significantly and overhauled his pitch mix, migrating to a sinker-heavy approach that drove a massive spike in his groundball rate, transforming him to one of the premier worm-burners in the game.
The four Black-and-Gold years that followed saw a maddeningly consistent inconsistency, as annual injuries—including 2012 Tommy John surgery—depressed his innings totals. Despite some flashes, he never really managed to show more than back-end fantasy utility for most of this period; the velocity briefly spiked in 2013, but by and large settled in the low-90s. His extreme ground-ball ways and more consistent control kept him anchored in Pirate rotations when healthy enough to compete, but he lacked a swing-and-miss offering to drive fantasy interest, and his inability to put away left-handed hitters on the regular left him a volatile-at-best matchup play in most leagues.
He left for Philadelphia in 2016, and lo, intrigue! He showed up to Spring Training healthy and sitting 94-95 with a two-seamer that’d suddenly gained three miles-an-hour. He touched 97 in his third start, and after back-to-back quality starts in which he whiffed a batter an inning he started opening some eyes as an early FAAB target. And then, in a fitting nod to his career to date, he shredded his left hamstring in his fourth start of the season and was done.
Still, the Astros liked enough of what they saw in that abbreviated re-boot in Philly, inking him to a lo-fi two-year, $14 million contract in the off-season. Fantasy managers saw an end-game flyer too, sneaking him in to the 400 average ADP range las spring.
What Went Right in 2017
He stayed healthy-ish! Sure, there was a lat strain at the end of May that cost him five weeks, but at the end of the day the 33-year-old managed almost 147 innings in 2017, only the second time he reached that total since 2011.
And, best of all, they were pretty damn good innings to boot. An ERA in the mid-threes was roundly supported by both his similar DRA and a tidy 80 cFIP, while his 1.19 WHIP cracked the top-20 among starters who logged his workload. Paired with an explosive strikeout rate (more on that in a moment), he ended up creating top-30 value among pitchers in spite of the reduced workload.
So how did this happen? Well, it started first and foremost with the queso. His velocity spike not only held, it spiked further, up to 95-96 sitting range. Beyond that, though, a sneaky thing had happened to Morton after he returned from his TJ rehab with the lowered arm slot: His curveball got a lot better. It’s not a particularly notable hook from an aggregate movement standpoint, but coupled with a corresponding jump in velocity it generated well above-average post-tunnel action off his two-seamer to drive a top-10 whiff rate among curveballs spun by right-handed starters.
He also continued a resurrection tour for his cutter, begun a year earlier in Philadelphia. It’s a pitch he’d summarily scrapped after the 2012 campaign, but it came back with a vengeance last season, emerging as another secondary with a top-10 whiff rate among right-handed starters.
Armed with two bat-missing secondaries and 70-grade velocity all of a sudden, Morton was able to dial back on the deployment of his problematic splitter and dramatically boost his whiff rate from a career mark of less than 7 per 9 all of the way to 10.
He made particularly impressive strides to squash traditionally troublesome left-handed hitters, holding them to a pathetic .175/.263/.298 line for the year. And he did it with a wildly different pitch mix: He threw half as many sinkers against lefties as he had in 2015, in favor of deploying his curveball more than any other pitch and ramping up both his cutter and four-seam usage against them.
What Went Wrong in 2017
Ironically, the step forward in stuff and overhauled arsenal that so impressively dominated the southpaws left him oddly exposed against same-handed hitters. Righties crushed his sinker and cutter with disregard, slugging .534 and .611 respectively against the offerings. He made concerted strides in moving away from the former pitch as the season progressed, but wasn’t ultimately able to land on a combination that stifled righties to his customary levels.
He also did, once again, miss a significant chunk of time on the disabled list. The lat injury wasn’t necessarily the structural variety that can portend worse things ahead, but given that his career is littered with injuries to all parts of his body, it’s not the best. Entering his Age 34 season next year, it is highly unlikely Morton suddenly evolves into a durable workhorse.
What to Expect in 2018
Well, Morton’s greatest asset in generating 2017 value (his draft-day obscurity) is unlikely to remain an asset into next spring. Pitchers who put up top-30 seasons, even ones with as much health-associated risk as Morton, don’t tend to stick around until the 27th round, as he did last year in NFBC drafts.
But those health risks may just conspire enough to keep him marginally undervalued. What’s cool about Morton’s breakout production when able to produce last year: It left the door open to further improvement. His weirdly poor performance against same-handed hitters with a more traditional (for him) pitch mix suggests there’s an opportunity there to experiment with the new avenues of his now-Great Stuff to find a more effective method of attack.
Houston already has turned a profit on this deal, so everything they get out of Morton next year will be gravy. He gave them no reason to consider moving him out of the starting rotation, either, and that means he’ll be well-positioned to take advantage of the best offense in baseball propping up potential win tallies. That’s a combination that makes him a relatively safe mid-rotation investment on the merits. The health risk shouldn’t be downplayed, of course, and will very likely result in depressed aggregate production. The crapshoot element of that risk makes him a less desirable gamble in head-to-head formats, too.
Still, he feels like a pitcher careening towards the Rich Hill Zone as a veteran offering above-average production across below-average innings. Problem is, Hill came off NFBC draft boards 124th overall last spring, as an eighth-rounder in 15-team leagues. That translates roughly to a low SP2 or high SP3 investment, which would be extremely aggressive. But as a lower SP3 target in that context, there’d be something here. He feels like a guy who’ll probably come off the board earlier than he realistically should, and as a high-variance player with significant health risk it’ll be really case by case as to whether the draft value is justifiable.
The Great Beyond
Seeing as how he’ll turn 34 in exactly a month, and all of those durability questions hang around his neck like Flava Flav on an ambitious day, Morton is not exactly ideal as a long-term investment. That said, for teams in keeper leagues heading into next season at or near the peak of their expected win curves, Morton will be an interesting name on the target board this winter—especially if he currently belongs to a team on the decline. He’s the kind of guy that can typically be wrangled for a couple of mid-tier prospects if the approach is right, and it’s certainly worth exploring a deal for him at that price range, given the potential return on investment over the next couple years if he can stay healthy.