By: Charlie Silkin
Coming off a World Series title and 2 ALCS appearances with the Astros, Charlie Morton took his talents to Tropicana Field, signing a 2 yr./$30M deal with the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2019 offseason. Given the fact that the Rays were on a tight budget and had to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the division, they needed a difference-maker, and Morton was the pitcher of choice.
Besides the Rays’ unusual splurging, there were 2 other reasons why this move could be considered a surprise: First of all, Charlie Morton was 35 years old when he signed and with the recent exceptions of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, pitchers tend to be less effective as Father Time takes its hold. Secondly, prior to his two-year tenure with the Houston Astros, Charlie Morton had only one season (2013) where he was an above-average pitcher, and then again, he was barely above-average with a 109 ERA+ (he was only 9% better than the average pitcher).
Nevertheless, Morton did experience a resurgence when he signed with the Houston Astros prior to the 2017 season, which is no surprise considering Houston is one of the best teams at analytically improving starting pitchers. Of course, Tampa Bay is a heavily analytically-driven club as well, so one could argue that Morton was put in a good position to succeed despite leaving the Astros.
As for the question of “Why Morton?”, under-the-radar, Morton is actually one of the most clutch pitchers in baseball. Prior to the 2019 season, Morton was 2-0 in playoff elimination games, with wins in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. His clutch ways would continue throughout the 2019 season, as he was 5th in the AL in Win-Probability Added (WPA) and 3rd in the AL in +WPA1; it’s no wonder he was selected to start the AL Wild Card game for the Rays (which he would also win). Needing someone to get them over the hump, the Rays chose Morton, and it’s safe to say that their investment paid off greatly, as he was one of the best and most valuable starting pitchers in all of MLB this past season and as a result, he should be considered as the top candidate for the AL Cy Young award this season.
Even after being effective for the Astros, Morton had a breakout year with the Rays. He ranked in the top 10 in the American League in most statistical categories among qualified starters. He ranked 3rd in ERA (3.08), 4th in fWAR (6.1), 4th in xFIP (3.28), 5th in K/9 (11.1), and 5th in ground ball rate (48.2 %). He even ranked 2nd in FIP (2.81) – ahead of Justin Verlander’s 3.27! Shocking, right? Well not really. Justin Verlander is still one of the best pitchers in the game, yes, and he still has elite stuff to prove it, but he had one major flaw: home runs. His 36 home runs allowed were the second-most in the American League this season, but he still had an ERA below 3. Why? Only one of his home runs allowed was with more than one baserunner. 28 of his 36 home runs allowed were solo shots, the result of allowing a .218 BABIP against him and stranding almost 90% of his baserunners. In the playoffs, we saw what happened when Justin Verlander did not effectively prevent baserunners and did not leave them hanging on the bases. In Game 2 of the ALCS against the Yankees, Verlander allowed a 2-run home run to Aaron Judge that would have won the game for the Yankees had Adam Ottavino not imploded. In Game 5 of the ALCS as well, Verlander allowed a 3-run home run to Aaron Hicks and that was all the Yankees would need to win the game. There’s no question that Verlander is very valuable to his team and he has the 6.4 fWAR to prove it, but his 2.58 ERA vs a 3.27 FIP suggests that his performance was in spite of being home-run prone and that his stats paint a better picture of his performance than what it probably should have been. Morton wasn’t as fortunate in keeping people off the bases, with a LOB% of 75.3% and a .298 BABIP, but he was the only one of the Cy Young contenders with a higher ERA than FIP, suggesting he was likely a bit unlucky throughout the season.
Cole, on the other hand, needs no introduction. His ERA (2.50), ERA+ (189), and FIP (2.64) all led the American League, and he had the most strikeouts (326) and highest K/9 (13.8) in all of baseball. There’s no question that Gerrit Cole was one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, but was it because of an easy schedule? Of course, the Astros didn’t choose their schedule, Gerrit Cole was a dominant pitcher during the season, and his stuff showed as much, but it has to be worth noting that only 12 of his 33 starts were against a team who finished the season with a record of .500 or better. It’s no wonder why his stat line looks so attractive—one-third of his starts were against the Angels, Rangers, and Mariners. Great job beating up the bottom-feeders of the American League, Gerrit. In all seriousness though, Cole mostly did well at preventing runs against the good teams with a 2.05 ERA, but really, only 12 starts? The best team Cole can say he faced in the regular season was the injury-plagued Yankees—in April. Morton, on the other hand, made 18 of his 33 starts against teams with a winning record, and while pitching through a tougher schedule successfully does not deem a pitcher “better”, it can’t be ignored that Morton had to go through much more adversity than Gerrit Cole to put up high-level numbers this past season. Not only did Cole face mostly soft opponents, but when the ball was in the air, like Verlander, Cole got into trouble. Cole finished the season with the 2nd-highest HR/FB rate in the AL (16.9%), meaning that almost 17% of Cole’s fly balls went into the seats. In addition, Cole had a mere 40.3 ground-ball %, tied for the 8th lowest in the AL. With that distribution, Cole is probably counting his blessings that his run prevention statistics weren’t worse as well. When hitters did manage to make contact against Cole, they got plenty of opportunities to do damage, but given their mostly lack of talent, there was barely any offense to be generated.
When determining who deserves the distinction of being the “best” pitcher in the league, should the title go to a pitcher who got lucky, one who coasted his way through the season, or the pitcher, who, despite not having the shiniest stat line, could be counted on in the biggest moments and would always come through when his team needed him? That was Charlie Morton. When the Rays needed a difference-maker in the rotation, Charlie Morton stepped up. When the rest of the Rays rotation was injured in August, it was Morton who provided length and stability every 5th day in order to give his team’s bullpen a much-needed reprieve. In the shadow of Justin Verlander and Cole, Morton tossed the best season of his career and as a result of his contributions, the Rays, the team which spent the least amount of money on its roster, were able to fight their way into the playoffs.