Charlie Morton generated some buzz in the spring, and I was part of the buzzing crowd. A little over a month into the season, I checked back in on Morton and remained high on him. Still, I wasn’t quite high enough on him. Heading into his final start of the regular season tonight, ESPN’s player rater has him ranked as SP29. The 33-year-old hurler is having a career year, and the reinvention that he teased in an injury-abbreviated 2016 in four starts turned out to be a precursor of his big 2017 season.
The righty’s fastball velocity gains stuck from 2016 (94.3 mph average velocity) to this year (94.9 mph average velocity), and he’s retained that velocity through the season averaging 94.3 mph with his fastball in his last start. The extra sharp cheddar isn’t the only carryover from last year. After sporting a 7.7% SwStr% from 2008 through 2015 with a single-season high of 8.1% in 2013, he blew hitters away with a 12.3% SwStr%. He hasn’t maintained a SwStr% north of 12%, but he’s sitting at 11.0% on the nose this year, above the league average of 10.4%, and tied for 24th highest among starters who’ve pitched a minimum of 140 innings. His splitter, fourseamer, cutter and curveball have double-digit SwStr% at 11.1%, 11.4%, 12.1% and 17.9%, respectively. Morton’s curve is an elite swing-and-miss offering with a 43.12% Whf/Sw that’s 11th highest out of 106 starting pitchers’ curves thrown a minimum of 200 times, according t Baseball Prospectus. His sinker isn’t a bat-missing pitch, but it serves its purpose with a robust 56.2% GB%, and his splitter (50.0% GB%) and curve (54.0% GB%) both do a great job of coaxing worm burners, too.
The 33-year-old righty has been death on left-handed batters this year holding them to a .264 OBP, .291 SLG and .247 wOBA. Righties have had more success against him with a .350 OBP, .470 SLG and .351 wOBA. That sure looks like a shortcoming that could use remedying, but it appears Morton’s already made big strides in same-handed matchups. In April, he might as well have put the ball on a tee for right-handed batters coughing up a .403 OBP, .651 SLG, .439 wOBA and 46.2% Hard% with a paltry 15.4% Soft%. Since the calendar flipped to May, he’s held right-handed batters to a .336 OBP, .419 SLG, .327 wOBA, 20.6% Hard% and 27.9% Soft%. Despite the excellent batted-ball profile, he’s had some poor luck with a .319 BABIP since May. There could be some room for further growth.
Speaking of growth, he’ll be making his 25th start in the majors this year tonight, and he added three starts spanning 10.1 innings while working his way back from a disabled list stint, giving him a solid foundation to build upon next year after pitching only 17.1 innings in 2016. Furthermore, Morton’s shown in-season growth between halves. In the first half, he spun a 3.82 ERA (4.11 FIP, 3.74 xFIP and 3.98 SIERA), 1.34 WHIP, 9.2% BB%, 24.9% K%, 10.0% SwStr% and 50.6% GB% in 11 starts and 63.2 innings. He’s made sizable gains with a 3.48 ERA (3.05 FIP, 3.50 xFIP and 3.53 SIERA), 1.11 WHIP, 7.7% BB%, 28.1% K%, 11.9% SwStr% and 52.0% GB% in 13 starts totaling 77.2 innings in the second half. He obviously won’t be able to be had as cheaply in 2018 as he was entering this year, but I’ll gladly buy him as an SP3 with SP2 upside. The righty’s failure to ever hit the 200-inning threshold in his career is the only thing holding me back from fully endorsing him as an SP2. Regardless, the quality of work is high, and with bullpens being used the way they are in today’s game, fewer than 20 pitchers will hit the 200-inning plateau this year. It will be the second year in a row that’s the case after only 15 hit the 200-inning mark in 2016.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.