Recently, the Astros haven’t been playing like the dominant team that they have been all season. Since July 18, they are 12-16. Their pitching is falling apart — since that date, Houston’s pitching staff has a 5.11 ERA, bringing the team’s season ERA from 3.94 to 4.22. Yet talks with the Tigers over Justin Verlander are going nowhere. There has been one bright spot amidst the struggles, though: Charlie Morton.
A third-round pick by the Braves in 2002, Morton was one of the three pieces in the 2009 trade with the Pirates that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta. He pitched in Pittsburgh for seven seasons, never eclipsing 1.6 fWAR in a season. He struggled to strike out hitters at a high rate and couldn’t limit walks to the point where that would not be an issue.
The Phillies traded for Morton during the 2015-16 offseason, but he only pitched in four games for the team, tearing his hamstring at the end of April. Still, though, the Astros must have liked what they saw, giving Morton a two-year, $14 million deal last offseason. And, outside of a lat injury in May, he has produced. A lot.
In fact, over the last 30 days, Morton ranks sixth among Major League starters in fWAR. His 25.8 percent strikeout rate during that time rivals the marks of some very good pitchers, including Danny Duffy, Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom and Sonny Gray. Hitters are batting just .193 against him.
His latest start came against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday. He was very good, pitching 6 1⁄3 innings, allowing one run on three hits, walking four and striking out nine. Morton has struggled with control at various points throughout his career, so we shouldn’t be concerned about the four walks.
Morton’s varying fastballs were his most dominant pitches. Throwing a four-seamer, a two-seamer (which has also been classified as a sinker at times) and a cutter, all of Morton’s 12 whiffs on Wednesday came on one of those three pitches. Morton ranks 22nd in the major leagues in the number of pitches thrown 95 mph or faster, throwing 33 such pitches against Arizona, some as hard as 97 mph.
Morton hasn’t always been a hard-throwing righty, either. His average velocity on both his four-seam fastball and his two-seam fastball (or sinker) are at career-highs this year, at 96.0 mph and 95.4 mph, respectively. Morton touched 99.1 mph with the two-seamer earlier this year. “Charlie Morton can throw 99 mph” is not a sentence I expected to write when beginning this piece.
The changes truly began last season, while he was with Philadelphia. As he told Matt Gelb of the Philly.com:
"For some reason," Morton said, "I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard one game. I wound up throwing it harder."
“I feel like my arm is working really well," he said. "My timing is really good. I feel like my arm is quicker. I'm maintaining my pitch speed throughout the game, which is really promising. It's not just I go out there, throw hard, and it fades away.”
The 33-year-old has made 18 starts this season, posting a 3.69 ERA and a 119:42 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 107 1⁄3 innings pitched. Morton has career bests in both DRA (3.65) and K-BB% (16.8 percent). His fastball success is certainly part of the reason why he’s been so good this year, but Morton’s curveball is what truly makes him stand out.
Top weighted curveball runs above average, 2017
Morton has the fourth-best curveball in the majors this season, ranking higher than pitchers known for their excellent curves, like Aaron Nola, Stephen Strasburg and Jerad Eickhoff. His curve has both good vertical movement and horizontal movement away from right-handed hitters. As a result, batters have hit just .116 against it this year.
Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs pointed out earlier this year that Morton’s curveball had the ability to become a great offspeed offering against left-handed hitters. And get lefties out it has. Morton has upped his curveball usage against left-handed hitters, and they have just a .157/.263/.266 slash line against him to show for it.
Morton posted his best wOBA against lefties in 2014, with a .302 mark. This season, he has bettered that down to .239. He’s been that good. Historically, Morton has always been better against right-handed hitters, but he has used the curve to flip the switch.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said it best in April, via The New York Times:
“I do believe that Charlie Morton isn’t a back-of-the-rotation guy,” Luhnow said early in the exhibition season. “He hit 97 three times in the first inning yesterday, with a lot of sink on his pitches and good secondary stuff. A healthy Charlie Morton could work himself into the conversation with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers at the top of our rotation.”
At least for now, Luhnow is right. Charlie Morton finds himself at the top of a struggling Astros pitching staff. As Houston buckles down for the playoffs, it’ll be depending on its surprising de facto ace.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.