Locking Up the Second Charlie Morton

A lot of people are big fans of player comparables. When describing a current reality or a projected future, it can help to attach a familiar face, so that an audience has a better idea of the point being conveyed. Comps can be useful, but they’re also controversial, in part because every player is unique, and in part because they’re frequently unrealistic. A flattering comp lasts forever, and if a player doesn’t pan out it can make an analyst or scout look pretty stupid. I don’t even remember the context anymore, but a few years ago I remember seeing J.A. Happ compared to Cliff Lee, and this was well after Lee became awesome. Happ obviously hasn’t gone in that direction, and while maybe the observer was on to something at the time, now it’s a comparison to laugh at. The most one can say is that J.A. Happ is closer to being Cliff Lee than you are, presuming you’re not Cliff Lee or someone better than J.A. Happ.

Talk about Charlie Morton and, at least on the Internet, you’ll probably end up talking about Roy Halladay. The backstory is simple enough: Morton was bad, and he wanted to not be bad, so he went to a new delivery that looked a lot like Halladay’s. People chuckle, because Halladay simply had one of the best pitcher peaks ever, while Morton’s just a guy on a team. But ignore the Halladay angle and it’s clear that Morton has turned himself into something, and now he’s got a new three-year contract with the Pirates, worth $21 million. Morton saved his career, and now he’s a part of a good team’s present and future.

The boring details: Morton was a year away from free agency, so this buys out two of those years and one year of arbitration eligibility. He’s going to get $4 million in 2014, which he was already in line to receive. The subsequent two years are each worth $8 million. Then there’s a pricier club option with a $1-million buyout. In his free-agent years, he’ll get paid like Phil Hughes and Jason Vargas. He’ll get paid a little less than Scott Feldman.

We’ll come back to Hughes later, but first, a word on how Morton has changed himself. He’s a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery, but last season he made 20 starts. Out of the 139 starters who threw at least 100 innings, Morton tied for 65th in FIP-, at 98. His immediate company was Eric Stults and Juan Nicasio, but both of them were considerably worse by xFIP-. By that measure, Morton tied for 58th, his immediate company being Andy Pettitte, Jon Lester, Dan Haren, and Chris Tillman. Just back from major surgery, Morton pitched well for a contender for more than half a year. It continued a trend.

Morton was a disaster in 2010, at least according to his runs and hits allowed. It was after that season that Morton started making changes, providing for us a really neat and convenient dividing line. Previously, Morton threw more over the top, like Halladay used to. He readjusted to a lower arm angle, like Halladay did, and here’s a hell of a quote:

That’s when Overbay compared Morton to reigning NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay of the Phillies. Last week, Overbay added this: “This is Roy Halladay with better stuff.”

Morton says that he reinvented himself, and by the narrative, he did become a completely different pitcher. And, certainly, Morton’s the guy who experiences his own throwing motion, so he knows how much he’s changed. By the statistics, however, the change hasn’t been super dramatic. We can compare 2011-2013 Charlie Morton to 2008-2010 Charlie Morton, very easily. His strikeouts haven’t really budged. His contact rates haven’t really budged. His walks have gone down a little bit, but not significantly. He’s got the same heat. But, before, Morton generated 48% grounders. Since changing, he’s generated 60% grounders. That’s what the new Charlie Morton is.

He’s an extreme groundballer. The last three seasons, no starter has generated a higher groundball rate. It’s easy to see how this meshes well with Pittsburgh’s aggressive defensive shifting, but you can also see how this would help under any circumstances with any team. Before, Morton posted an FIP- of 117 and an xFIP- of 108. Since, he’s come in at 101 and 103. He was a little bit better this past season. Morton has gone from the fringes to adequacy, and now he’ll get paid roughly the market rate for a perfectly adequate starter. Dropping the arm and getting more sink will have turned Charlie Morton into a multimillionaire.

Naturally, there are some warts. Because he throws so many sinkers from a lower angle, Morton can have trouble putting lefties away. He’s going to run some pretty big platoon splits. On top of that, Morton’s never proven himself to be durable, and within individual games, he’s unlikely to go far beyond 100 pitches. He’s a sinker-baller, but not a sinker-balling workhorse, and left-handed lineups can drive him out early. But any roughly average starter is going to have his strengths and weaknesses. Morton also keeps balls down and keeps righties quiet, and there are a lot of good righties out there.

I think it’s interesting to compare Morton and Hughes. The situations aren’t directly comparable, because Morton was still under team control another year. Also, Hughes is a few years younger. But both guys have been given three-year commitments, both guys will be paid the same in their free-agency years, and age means a lot less for pitchers than it does for hitters. When you think Phil Hughes, you think about the pitcher he was supposed to become, and the raw talent that has to still be in there somewhere. Morton, though, might well be the better investment.

Another reason they’re fun to put side by side: the last three seasons, as noted, no starter has posted a higher groundball rate than Morton. The last three seasons, no starter has posted a lower groundball rate than Hughes. Hughes has started more games, but Morton seems to be over his injury problems. Hughes wins by strikeouts and walks, but, interestingly, the two have been dead even by contact rate. Hughes hasn’t had a meaningful velocity edge. And, Morton’s posted the better ERA- by 14 points. He’s posted the better FIP- by eight points. He’s posted the better xFIP- by six points. On a per-inning basis, Charlie Morton has been a better starter than Phil Hughes, and he was much better in the most recent season. The Twins are paying for potential. The Pirates are paying for what’s already there.

This isn’t some kind of tremendous bargain, because Morton is only so good, and he can get only so much better with his skillset. It is a good deal, with little long-term risk. And in the bigger picture, a guy who didn’t know who he was after 2010 just signed an eight-figure contract to remain with the same organization that saw him through the low points. In a sense, the big winner is Charlie Morton, and in a sense, Charlie Morton had already won. He’s not Roy Halladay, but he’s become extremely confident in just being himself.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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glad dexqru453 likes the deal!


For the record, there was a spam bot above my comment that got deleted.

Anyway, this is just a nice fair deal for both sides. Charlie Morton is one of my favorite players, so I’m glad he got paid. Hopefully that elbow holds up!