By: Chris Larson
Heading into this afternoon's Game Three of the American League Divisional Series between the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays, many people expected the Astros to have a very good chance of getting the three-game sweep and moving onto the American League Championship Series to face off against either the Minnesota Twins or New York Yankees. After all, the Astros had another dominant pitcher on the mound in Zack Greinke, a lineup that can mash with the best of them, and a bullpen that features plenty of different looks so it was automatic that Houston was going to win.
Well, not so fast. The Tampa Bay Rays countered with their own ace, Charlie Morton aka Ground Chuck, on the mound and dominated against Zack Greinke and the rest of the Houston Astros pitching staff that appeared in today's game. Over 3 and 2/3 innings, the Tampa Bay Rays tagged Greinke for (5) hits, (6) earned runs, (1) walk, and (3) home runs. Greinke ended up throwing a total of 61 pitches, 41 of which were strikes, but had an ERA on the day of (14.73). Certainly, nothing that Houston Astros fans or anyone would have expected with a pitcher of Zack Greinke's caliber on the mound.
Despite the struggles of Zack Greinke and the Houston Astros lineup against the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff, the true star of the day was Charlie Morton. Morton, who was a free agent this past offseason, inked a two-year, $30 million dollar deal with the Rays that includes a 2021 vesting option late in December and showed the rest of baseball the exact type of value that they saw in Morton. Of all 30 teams in baseball, everyone had the opportunity to sign Charlie Morton, but he ended up signing on the dotted line with the team that had the lowest Opening Day payroll of them all, the Tampa Bay Rays!
Charlie Morton concluded the 2019 regular season with an impressive 3.05 ERA over 194.2 innings of work. In that window, Morton recorded (240) strikeouts, a (2.81) Fielding Independent Percentage, and a (5.1) Wins Above Replacement value. If you take that WAR statistic alone, basically Charlie Morton accounted for (5) of the Tampa Bay Rays total (96) wins. Compared to other qualified American League starting pitchers in baseball, Morton ranked fifth in strikeouts, second behind only Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole in Fielding Independent Percentage, and fourth in Wins Above Replacement. Considering that the Los Angeles Angels invested over $20 million dollars in Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey, the Boston Red Sox invested $68 million dollars over four years to Nathan Eovaldi, and the San Diego Padres invested $15.5 million dollars in Garrett Richards, the signing of Charlie Morton looks like a complete steal for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Speaking of the rest of the league, take a look at the two graphs below that show the swing percentages throughout every part of the strike zone for Charlie Morton compared to the rest of baseball. Both of these graphs are courtesy of data compiled by Baseball Savant.
Essentially, there are some parts of the strike zone where Charlie Morton ended up having a higher overall whiff rate compared to the rest of baseball. For example, look at the top two parts of the strike zone on the upper-left hand side. In those two areas of the strike zone, Charlie Morton had whiff rates of (36 and 32%), while the rest of baseball averaged whiff rates of (25 and 24%) respectively in those same areas. In addition, the entire right-hand side of the strike zone, was higher for Charlie Morton than the rest of baseball as the data shows. Essentially, that means that he fared well against lefties overall. Against left-handers during the 2019 regular season, Morton recorded (136) strikeouts and held them to an opponent batting average against of (.227) and you can see why based on the figures in the chart above on the right.
Beyond those surface level numbers, Charlie Morton finished eighth among qualified American League starting pitchers with a left on-base percentage of (75.3%), held opponents to the fourth lowest batting average against (.214) in the American League, and a Win Probability Added (WPA) value of (2.79), good enough for fourth place in that category. While all of the metrics speak for themselves when it comes to Charlie Morton, what else speaks for itself is Morton's ability to absorb the big moment and thrive in high leverage situations.
If you recall, Charlie Morton pitched during the Houston Astros 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and pitched in both Game Four and Game Seven that series. More specifically, during Game Seven of that World Series, Charlie Morton held the Dodgers to (2) hits and (1) walk, while recording (4) strikeouts and threw 37 strikes on a total of 52 pitches. Morton might have only went four innings that game, but it was his composure on the mound and work ethic that helped lead the Houston Astros to a World Series Championship. Furthermore, there's a reason why the Tampa Bay Rays entrusted Morton during the American League Wild Card Game last week. As Charlie Morton showed in that game, he can handle the big moment, any type of scenario that might pop-up during a win or go home game and that's exactly what Morton showed during today's matchup with his former team, the Houston Astros.
The bread and butter pitch for Morton during today's game was his curveball which he relied on approximately (37.3%) of the time this season compared to (29.3%) of the time last season with the Houston Astros. Over the course of this season, Morton's curveball hit an average velocity of (78.9 MPH) with the slowest curveball totaling (75.3 MPH) and the fastest (81.8 MPH). During today's game against the Houston Astros, the curveball did reach (80 MPH) at one point and factored heavily into the 9 strikeouts that Morton today, with (8) of them coming on the curveball, in all areas of the strike zone. Take a look at this pitch usage chart, courtesy of Baseball Savant, below with a look at the pitches that Morton threw today.
All of those light blue dots that you see are the curveballs that Charlie Morton threw and where they ended up around and inside of the strike zone during today's game against the Astros, according to the perspective of a catcher. The third light blue dot right about the right hand side of home plate, was a swinging strike by Michael Brantley during the first inning. That just goes to show you how much Morton's curveball tricks hitters when they are in the box and results in a strike out. Furthermore, what's really fascinating to look at is how Charlie Morton threw his curveball more as the regular season went deeper. Once again, for evidence of that, take a look at the chart below, once again courtesy of Baseball Savant.
As you can see from the chart, Charlie Morton started the 2019 regular season against the Houston Astros, with an overall curveball percentage of (38.8%). As the season progressed, there were peaks and valleys where Morton relied on his fastball in some games more than others and it all depended on the matchup at hand. The lowest point on the graph occurred on April 27th in the game against the Boston Red Sox, when Charlie Morton only threw his curveball, (21.6%) of the time. By the last game of the season, his usage on the curveball was back up into the mid-40's and he finished the season with a curveball percentage of (45%), against the in-division New York Yankees, on September 25th.
Furthermore, while it's important to realize that Charlie Morton's bread and butter pitch is his curveball, as he showed during today's crucial Game Three of the American League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros, it's also important to look at his overall swing and miss percentages on that pitch during the 2019 regular season. Again, take a look at the chart below for more on that, courtesy of data compiled by Baseball Savant.
On this chart, there are definitely some intriguing trends with different games. The most obvious is September 7th when, Charlie Morton had a (61.5%) swing and miss rate against the in-division, Toronto Blue Jays. The Toronto Blue Jays were a team that really got tricked by his changeup during that game and that's going to play an integral part into the game plan that Morton and the Tampa Bay Rays coaching staff formulates heading into next season. Interestingly enough, if you look at the dot for August 27th, it represents the lowest point of the career-high (33) games that Morton started this season and came against none other than the, Houston Astros (because baseball!). During that game, Morton had a (8.3%) whiff rate with a Weighted On-Base Average of (.606) on the curveball.
Beyond all of that, let's take a look at a few other splits for Charlie Morton during the 2019 regular season. Remember earlier when we said that Charlie Morton thrives in high leverage situations? Well, consider this. In those high leverage situations, over the course of the 2019 regular season which accounted for (11.2) of the total (194.1) innings that Morton logged, he held opposing teams to a cumulative slash line of: .227/.327/.409 with a (34.6%) strikeout percentage and a (3.01) Fielding Independent Percentage. Even in medium leverage situations, Charlie Morton did well holding opposing team's batters to a slash line of: .226/.303/.333 with a strikeouts-per-9 rate of (10.97) and a (3.13) FIP. As anyone knows, when it comes to the postseason, there are plenty of high leverage situations that pitchers are thrust into so when you have someone like Charlie Morton on your pitching staff, who can handle any type of stage, you embrace that to the fullest amount.
In addition, to add to his overall ability to come through in the clutch, take a look at what Charlie Morton did in situations with runners in scoring position. In those situations, which accounted for a total of (44.1) innings of work, Morton held opposing teams to a cumulative slash line of: .179/.257/.285 with a wOBA of (.240), a (3.01) FIP, and an overall strikeouts-per-9 rate of (11.37). For the Tampa Bay Rays, they know that if they advance deeper into the postseason, they are going to need Charlie Morton to come through in the clutch and based on this paragraph and this last one, Morton can do just that.
Although Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander dominated the headlines when it came to the American League Cy Young Award and rightfully so, Charlie Morton had just as much of an impactful year with the Tampa Bay Rays and really showed the rest of baseball why the Rays decided to invest $30 million dollars in him at the age of 35, this past offseason. Luckily enough for the Rays, they get to enjoy Morton for the remainder of this postseason as well as all of next year which will provide them with a tremendous asset especially when you pair Morton with the other two impactful Rays starting pitchers, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. If all three of those names are performing at peak level and healthy, the Rays have as good of a 1-2-3 punch as anyone in baseball and could be an even bigger threat next season considering the time missed this year by both Snell and Glasnow.
Charlie Morton, otherwise known as Ground Chuck, might just seem like another ordinary pitcher, but he's not. He relies heavily on his curveball, knows how to come through in clutch situations, and continues to keep the rest of baseball on their feet as they continue guessing what's next. Who knows, at this rate, Morton might continue pitching for several more years and build up his Ground Chuck brand even more. For now, every single baseball fan, will get to admire that amazing curveball of Morton's and cheer him on as the Tampa Bay Rays look to continue causing noise in the postseason.