We’re always looking for the perfect sell-high candidate. It could be a batter we drafted, or added on waivers, that is lights out, but we know it won’t last for the entirety of the season so we look to trade him while he’s hot. The same can be said for a pitcher. With numerous arms hitting the ten-day disabled list, we see owners darting for the waiver wire trying to pluck what’s left in the hopes of trying to tread water until their stud arms come back. This past season, Charlie Morton’s ADP was 192 (12th round for 16-team leagues), and he’s been arguably one of the best starting pitchers in 2018. Prior to his start against Boston, Morton entered Sunday 7-0 with a 2.26 ERA, and 1.02 WHIP for the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros. Morton hasn’t only been top-10 in nearly all statistical pitching categories, but he’s arguably one of the best sell-high candidates in 2018. This week, I want to look at what’s made Charlie Morton a dominant force in this week’s edition of “That’s Amore!” Charlie Morton: The Perfect Sell-High Candidate.
Since signing Morton, to a free agent deal, prior to the 2017 season, he’s been about as good as you could hope for in a back-end-of-the-rotation starter. Entering Sunday, Morton has gone 21-7 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 248 strikeouts to only 72 walks. We all saw Brandon Morrow sign a two-year, $21 million deal. This was coming off a suburb season pitching in relief for the Los Angeles Dodgers, after suffering through numerous injury-plagued seasons as a starter. That being said, Morton has started off perfect, and becoming a free agent after the 2018 season, he’s due for a nice pay increase even entering free agency turning 35 in November. Prior to signing with the Astros, Morton was nothing more than a back-end starter who had suffered his fair share of injuries including hip surgery (2011), Tommy John Surgery (2012), and hamstring surgery (2016).
What’s helped turn Morton’s career around into his mid-30s? For one, health is a major factor in allowing Morton to be as dominant as he’s been in his time with the Astros. Being a third-round pick, by the Braves in 2002, the potential was seen early on into his playing career. Still, the injury bug plagued him greatly from 2008-2016. Being signed by Houston allowed to work with pitching coach Brent Strom, and better acclimate himself with Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, an up and coming Lance McCullers, and late-season acquisition Justin Verlander. Believe me, there is a lot to be said about being around talented, successful teammates, and I promise you he’s learned a lot from these pitchers that have had their fair share of dominant success. I don’t take this with a grain of salt, pitching in Houston has easily been a deciding factor in his transformation.
Looking at the numbers, Morton joined the Astros with a career ERA of 4.74, 1.45 WHIP, 6.55 K/9 and 45-71 W/L. These numbers are hardly worth getting excited over. Fast-forward to 2017 and 2018, and as I mentioned earlier we’ve seen these numbers drastically change going 21-7, with a 2.94 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 10.65 K/9. What do I attribute the overall success in his statistics the past two season? For one, his K% is the highest it’s been in career at 26.4% and 31.6%. His career-average is 18.2%. One of the most outstanding statistics is his 23.4 K-BB% of 2018. This is 13.7% better than his career-average of 9.7%. When looking at his GB/FB profile he is actually getting more fly balls than in the past. The success can be attributed to hitters not making good solid contact, popping out in the infield more often. He’s simply locked in, and hitters are having issues making great contact off of him. I will go more into the change in his stuff later. Two alternative statistics that speak great volumes are his xFIP and SIERA. We have to understand that Morton is playing with a premier ball club in Houston, and the teams he’s played with previously (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia) are nowhere near the quality of the Astros. Morton has a career SIERA and xFIP of 3.97 and 3.91. However, in two years with Houston his SIERA has averaged 3.33 while his xFIP has averaged 3.17. These numbers look minute, but they are huge decreases compared to his career-average. He’s playing with one of the best baseball teams in all of Major League Baseball, and it’s rubbed off on Charlie Morton. His 2018 SIERA (2.96) and xFIP (2.77) are the best they’ve been at any point in his 11-year Major League career.
I was watching video on Morton pitching with Pittsburgh and then with Houston. One of the subtle changes, that’s made a huge impact, I noticed was Morton’s backside. Early on, with Pittsburgh, his weight was evenly dispersed from his backside and front side, and he didn’t make great impact when his right knee would turn while ascending toward home plate. However, when watching tape while with Houston, I noticed he kept more weight on his backside and when his right knee would turn in it was more direct and forceful allowing him to generate more force, and momentum, when driving toward home. This mechanical change, along with the health of his hip, has seen his fastball velocity improve to 95 (2017) and 96.1 (2018). We are talking about a pitcher whose fastball velocity has a career-average of 92.2. It’s extremely rare to see a player in his mid-30s see a 3-4 MPH increase in his fastball. Usually, it’s the other way around. When looking at his fastball statistics, I noticed he’s gone with his fastball nearly 8.1% less than his career-average, and I truly believe this is because he’s been able to use his secondary pitches to set up his fastball, whereas early in his career he relied more on his fastball as his secondary pitches weren’t as sharp. Looking at Morton’s curveball, he’s seen a dramatic increase in the use of this pitch. He rarely went to it early in his career, and both the 2017 and 2018 seasons have seen it’s usage increase from his career-average of 21.7% to 28.4% (2017) and 30.5% (2018). His fastball and curve have developed greatly since his earlier days, and have arguably been the difference maker in his success. Let’s not forget, we are talking about a career-National League pitcher before signing with Houston. How often do we see National League pitchers come over an dominate in the American League? Usually, it’s the other way around and pitchers struggle when jumping from the National League to American League.
One of my favorite statistics to look at for both pitchers and hitters are batted ball statistics. For Morton, his SwStr% and Contact% are two numbers that standout like sore thumbs. Prior to 2017, Morton’s SwStrk% averaged 8.13%. He saw tremendous increased the past two seasons at 10.9% and 12.5% respectively. He’s getting more swings and misses, and this directly correlated to his success. Looking at Contact%, prior to 2017 his overall Contact% was 81.68%. He’s lowered this number to 75.7% in 2017 and 71.17% in 2018. Both of these statistics have seen dramatic decreases since his move to Houston.
What does Charlie mean for fantasy baseball? The title of my article says he’s the perfect sell-high candidate, and I truly believe this. What makes me believe Morton has turned the corner, even into his mid-30s, are two factors. He has the backing of arguably the best offense in Major League Baseball, and he’s healthy. These can both be tied together with the influence of his fellow pitchers and pitching coach Brent Strom. What can Morton bring back in a trade? Here’s the thing, there are numerous pitchers that have been on the disabled list, and there have been just as many hitters who have been underwhelming for one reason or another. With starting pitching being hard to obtain, there are many owners that would die to have Morton on their roster. Morton could easily bring you back top hitters, or even stars that have been struggling (e.g. Paul Goldschmidt). He could even be a major piece in a blockbuster that brings back a solid arm. More than likely, Morton isn’t your number one or two starter. If you’re in a keeper league, I highly doubt you kept him, and you have two to three starters you covet more than Morton. That being said, you can easily move Morton and bring back a bat that can make a huge impact on your team. If you’re in a dynasty league, I’d say you drafted Morton after two or three other starting pitchers, and moving him won’t make a major dent on your pitching staff. He’s one of the few players, given his age and offensive backing, that can be moved for significant pieces without kicking yourself for moving him. Honestly, I don’t necessarily see Morton’s numbers taking a huge hit in the second half of the season. The wins are going to be there, his ERA and WHIP may increase slightly, but he’s locked in and his fastball as well as his curve are the best they’ve been at any point in his career. The only two things that would make me shy away, and lead to a drastic decrease in his numbers, are fatigue (2017 was only the third time he’s made 25+ starts in a season and the third time he’s pitched 140+ innings) or an injury. He has a history of injury, and he’s seven months into his 34th birthday. If you own Morton, shop him around for the pieces that can help you win a championship. You’d be surprised how many owners are hurting for pitching, and are frustrated with hitters that haven’t produced to where they were drafted, or kept. Morton is one of the best candidates to trade away given where he was drafted, the hot start we’ve seen in 2018, and the potential haul you could get from an owner desperate for starting pitching.
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join host Cole Freel and Kyle Amore live on Sunday June 3rd, 2018 from 8-9:30pm EST for episode #123 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. We will discuss the latest information in the world of fantasy baseball.