Houston Astros: Charlie Morton and his improvement

Every championship team needs their superstars to perform during the postseason and the Houston Astros received such performances from their cornerstone talents of George Springer, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, and Dallas Keuchel. However, they got arguably their most important performances from Charlie Morton.  

During the postseason, the Astros trusted him in their most important games. Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees. He threw five shutout innings and gave up only two hits and one walk while striking out five. The Astros then handed him the ball in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, and he closed out the series with a four-inning outing, giving up one run on two hits and a walk while striking out four. He earned the winning decisions in both games and one season ago, these sorts of performances during the most important games in the playoffs from him would have been scarcely imaginable.  

Entering with Concerns

 When the Astros signed Morton in November of 2016 to a two-year, $14m contract, the fans and media quickly voiced their concerns about the signing. Morton made only 4 starts in 2016 due to a torn hamstring and while he had decent numbers (3.09 FIP, 3.01 xFIP, 4.15 ERA), the surrounding concerns were still prevalent. 

Morton’s torn hamstring was not his first significant injury he had suffered during his career. In 2011, he needed offseason hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2012. 

While he produced solid numbers during his best years in 2013 (3.60 FIP, 3.69 xFIP, 3.26 ERA) and 2014 (3.72 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, 3.72 ERA), he took a step back from those numbers in 2015 (4.19 FIP, 3.87 xFIP, 4.81 ERA), his last full season before the Astros signed him. 

A bigger concern, however, was his history against left-handed hitters. In his nine seasons prior to signing with the Astros, he only had two seasons, one of which was his injury-shortened 2015, where his weighted on-base average against lefty hitters was below .380. This history made him a peculiar signing at the time since the Astros’ pitchers struggled against left-handed hitters in 2016, as they finished 25th in the league in ERA and FIP against left-handed hitters and last in the league in xFIP against left-handed hitters. 

Growing as a Pitcher

In the early part of his career, Morton established himself as a groundball pitcher. This year, however, Morton struck out more people. In his first eight years in the majors, he never had a K/9 ratio greater than 7.21. In 2017, he improved to a 10 K/9 ratio, mostly due to an increase in velocity, a better curveball, and a change in the situations in which he used his curveball.  

Morton also saw a substantial increase in the velocity of his sinker. In 2017, the average velocity of his sinker was about 95.2 miles-per-hour, but between 2008 and 2015, he never averaged higher than 93.2 miles-per-hour. He used this pitch differently with the increase in velocity and he threw his sinker to inside part of the plate righties (outside for lefties) more frequently. In 2017, 57.88% of his total sinkers were on the inside half to righties and outside to lefties, up from 43.16% in 2015 and 44.31% in 2014. 

He has not only thrown harder, but he took advantage of the improvement. By throwing on the inside half to righties more often, he is spotting his pitch in a better location that makes it harder to hit faster pitches. In Game 7 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he jammed Justin Turner and Chris Taylor with inside fastballs, resulting in a weak lineout and a simple groundout. 

The usage of his sinker against righties and lefties shows his comfort with his fastball against righties. He used his sinker only 27.26% of the time against lefties but against righties, he used it 54.64% of the time. He knew his sinker was harder for righties to hit, especially given its velocity and typical location. He took advantage of this, and it helped him succeed in Game 7. 

The improvement in Morton’s curveball also contributed to his improvement, which has helped him improve the outcomes against left-handed hitters. Morton’s curveball had only a 2.4 linear weight (“pitch value”) in 2015, meaning that Morton only saved 2.4 runs by using his curve. In 2017, his curveball had a weight of 15.5, which was fourth best in the majors. This pitch was particularly difficult for lefties to hit as they had a .089 batting average against his curveball. 

Thus, Morton took advantage of this and threw lefties a curveball 36.05% of the time, while he only threw his curve 21.90% of the time when facing righties. He held true to form during Game 7 against the Dodgers. He used the curve to strike out Cody Bellinger looking in the seventh inning. In the eighth and ninth innings, he got Joc Pederson and Chase Utley to swing over a backdoor curve. Morton knew his curve would work against the Dodgers’ lefties, and he used it effectively.   

Morton also changed his pitch usage by throwing more curveballs and fewer sinkers. Before 2015, he had never used his curve over 25% of the time. In 2017, he used it 28.3% of the time and he has dramatically decreased the usage of his sinker. His sinker usage dropped to 40.6% in 2017, the lowest his sinker usage has been since he made it his primary fastball back in 2011. With an increase in variety, he keeps the hitters more off balance. This variety especially improves the fastball as the combination uncertain hitters and higher velocity leads to more swings and misses or weak contact.

While Morton improved the quality of his pitches this year, that was not the most important aspect of his improvement. He also improved his usage of his pitches to match his stuff, and in the World Series when it mattered most, he showed just how much the adjustments paid off.

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