Charlie Morton and the Rays’ Suddenly Interesting Starting Rotation

Roughly six months ago, the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting pitching depth chart was about as crowded as Tropicana Field on a Monday night. Aside from SP Blake Snell at the top of the rotation, the rest of the list was tumbleweeds. Literally nothing. Then, after dealing their former ace SP in Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Rays brought in SP Tyler Glasnow, who showed spurts of excellence in his 59 1/3 innings of work down the stretch of the season. The “opener” still grabbed most of the attention in St. Pete, but beneath the team’s bullpen craze, a starting rotation was beginning to take shape.

Now, with Wednesday’s news of the signing of free agent SP Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million dollar deal, the Rays have another arm for the top of their rotation. Suddenly, the top of their rotation isn’t a ghost town. It actually looks like it could be a lot of fun.

First, let’s break down the Morton deal. Given Morton’s age (35) and injury concerns, this doesn’t seem like a bad contract from the Rays, who rarely offer a player $15 million per year. However, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the Rays have just $25.2 million committed to their 2019 squad after the signing of Morton, and based off the estimated amount to be spent on arbitration, the team still has roughly $40 million to play with. With Morton, the Rays filled a glaring need and did so with an arm that has been among the most efficient in baseball when he’s on the mound.

Morton, who struggled for years as a soft contact pitcher, used his sudden spike in velocity to conquer his demons against lefties and enjoy a remarkable career resurgence, one that helped the Astros to a World Series title.

Charlie Morton’s wOBA against lefties

Year wOBA
2015 .384
2017 .249
2018 .308

There was an uptick from 2017 to 2018, likely due to a rocky second half after storming out of the gate to earn an All-Star selection. However, Morton appeared to return to form down the stretch of the regular season, and in September/October, finished with his best monthly BB/9 rate of the season, while pitching to a 3.26 FIP. All the while, his velocity stayed the course.

Charlie Morton’s average fastball velocity

Year Avg velo SLG against
2015 92.78 .619
2017 96.10 .324
2018 96.65 .406

*pitched just 17.1 innings in 2016

Behind that resurgence is a fastball that has ranked among the fastest in baseball (as illustrated above and below), complimented by a devastating curve that had the fourth-highest whiff percentage among qualified starters in 2018:

Curveball whiff % ranks, per David Adler

Pitcher Curveball whiff %
Blake Snell 53.4%
Kyle Gibson 46.7%
German Marquez 46.6%
Charlie Morton 46.3%

Charlie Morton’s four-seam fastball and curveball, 2017-18

Pitch type Morton 2018 avg. MLB rank MLB avg.
Four-seam FB 96.0 mph T-4th 92.6 mph
Curveball spin 2,901 rpm T-5th 2,489 rpm

Morton’s curve ranked tops in baseball last year in terms of horizontal movement, and was among the top-five hooks in the game in terms of pitch value for the second year in a row, per Fangraphs, which makes his suddenly blazing fastball that much more dangerous, which could be said about the Rays’ new three-headed monster as a whole. Morton’s curveball isn’t just beautiful numbers wise either, take a look at the game film:

 

Glasnow, Morton and Snell all rank in the top 15 in baseball in fastball velocity, and while Glasnow still has plenty of growing to do as a starter, a full offseason with the organization could help propel him into exactly what the Rays hoped he would be when sending one of the best pitchers in franchise history to Pittsburgh.

Glasnow already showed signs of improvement after arriving in Tampa Bay, as his wOBA against dropped 30 points in the second half of the season, and his control concerns were settled to a degree when his BB/9 fell from 5.19 to 3.49. Should Glasnow take this offseason to develop the slider he revealed for the first time last season, he could become even more dangerous.

That slider has already shown its ferocity, showing similar movement to his curve but with added speed. In his last four appearances with the Pirates, Glasnow used that slider under 10 percent of the time, per records logged by FanGraphs. In his first appearance with the Rays, he threw it 12.5 percent of the time. His next appearance, that number climbed to 18 percent. By his final start of the season, Glasnow was using his new weapon 23.2 percent of the time. The increased confidence in his pitch showed in the numbers.

The strikeout of Choo is a perfect example of what Glasnow’s slider can be, and frankly, what it already is. For a pitch he just began to use consistently after coming to Tampa Bay, Glasnow has great effectiveness with it, burying the pitch down in the zone for strikeouts. It shouldn’t be a surprise that opposing hitters’ O-Contact percentage against Glasnow dropped nine percent from 2017 to 2018, as Glasnow has learned to command the bottom of the zone with his new putaway pitch., which has the eight-best spin rate in baseball among sliders, per Statcast. Mix that high-end spin rate with an ability to maintain the lower half of the zone (as you can see below in Glasnow’s slider location chart), and you have a potentially elite strikeout pitch on your hands.

Then, there’s Snell, who we don’t need to spend too much time on. The 2018 Cy Young Award Winner was masterful in 2018, finishing with a 2.98 FIP and the least hits surrendered per nine innings in the league. The Rays already have an elite ace. Now they’re filling in the gaps behind them, which could make a team coming off a surprising 90-win season even scarier in 2019.

There’s still work to be done, and it will be hard to replicate last year’s sudden success, especially after the team designated 1B C.J. Cron for assignment, but with Morton joining Snell and Glasnow in the Rays’ rotation, there’s a reason for optimism in terms of the pitching staff.

(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

Ryan Chichester

Ryan is a baseball writer and blogger who has been a Yankees fan since before Chuck Knoblauch forgot how to throw a baseball. He's watched the 1996 World Series video at least 200 times, and still isn't over losing Robinson Cano. A proud nerd that also writes for SB Nation and Comic Book Resources. Follow him on Twitter @ryanchichester1 to talk baseball like Scott Smalls and Mr. Mertle.

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Comments


Nick Gerli

Nice article!

Morton was a great signing by Tampa. They certainly have a high octane top three. However, I think Morton is a big injury risk. Something about the 92 to 96 MPH four seamer doesn’t seem sustainable to me. But at $30MM contract value all he needs to do is produce 3-4 wins over two to be worth it.

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