Last offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays were seeking reliability and depth in their starting rotation, preferably from someone who can work behind 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell in creating a star-studded staff. Tampa Bay inked free agent right-handed starter Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal in December to get their second star pitcher.
After Morton’s two-year stint with the Houston Astros, where in 2017, he helped the club win the World Series, Tampa Bay safely bet on the 35-year-old to provide stability at the top of their rotation and a veteran presence for some of their younger pitchers. What they have gotten early into Morton’s run as a Ray has been unforeseen brilliance and much more than they could have expected, as he has emerged as a candidate for the AL Cy Young Award.
Through 15 starts in 2019, the lanky righty has posted an 8-1 record, 2.37 ERA, 1.031 WHIP, 107 strikeouts, and a 188 ERA+ in 87.1 innings pitched. His strikeout-per-nine-innings rate (11.0), hits-per-nine (6.1), and fielding independent pitching (2.89) are career bests to this point, while leading Rays pitchers in innings pitched and Baseball-Reference WAR (2.7).
With dazzling command of his mid-90s rising fastball, mystifying movement and usage of his sweeping curveball, and an uptick in use of his powerful, deceiving sinker, Morton has ascended to the top of the totem pole of AL pitchers. About that curveball: It’s Morton’s most used pitch by a mile (35.9 percent), with his four-seam fastball (24.2 percent) and sinker (23.6) trailing far behind. It’s no coincidence, though, as the former All-Star has induced 62 of his 107 strikeouts on that sweeping, high-spin curve.
Morton’s incredible performance in the early parts of 2019 comes as no surprise, as he made headlines by reinventing himself into a top-of-the-line starter with the Astros in 2017 and 2018. Over those two seasons, he went 27-10 with a 3.36 ERA after posting a 46-71 record and 4.54 ERA in his first nine big-league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies.
In 2016, he suffered a season-ending hamstring tear with the Phillies and came back as a low-cost, low-risk acquisition with the Astros the following season. Not only did he perform well above expectations en route to becoming a middle-of-the-rotation force, Morton played the role of hero in the World Series, where he gave up just two earned runs in 10.1 innings, including the final four innings of Game 7 in Los Angeles.
Clearly, he had become a new pitcher, and when he hit free agency in the winter of 2018 (after not being issued a qualifying offer from the Astros), he was one of the most sought-after pitchers on the open market. While his age prevented him from locking down a long-term deal, the $30 million he’ll earn from Tampa Bay is the largest sum of money ever given out in free agency in the history of the Rays franchise.
It has been well worth the cash for the Rays. Here is where Morton ranks in major pitching categories among AL starters.
- ERA: 2.37 (third in AL)
- Adjusted ERA+: 189 (third in AL)
- Fielding Independent Pitching: 2.89 (third in AL)
- Opponent batting average: .188 (third in AL)
- Hits per nine innings: 6.080 (third in AL)
- Baseball-Reference WAR: 2.7 (sixth in AL)
- Wins: eight (tied for sixth in AL)
- WHIP: 1.031 (seventh in AL)
- Strikeouts per nine innings: 11.027 (seventh in AL)
- Strikeouts: 107 (seventh in AL)
He may not win the Cy Young Award, as Justin Verlander, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Minor, Lucas Giolito, and others have put up splendid numbers to this point. But the thought that we’re talking about Charlie Morton — a 35-year-old who had an uninspiring career until an injury forced him to change everything about his game — as a Cy Young frontrunner is incredible, and proves that the righty has been everything the Rays wanted, and way more.
When the Rays signed Morton to the biggest free agent contract in franchise history, they were seeking a solid number-two option in an evolving rotation. What they got turned out to be a potential Cy Young Award winner and a veteran leader of a young, World Series-contending team. Morton, who has aged like a fine wine to this point in his career, is on pace for a career-best season in a countless number of metrics, and the Rays are benefiting greatly every time he steps on the rubber.