This afternoon the Houston Astros will send right-handed starter Charlie Morton to the mound against Rick Porcello and the Boston Red Sox in American League Division Series playoff action. Morton had the best season of his career in 2017; he was something of an unusual prospect in the minors, so here’s a look at how he ranked and where he stands in context.
Charlie Morton was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the third round in 2002 from high school in Redding, Connecticut. At the time he was a typical cold-weather high school pitcher: raw, but with projectability and a live arm. His initial pro performance was mediocre, with a 4.54 ERA in 40 innings in the Gulf Coast League in ‘02 and a 4.67 ERA in 54 innings in the Appalachian League in ‘03. His peripherals were poor in both seasons and he was your basic arm that may or may not develop.
Morton moved up to full-season ball in ‘04 and continued to post middling to poor numbers. His ERA rose every year and while his strikeout numbers gradually upticked, there was no real statistical or sabermetric support for the idea that he was a top prospect.
Scouting reports were a bit more promising but even optimists did not view him as a top prospect, noting a 90-94 MPH fastball but the need for better command of his curveball. Baseball America rated him as the Number 28 Braves prospect entering 2004 and 18th entering 2005. My ratings saw him as a Grade C type.
Reaching Double-A in 2007, Morton made some progress after converting to relief, with a 4.29 ERA in 80 innings and a 67/37 K/BB the best marks of his career at that point.
He moved back to starting in 2008, took a leap forward and was quite good in Triple-A, with a 2.05 ERA in 79 innings and a 72/27 K/BB being much better than anything he’d done before. Alas, he also saw major league action and was pummeled, with a 6.15 ERA in 75 innings and a poor 48/41 K/BB. He lost rookie eligibility so he no longer showed up on prospect lists, but despite problems in the majors he had clearly made substantial progress growing from being a thrower into a pitcher.
Morton was traded to the Pirates in 2009. His career from that point was slowed by Tommy John surgery and other nagging injuries including hip, hamstring, and hernia problems but when healthy he has generally been a slightly better-than-league-average pitcher.
Overall he has a 4.40 ERA in 1040 major league innings with a 793/387 K/BB, with 2013 (3.26, 109 ERA+, 1.5 fWAR) and 2017 (3.62, 109 ERA+, 3.3 fWAR) his best seasons, 2017 especially.
His strikeout rate is notably higher this season and this is due to a deliberate change in philosophy, as outlined by David Laurila at Fangraphs last week. His fastball is up to 96 now, 3-4 MPH higher than most of his career.
Morton’s current Sim Score comparables are Pete Smith, Jack Armstrong, Phil Ortega, Bennie Daniels, Jerome Williams, Pete Broberg, Paul Wilson, Al Nipper, and Tim Redding. All of those guys had moments of success but none of them were stars or even consistently above-average from year to year.
If Morton can maintain the positive changes he made this season, he could end up being the best guy on that list. Even if he doesn’t, his career has already been better than you might expect given the difficulties he had in the lower minors.