The Braves are on the verge of representing the National League in the World Series this year, words that cause actual, physical pain to write. They have been led by a potent offense that has added trade deadline acquisitions that made them even more potent this year. They’ve struggled in the rotation at times, but have gotten good starts from the likes of Max Fried and Charlie Morton.
Morton has been amazing in the playoffs since he was first introduced to the atmosphere in Houston. Signed to a low risk guarantee in 2017, he has since turned himself into a high velocity monster that is one of the better, more underrated pitchers in the game today. It’s almost as if the Phillies could use someone like him in their own rotation.
Ah, that’s right - they had him already.
When they acquired him from Pittsburgh, Morton was someone the team saw something in and decided to take a chance on, hoping they could get lucky and grab a solid mid-rotation arm who offered the upside of something a little more. Alas, this is Philadelphia and we all know what happens to the best laid plans.
So, what if Charlie Morton hadn’t blown out his hamstring? Would he still have become the top of the rotation arm he is now?
Prior to joining the Phillies, Morton couldn’t be describe as much more than a back end starter. He had thrown 875 2⁄3 innings over his eight seasons, amassing a 4.54 ERA during that time, striking out 15.8% of batters and walking 8.5% of them. He kept the ball on the ground (54.6 GB%), but other than that, he was pretty average as a pitcher. The Phillies acquired him in 2016, but after his hamstring went kablooey, they declined to pick up his option for 2017 season, setting him free to the market. He would go on to sign with Houston, where his career was put on a different path. When using 20/20 goggles after the 2019 regular season, Jim Salisbury mentioned how it’s possible that Morton would have gotten better even if he had stayed in Philadelphia.
Now, some will say that Morton would not have reached this level without going to Houston, where Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley have all thrived in an excellent organization that was at the forefront of the spin rate/high-heater movement. Maybe that’s true. But Morton has always been extremely analytical himself. He’s one of the most interesting and unique players to come through the Phillies’ clubhouse in years. You could ask him a routine question and get a five-minute, poignant answer that helped you better understand the craft of pitching. Morton might have figured things out even without the Astros. He was on his way in 2016 before suffering that devastating injury running out a sac bunt.
It’s that last sentence that got me thinking: was he really on his way?
Prior to joining Houston, Morton got his outs by using his sinker to generate groundballs. Since he was in Pittsburgh, it makes sense because that was the philosophy pushed by the pitching coach and front office in charge there. After joining Houston, well, he changed what he would throw.
(*I got rid of those three pitches at the end because Morton barely has thrown them lately)
Houston, as we all have come to find out, was one of the pioneers of asking pitchers to become more north-south with their repertoires, preferring the high fastball/low curveball approach to changing eye levels. They saw the dawn of the “launch angle swing” and decided to work against that by throwing the ball outside of the swing plane that would become en vogue around the game. Morton, as we can see, clearly bought into that philosophy as his four seam fastball and curveball usage see gigantic changes in his time in Houston. He liked what he was hearing and adapted himself accordingly.
The idea that he would have done so here in Philadelphia does, however, hold some merit. The sinker usage he was dropping was starting when he came to the Phillies, as was his continued reliance on the curveball as his primary second pitch. He was also starting to throw everything he had harder once he got to Philadelphia.
If we want to quibble here, his four seam fastball still wasn’t what it would be in Houston, but the trend line was still headed in the right direction. Of course, we can’t talk about pitching in the last few years without examining a guy’s spin rate and with Morton, there is some things to notice, but maybe not what you think.
Publicly available data on spin rate only goes back to 2015, but it’s perfect for helping out story. You can see what once he came to Philadelphia, he figured something out. His curveball was always a high spin rate curveball, but everything else took a jump during his small stint in our fair city. Once he left, it dipped a bit before stabilizing, but it goes back to lending some credence to the idea that he did figure something out while here with the Phillies.
So let’s assume that he does figure it out in Philadelphia. What does the team do with him? There’s two roads here to take:
- Would they have traded him to get pieces to continue their rebuild, or
- Would they have signed him long-term as a future cog in a playoff worthy roster?
It would all depend on what Klentak thought of the roster and minor league system at the time and how close he thought they were to contending. Based off his moves in the following few years (or lack thereof), it’s likely that the team would have gone with option one, trading him for assets at the trade deadline. Teams are always on the hunt for rotation help in July, so trading Morton and his relatively meager salary (whatever was left over of $8 million at the time) could possibly have netted the team something in the neighborhood of a top 50-75 prospect at the time.
To try and compare, there were several deals during that trade season involving middle of the rotation pitchers:
- Chicago acquired James Sheilds (and $31 million) from San Diego for some guy you may have heard of
- Boston acquired Drew Pomeranz for a then top 100 prospect from San Diego as well
- Miami grabbed Andrew Cashner, then still somewhat decent, from San Diego for a decent package of prospects
These aren’t apples to apples comparisons since we aren’t factoring in team control length, but the picture is clear. Trading pitching during that particular trade season could have netted the Phillies a top prospect or two had they made the right deal. Two of the prospects in the above mentioned deals have gone on to be MVP- and Cy Young-level players in their own right.
So, what might have happened? Well, there are butterfly effects to also take into consideration, but it’s pretty safe to say that had Charlie Morton not blown his hamstring to smithereens, he would have been pretty solid for the Phillies to have. Not only might they have gotten quality innings out of him on the mound, they also could have gotten a player in return in a theoretical trade that might have made the rebuild a little more satisfactory. Getting Fernando Tatis, Jr. was a stroke of luck that even San Diego couldn’t have anticipated, but it’s those kinds of swings the Phillies weren’t able to take because they didn’t have the players to trade to get that kind of talent in return. Knowing what Klentak’s trade record is in trading players, it’s doubtful he would have identified the right player to get back, but he didn’t even get a chance to choose when it came to Morton.
Losing Charlie Morton didn’t alter the franchise’s timeline. With the lack of talent on the roster during that and subsequent seasons, Morton’s ascent as a solid pitcher on a team other than the Phillies was not the difference between a playoff team and a cellar dweller. However, it is logical to believe that he could have made a difference in what he could have brought the team back in a deal. That is what should be “mourned” when thinking about Morton’s tenure here.