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Have the Astros Surpassed Peak Morton?

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The Astros did not offer their 34 year old All Star a qualifying offer. Are they betting his best days are entirely behind him?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Peak Oil: The theory that for any given oil well output from that well will gradually increase until it hits peak production, after which production will gradually, but inevitably decline. Some believe that the planet as a whole has surpassed peak oil, and that world oil production will continue its inexorable decline.

Peak Morton: The theory that after a career of flat and limited production, near the end of his career Charlie Morton has a sudden, unexpected, and extreme increase in output, followed inevitably by an equally sudden and extreme decline. Some believe that after two marvelously yet unexpectedly successful seasons with the Astros, we have surpassed peak Morton, and that Morton’s production will just as suddenly and drastically decline.

Charlie Morton: Houston Legend

Charlie Morton. Charlie Freakin Morton. Winning pitcher, Game 7, 2017 ALCS. Winning pitcher, Game 7, 2017 World Series.

Here’s how he looked in the ALCS against the Yankees.

And of course Game 7 of the World Series.

Yesterday’s news? We all know better. Despite a mediocre career, in two thousand eighteen, the age 34 year of his career, he had his best season, the only year in which he made the All Star team. Here are his stats.

Wins/losses: 15-3. ERA: 3.13. K’s: 201 in 167 innings. Among AL pitchers he was seventh in ERA, 10th in strikeouts, 13th in WAR at 3.1. Fangraphs estimated his value for 2018 at $24.9 million, and the early projection by Steamer has his WAR for 2019 at 3.3, which means he should be worth even more next year. So why didn’t the Astros offer Charlie Morton the qualifying offer of $17.9 million?

Why no Qualifying Offer?

Perhaps they want to negotiate a longer term contract for less money per year. Given his age and his well known history of injuries, (his inning total this year was the second highest in his career) that seems like a risky strategy. And besides, if the Astros want Morton, now they must compete with other teams, many of whom have deeper pockets. And it could still cost more than $17 mil/year.

Perhaps Morton would have rejected the QO, but if he signed with another team at least the Astros would have gotten a compensatory draft pick. After all, teams routinely give QO’s to players worth more than the offer, Bryce Harper for example, expecting it to be rejected just so that in case they lose the real negotiations, at least they get a draft pick in return. What they don’t do is make the QO for players they think are worth less, Marwin Gonzalez for example. And apparently, Charlie Morton.

Clayton Kershaw’s Contract and Morton

I know Charlie Morton is not Clayton Kershaw, he is older, and he was never the greatest pitcher of his generation. But Kershaw, for several years running now, has a history of back problems. His fastball velocity is way down, and so is his production. In the past two seasons he has averaged 168 innings, just a hair above Morton, and he has 8.1 WAR the last two years, not that much more than Morton’s 6.3.

Kershaw just signed a $31 mil/year, 3 year deal. Assuming the going rate for a win is $8 million, which is about what Kershaw just got assuming he continues to win about 4 games per year, then the two year rate for Morton at his current production is $48 million, assuming 3 wins a year.

Now I freely admit I am not an expert on the money aspect of baseball, or rather, I know even less about it than I do about just about everything else, and if I have missed something I am wide open to some education in the comment section. But it seems to me Charlie Morton at $17.9 million was a bargain, and given the other question marks in their starting rotation next year, a risk worth taking. So why no offer to CFM?

Peak Morton

I believe it must be that the Astros think they have achieved Peak Morton. That despite the fact that many pitchers, including Astros and former Astros like Justin Verlander, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens, have pitched superbly into their age 35 seasons and far beyond, the Astros must think it likely that in the case of Charlie Morton the well will suddenly stop gushing.

In other words, rightly or wrongly, for whatever reason, they think he’s probably near the end.

Why would they think that?

To start with, Morton did show fatigue as the season progressed. Not dramatically, and Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole tailed off somewhat as well, but perhaps enough to cause concern.

The following chart shows Morton’s ERA and wOBA against month by month.

Morton ERA and wOBA by Month

Month IP ERA wOBA
Month IP ERA wOBA
Apr 36.2 1.72 0.248
May 31 2.90 0.290
June 28 3.21 0.308
July 28.2 4.08 0.306
Aug 27.2 4.23 0.330
Sept/Oct 15 3.00 0.281

His ERA increased steadily each month, as did his wOBA, except for a plateau in June/July. In only 15 innings there was a slight improvement in Sept/Oct, but he was on the disabled list most of that time.

The following chart shows a first half/second half comparison, second half starting on July 2nd.

Morton ERA and Peripherals, 1st half, 2nd half

Stat March-June July-Ocober
Stat March-June July-Ocober
ERA 2.55 4.04
FIP 3.45 3.81
xFIP 3.09 3.94
SIERRA 3.29 3.90
BABIP .273 .296
WHIP 1.11 1.24
K% 31.5 24.9
BB% 9.7 8.4

The chart shows that Morton’s ERA increased about 1.5 runs in the second half. To some extent this was natural regression, as his FIP, xFIP and SIERRA first half were all significantly higher than his ERA, and his BABIP was a relatively low .273. But his peripherals also went up in the second half, and his K% went down almost seven percent. His Fangraph -ERA was 98, basically the profile of a league average pitcher who near the end of the season, as it turned out, was on the disabled list.

Let’s take a deeper dive into Morton’s second half regression. The following chart shows the declining value of of each of his pitches in the second half, per Fangraphs.

Morton Pitch Values, 1st and 2nd half

pitch pitch value/1st pitch value/2nd
pitch pitch value/1st pitch value/2nd
fastball .71 .06
Cutter -2.12 -2.72
Curve 1.64 .55

This information is from Fangraphs. They seem not to differentiate between the Morton slider and his cutter.

What all this shows is simply that Morton went from an All-Star pitcher in the first half of the year, to an average pitcher, pretty close to what he had been before joining the Astros, at least in performance terms. All of his main pitches became less effective.

The following charts might give us a little more of an explanation. The first one shows Morton’s velocity month by month.

Morton’s average fastball velocity peaked in May at 97.12 MPH. By September it had dropped 2 MPH, although there was a slight recovery in October. His other pitches had also lost some velocity.

The next chart shows the vertical trajectory of Morton’s pitches, month to month.

What I find interesting here is the dramatic decrease in the vertical drop of the cutter in October by about four inches. This doesn’t explain Morton’s general second half decline, but it does correlate with his DL stint due to shoulder pain. Does this, and the slight loss of velocity, give indication that all is not well with Morton’s shoulder?

To help answer this let’s take one more statistical dive, this time at Morton’s batted ball profile, first and second half.

Morton contact rates

Swing/contact rate 1st half 2nd half
Swing/contact rate 1st half 2nd half
O swing 30.5 26.3
Z swing 62.6 65.0
O contact 53.9 57.8
Z contact 80.6 86.6
Contact 70.5 77.1
swinging/strike 13.2 10.0

O swing means how often do hitters swing at pitches outside the strike zone. In the second half they did so less than 4% as often as in the first half, meaning Morton was not fooling batters as much.

Z swing is how often batters swing at balls inside the strike zone. They were doing so more in the second half than in the first, indicating that his pitches were not dropping into the zone unexpectedly as often as they were.

Batters were making contact about 7% more in the second half than they were in the first and and swung and missed 3% less often.

Too Risky

None of this indicates that Morton was a terrible pitcher in the second half, merely average. But if he were to regress to a 2 WAR pitcher, due to a combination of less playing time due to injury, and/or reduced effectiveness, then his value is $16 million, below the QO.

So apparently this drop-off, in conjunction with his age and shoulder problems, the extent of which the Astros have characteristically said little, have made management reluctant to risk the kind of money a qualifying offer entails. He may never be Charlie Freakin Morton again. The backsliding he showed throughout 2018 may even be a trend that continues the rest of his career. Or perhaps, so the Astros may fear.

Unless the front office has some sort of inscrutable negotiating strategy underway, perhaps we have seen the last of Charlie Morton on the Astros line up card. I hope not.

You’re a good man, Charlie Morton. You’ll always be a legend in Houston Texas.