Losing Charlie Morton hurts, on some level. Sure, there are plenty of baseball reasons to miss him. The Astros had a really great rotation in 2018, and it seems like it’s been scattered to the winds now. The 2019 pitching staff looked a little thinner even before losing him was guaranteed. I think a lot of people, myself included, had mentally assumed he would be returning to the Astros, even after they didn’t make him a qualifying offer. There seemed to be signs that he would be coming back, but it turned out to not be in the cards.
Still, that doesn’t explain everything. Sure, Houston needs pitching, but missing out on Patrick Corbin or Nathan Eovaldi didn’t hurt. And it’s been sad to see so many other longtime fixtures of the franchise likely moving on this winter, from Dallas Keuchel to Evan Gattis to Marwin Gonzalez. But something about losing Ground Chuck that feels a little different than them.
Maybe it’s just that there was still some hope he’d be coming back, whereas we’ve been mentally preparing (to some extent or another) for the other three to leave for months now. Or maybe it’s how quietly and quickly he grew on Astros fans; he wasn’t a major trade acquisition, like Gattis, or a minor leaguer called up who we got to watch develop, like Keuchel or Marwin.
Instead, Morton kind of snuck up on everyone the last few seasons. Coming off a pair of career years, it’s almost funny to look back at the news stories that were written at the time of his signing back in November of 2016. There was a little optimism that he could be a mid-rotation starter, a little hesitancy about if he could stay healthy enough to pitch, but generally, there was a lot of indifference. A lot of people saw it as just a depth signing; articles and comments discussing the move as a part of other deals the Astros were making almost always totally ignored discussing Morton in favor of everyone else.
Which makes sense to some extent, as his career up to that point had been pretty uninteresting. He was a former Braves 3rd round pick in 2002 (the same draft that saw them take Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann in the rounds before him), a point in the draft in which there are still some good players, but most fade away unnoticed (22 of the 30 players from that round never made the majors, and only Morton and Curtis Granderson have had any sort of success in the Majors). He was then traded to Pittsburgh as part of the Nate McLouth trade, where he went through a bunch of reworks (remember when he tried to imitate Roy Halladay?), but usually just wound up being another back-end starter with frequent injuries. After 7 years there, he traveled across the state to the Phillies, but was once again the victim of injuries.
Prior to signing with Houston, Morton was a newly-33-year-old who had nearly 900 innings with a 4.54 ERA and a 4.10 FIP. By Wins Above Replacement, Baseball-Reference had him as a -0.5 WAR pitcher for his career, while Fangraphs had a slightly rosier (but still generally unimpressive) 7.8 mark over parts of nine seasons. He was seen as another cog in part of a wider offseason plan, where all he had to do was basically be as good as Doug Fister.
How crazy is it that this is a guy who would pick up his first All-Star Game appearance at the age of 34? Who would earn arguably the two most important wins in franchise history? Who would be on the mound for a moment that’s already immortalized and, ten or twenty or however many years from now, you’ll be able to rewatch and smile like it just happened?
It’s hard to overstate just how important that World Series Game 7 relief appearance is, too. Coming off of a strong 6-and-a-third inning start in Game 4 that ended in a disappointing loss via bullpen implosion, and coming into a game that had already seen four pitchers fail to record more than seven outs, it would have been understandable for any pitcher to give it their all for two or three innings, then trust their teammates to see things through. After all, Ground Chuck was a pitcher with a mile-long injury report pitching on short rest who had seemingly struggled in his first inning, allowing a run on twenty pitches and getting hit with a bat shard.
But Morton buckled down. In a postseason that had seen bullpen disasters galore, Charlie decided to take matters into his own hands. Each inning from there on would be a 1-2-3 affair, each with a strikeout. Going into the ninth with only 43 pitches, it was clear that no one else would be coming in to close things out that night.
And it wasn’t just Houston history the Connecticut native made that night. A week and a half earlier, he had been tagged the starter for ALCS Game 7. After dropping three in a row at Yankee Stadium, the Astros’ season had been saved by a heroic performance from Justin Verlander. But that’s almost to be expected when you acquire an ace who’s already planning his Cooperstown speech. What shocked some people was following that up with the supposed-journeyman-fifth-starter who only just joined the team that year, rather than the homegrown young fireballer Lance McCullers.
But Morton delivered, striking out five in five strong innings. With McCullers’ own strong four innings to close things out, Charlie picked up the win. Between that start, and being the pitcher of record in the final World Series game, Morton became the first pitcher in MLB history to win two Game 7s in a single season. It may be decades before we see someone match that feat. And had Morton lasted just two outs more in his first start of the playoffs, he would have been the winning pitcher in every single clinching game that year.
That’s a hell of an impact to leave on just a two-year deal, especially one that so many critics at the time dismissed or overlooked. But he followed it up by being a part of the absolutely historic rotation this year, keeping pace with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the tops of the leaderboards for months. Even with his eventual injury limiting his innings, he still managed to dot the leaderboards, leading the league in winning percentage and making the top ten in a range of other stats.
It’s amazing and inspiring to see someone like Charlie, after years of injury and stalling out and self-improvement, reach the pinnacle of success, etch his name in the record books, and then improve on that all while remaining such a humble and pleasant person. Regardless of the fact that he was only in town for two years, the impression he made here has been massive.
Good luck in Tampa, CFM; we’ll all miss you here.