On Wednesday, the A’s will face off against the Rays in the biggest game of the year for both clubs. We don’t know yet who will take the mound for Oakland, but Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has already announced his starter: 35-year-old righty Charlie Morton.
It’s 2019, so that distinction doesn’t mean quite as much as it used to, especially in a Wild Card Game. Cash likely will not hesitate to pull Morton and turn the ball over to his strong bullpen at the first sign of trouble. But, as of now, it looks like the veteran right-hander will pitch at least twice through the A’s order, so let’s take a look at what Oakland should expect.
For his career, Morton boasts an unimpressive 4.07 ERA. But that doesn’t tell the full story. He spent his first nine MLB seasons as a pitch-to-contact back-end arm before a career resurgence with the Houston Astros in 2017. There, Morton’s average fastball velocity increased about three ticks and his strikeout rate soared to well over a batter per inning.
While his rebound began with the Astros, his 2019 season with the Rays has easily been the best of his career. Morton set career-highs in strikeout rate (30.4%, 11.10 K/9) and wins above replacement (6.1 fWAR, 5.1 bWAR), as well as career-bests in ERA (3.05), FIP (2.81) and BB/9 (2.64).
Morton also set career-highs in both innings pitched (194.2) and starts (33). But if the veteran was experiencing any fatigue down the stretch, he sure didn’t show any signs of it. August was his worst month, as he pitched to a 4.66 ERA and allowed a .316 wOBA, but he rebounded with a superb September (2.73 ERA, .267 wOBA against). His velocity also stayed steady throughout the year, his fastball always sitting near 95 mph.
In seven starts against the A’s over the past three years, Morton has a 2.97 ERA over 39.1 innings pitched. A closer look shows that the A’s actually knocked him out before the sixth inning in four of those seven starts. However, all four of those starts came with Houston, whereas his two starts against Oakland this season while pitching for the Rays were the best of the sample. He allowed just one run over a combined 13.1 innings, walking four and striking out 13.
None of Oakland’s top hitters have very much history against Morton. Designated hitter Khris Davis leads the team with 25 career plate appearances against the righty, and has just three hits (although two were home runs).
The heart of the A’s lineup — shortstop Marcus Semien, third baseman Matt Chapman, first baseman Matt Olson and outfielder Ramon Laureano — are a combined 14-for-39 (.359 AVG) with six walks (and a homer by Olson). Perhaps most notably, potential starting second baseman Jurickson Profar is a career .364/.500/.727 hitter in 14 PAs against Morton, and he hit the solo homer to account for that one run Morton allowed against Oakland this year.
- Khris Davis: 3-for-21, 2 HR, 2 BB, 7 Ks (and 2 HBP)
- Matt Chapman: 3-for-15, triple, 2 BB, 1 K
- Marcus Semien: 5-for-14 (.357), 2 doubles, 2 BB, 1 K
- Matt Olson: 4-for-12 (.333), HR, double, 2 BB, 4 Ks
- Jurickson Profar: 4-for-11 (.364), HR, double, BB, 3 Ks (and 2 HBP)
- Robbie Grossman: 1-for-7, double, 2 BB, 1 K
- Ramon Laureano: 2-for-8, 3 Ks
- Mark Canha: 1-for-4
While none of these samples are anywhere near large enough to be statistically relevant, if it makes any of Oakland’s hitters just a bit more comfortable in the box, the past success certainly doesn’t hurt.
Morton’s platoon splits are interesting. He posted extreme reverse splits in 2017, pitching much more effectively against left-handed hitters than he did against righties. But in the last two seasons, those numbers have flipped right back. Since the start of 2018, Morton has allowed a .687 OPS and .300 wOBA to lefties, compared to just a .595 OPS and .262 wOBA against righties. While this doesn’t bode too well for Oakland’s right-handed-heavy offense, it may influence lineup decisions, particularly in the outfield and at second base.
Morton also has significant home/road splits, but I’m not sure they’ll be relevant come Wednesday. His 2.59 home ERA is a whole run lower than his 3.59 road ERA, but that road ERA is inflated by a few blow-ups in hitter-friendly parks like New York, Houston and Boston. The Oakland and Tampa Bay parks play similarly, so there’s no reason to expect a change in performance based on venue.
Like most starters, Morton performs much worse his second time through the batting order. And while in 2019 he was actually better his third time through than either his first or second, he showed relatively normal splits in 2017-18, making this seem like it’s just a blip. Unless he is absolutely dominating, I will be shocked if Cash leaves his veteran in for a third trip through Oakland’s potent lineup.
Over the past two seasons, Morton has become much more reliant on his four-seam fastball. He’s almost entirely ditched his sinker (which used to be his primary pitch) in favor of the four-seamer, with strong results.
But Morton’s bread and butter is his curveball. In 2019, he started throwing his breaker more often than his primary fastball for the first time in his career. By Pitch Value, it’s been the best curveball in all of baseball. And, I mean, just look at it:
Charlie Morton's Curveball is disrespectful af. pic.twitter.com/JYQtXA3x0u— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 17, 2019
You could even call it a slurve, as it is absolutely elite in terms of horizontal movement. It’s his out pitch, and he throws it in every count. He used it to finish eight of his 13 strikeouts against the A’s this season. It’s a pitch that’s given them — and the rest of the league — fits all year, and you can bet the team has been studying up on it over the past few days.
In addition to the four-seamer and curve, Morton does still throw his sinker about 8.6% of the time, as well as mixing in a cutter (8.0%) and splitter (4.9%). These pitches haven’t been nearly as successful as his curve, but if mixed in properly, they could be just enough to keep a hitter off balance.
The A’s will have their work cut out for them on Wednesday. Morton has been one of the game’s best pitchers this season — full stop. At the age of 35, he’s blossomed into a legitimate ace, largely thanks to one of the best curveballs in the game.
But he isn’t unbeatable. Some of the A’s best hitters have found success against Morton in the past, and they’ve done a great job of getting him out of the game early. As Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News suggests, Oakland might be best suited using an all-fields approach and trying to take advantage of the Rays’ aggressive shifting, specifically against Morton’s curveball. If they can sit back on the curveball and fight off Morton’s high-velo fastballs, we might see something similar to their first inning bloop-fest against Wade Miley and the Astros on Sept. 10.
Such a change in approach may be too drastic — and risky — for the A’s high-powered offense. I think they’re best off doing what they’ve done all year, regardless of opponent: wait for a pitch to drive and bash it. Morton only allowed 15 home runs this year, but he’s been susceptible to the long ball in the past, and we know by now that Semien, Chapman and Olson can take anyone deep.
As we all learned a few years back, anything can happen in a one-game playoff. The Rays have done their part to control the madness by sending one of the game’s top arms to the mound. It’ll be up to the A’s hitters to respond against Morton (and an incredible Tampa Bay bullpen) and push Oakland through to the ALDS.