By Bill Shanks
When the Houston Astros signed Charlie Morton to a two-year contract on November 16, 2016, he had a career record of 46-71 and an ERA of 4.54.
Morton had pitched only four games in 2016 with the Phillies. He had a severe hamstring strain that required season-ending surgery and threw just 17.1 innings. Morton had never started as many as 30 games in a season.
Yet Houston was going to pay him $14 million, $7 million in each season, and many wondered why.
Well, the Astros had a plan. They actually had analytics that told them if Morton threw his four-seam fastball more than his two-seam fastball, and his curveball more, he would have more success.
The numbers were right, and Morton became a bargain. He was 29-10 in his two seasons with the Astros, and Morton was the pitcher on the mound when Houston won the World Series in 2017.
Morton has literally become a different pitcher. After his two seasons in Houston, he spent two great years in Tampa Bay with the same great success. He was 16-6 in 2019, his second-straight season as an All-Star, and then was good for the Rays in the truncated 2020 season, particularly in the postseason.
Morton is 47-18 in 97 games in the last four seasons, with an ERA of 3.34. He has struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings, which is a heck of a lot better than the 6.3 number Morton had for that stat in his first nine seasons in the Major Leagues.
He is, quite simply, a different pitcher. Instead of looking at a career that would have very poor overall numbers, Morton is on his way to winning over 100 games and could lower his career ERA to under 4.00 with a good season back with his original team, the Atlanta Braves.
Ironically, the Braves signed Morton eight days after they signed a pitcher that could be their version of the Astros signing Morton four years ago. Atlanta signed left-hander Drew Smyly to a one-year, $11 million dollar deal on November 16, and many wondered why.
Smyly was 0-1 in seven games (five starts) with the Giants in 2020. Not a record that would normally get a pitcher $11 million bucks. But there were more numbers to Smyly’s line that attracted the Braves and other teams for that matter. They looked at his strikeout ratio, which was 14.4 per nine innings. Even with a small sample size, the Braves were impressed.
They value pitchers who miss bats, and obviously, they believe Smyly can do this for a full season. Smyly is healthy now, after missing 2017 and 2018 with Tommy John surgery. He wasn’t always good in 2019 either, struggling to come back after missing so much time.
When Smyly was with the Giants this past summer, they encouraged him to throw his curveball more. He threw it for 36.5% of his pitches in 2020, with a 50% strikeout rate and a .161 xBA. Smyly also had an increase in his velocity, bumping it up to 93.8 mph in 2020. Abandoning his changeup and focusing on his curveball obviously made a difference.
Therefore, let’s see what Smyly will do. The Braves believe he’s about to “really emerge to have the best years of his career,” according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has obviously stuck his neck out there after swinging and missing on Cole Hamels last year.
The Braves saw enough in Smyly’s seven games to be convinced this is someone who could bounce back. It is a gamble, but so was Houston’s decision to give Morton all that money four years ago.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 93-1 WXKO TheSuperStations.com each weekday at 3:00 p.m. ET. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillShanks and you can email him at TheBillShanksShow@yahoo.com.