Game 118, Rays at Mariners – Late Bloomers and Phenoms

marc w · August 10, 2019 at 6:55 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Matt Wisler/Tommy Milone vs. Charlie Morton, 7:10pm

The subject of favorite pitchers came up recently on baseball twitter, and with Felix ineffective and rehabbing, it was a harder question for me than usual. There are so many great young pitchers who combine high-octane fastballs and great breaking balls – I’m thinking of Walker Buehler here, but there are several. I’m fascinated by Cleveland’s ability to keep maximizing the effectiveness of guys like Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and now Shane Bieber and Mike Clevenger, two players whose raw stuff is impressive, but not like Buehler’s, but who seemingly control every plate appearance they’re involved with. There are the vets like Justin Verlander or Zack Greinke. Clayton Kershaw, or Max Scherzer. We’re surrounded by great candidates, but one is pretty clearly my go-to answer to this question: Charlie Morton.

Baseball is often an inscrutable thing, with can’t miss prospects…missing, and journeymen turning in remarkable years, and then fading back into the background. But while a career arc like Morton’s isn’t completely unparalleled, I’m just not sure we’ve ever seen something quite like it. At age 30, he had a solid year for a go-nowhere Pirates squad, but fell on his face the next year. He was durable, but mediocre. There’s a place in baseball for guys like that, as we know well: this was the Mike Leake template. He wasn’t going to embarrass a team, but he’d never to an All-Star game or gotten Cy Young votes, and the thought that he would was kind of absurd, like Dylan Moore or Ben Gamel getting MVP votes. At age 32, he moved to the Phillies and looked tantalizingly different, with better velocity and a sudden ability to miss bats – one he hadn’t shown in nearly a decade in Pittsburgh. But just as soon as he showed it, he was hurt, and missed 80% of his age-32 year. A free agent, he signed a deal with Houston, and almost instantly became a force.

He made his first All-Star team last year, at age 34, when he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and a strikeout rate of 29%. His sinker, his primary pitch his entire career, got significantly faster, and sat at 95-97. Last year and then especially this year, he’s become much more reliant on a four-seam fastball with more run/less ride than many, but which has noticeably different movement than his running sinker. Still, the reason he’s become a dominant pitcher in his mid-late 30s is a freakishly effective curve ball. It’s got freakish break, moving almost 11″ gloveside, which is impressive when you consider his sinker has 10-11″ of break *armside*. It’s hard, and clearly a curve, but it often looks like a Jeff Nelson-style frisbee slider. By raw pitch fx numbers, nothing he does looks extraordinary, especially now that his four-seam is his primary fastball. It’s just that everything he does ties hitters in knots. His four-seam has ridiculous swing-and-miss rates, and the slurvey-curve ball… well, batters have over 100 strikeouts on it thus far in 2019, and are *slugging* .187 against it.

He’s 35, and never had a Cy Young vote, but he’s going to get some this year. This is remarkably rare not just because pitchers flame out all the time, but mediocre pitchers don’t get the opportunity to pitch at age 35. Who else has had this kind of career? Since we’re M’s fans, you’re probably already thinking it: Jamie Moyer got his first Cy Young vote in 1999 at the age of 36. He, too, had been a durable non-entity until he came to Seattle in 1997, at age 34. Almost immediately, he was an impact pitcher, and he remained one for years, finally making an All-Star team and winning Cy votes in 2003, at the age of 40. I don’t think Morton WANTS to hang around that long – he teased retiring instead of signing the 2-year deal that brought him to Tampa – but the only pitching career that got such a late start lasted amazingly long. Morton’s newfound velo and swing-and-miss game looks completely different from Moyer’s weak contact and change-ups gameplan, of course, but it’s nice to know you can break out in your 30s and have time to carve out quite a career.

Who broke out at a late age but with young-player skills? He’s not a pitcher, but the one guy I can think of also plied his trade here: it’s Nelson Cruz, who seemed like a AAAA slugger in his mid-20s, then got his first MVP votes for Baltimore at age 33. After that year, he signed a four-year deal with Seattle, a deal analysts like…uh…me reviled. He responded by becoming a more complete hitter and reaching new heights in both power and durability. His 2015 season was one of the better batting lines we’ve seen here since Edgar and A-Rod, and it was driven by power and average. He’s been dinged up this year, but at age *38*, he’s having a dominant season (on a rate basis) for Minnesota.

For Morton, it seems like some of the credit has to go to the teams that acquired and molded him. Houston, sure, but also Philly, who first unlocked something, and now Tampa, who’s changed his approach, but is benefiting from his best year yet. Morton’s K rate is above 30% now, and his walk rate is down from his two years in Houston. Even his home run rate has dropped despite throwing more four-seamers. He was dominant early last year, but faded a bit down the stretch. That hasn’t happened in 2019, at least not yet. By fWAR, bWAR, and BP’s WARP, he’s having the best season of his career, already surpassing 2018’s total despite the fact we’ve got 6 weeks to go. I should hate this: Morton played for the divisional bully, and now for the team that’s a year-in, year-out wild card contender. It helps, of course, that he’s only got an option for the all-important 2021 season, but I just can’t hate on a guy who’s blossomed like this so late in his career. Watching him pitch is electric, and that may still be true even as he goes against the M’s tonight.

Of course, he hasn’t always been that tough against the M’s. He tossed 7 shutout at them in April of 2018, but he saw them a bunch in his late-season fade, and in late August last year, the M’s knocked him around for 6 runs in 5 innings.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Nola, 1B
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Wisler/Milone

Dee Gordon’s been activated, with Ryan Court taking his first-MLB HR ball back to Tacoma.
Fan favorite Ian Miller, the long-time CF sort-of-prospect who’d been drafted under Jack Zduriencik, was sold last night to Minnesota (excuse me, :traded for cash considerations”). He figures to get a call-up when rosters expand, and may have value on the basepaths and defensively for the Twins. C Jose Lobaton was also traded for cash to the Dodgers, and as Tacoma’s playing the Dodgers AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City, Lobaton simply walked into the other clubhouse. We’ll see if he achieves new levels of performance the way Kris Negron did.
On the plus side for player development, the M’s top prospect Jarred Kelenic has been promoted to AA Arkansas.

Justin Dunn went 5, giving up 2 runs, and striking out 8 today in Arkansas’ game against Springfield. Tacoma’s in New Orleans where new CF Aaron Knapp (the guy who’ll be replacing Miller) is 1-2 with an RBI thus far; it’s a 3-3 game. Knapp was released by the Marlins org last year, and wasn’t hitting well at all in AA. West Virginia got blanked by Lakewood 7-0, and Modeston leads San Jose 5-3. Jake Schiener’s homered for the Nuts, his second in as many days.


One Response to “Game 118, Rays at Mariners – Late Bloomers and Phenoms”

  1. heyoka on August 11th, 2019 6:29 am

    Late bloomer with young skills.

    Does Dazzy Vance count?

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