Last November, the Astros signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal worth $14 million, a move that raised some eyes, given that an injury-prone Morton was headed into his age-33 season carrying a career 4.54 ERA, and that he'd made only four appearances for the 2016 Phillies before suffering a
Last November, the Astros signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal worth $14 million, a move that raised some eyes, given that an injury-prone Morton was headed into his age-33 season carrying a career 4.54 ERA, and that he'd made only four appearances for the 2016 Phillies before suffering a season-ending hamstring tear.
This November, Morton finished off the best season of his career by throwing the final four innings in Game 7 of the World Series, after having also thrown 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Game 4 and five scoreless innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. In exchange for a free-agent contract that barely cracked the top 25 of overall value last offseason, the Astros received some crucially valuable innings, and they have him for 2018, too.
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So who will be the next Morton? Which team will snag the next undervalued low-cost pitcher with questionable traditional stats and history who just might be an incredibly useful player if put in the right situation? They'll all have their guesses. We have ours. Let's introduce you to Tyler Chatwood, formerly of the Rockies, who agreed to a three-year deal with the Cubs on Thursday.
By the surface stats, there's not much to see here. Chatwood had a 4.69 ERA, 71st highest of the 90 pitchers with 140 innings. He had an 8-15 win-loss record; only one pitcher had more losses. Chatwood has had Tommy John surgery, twice, most recently missing all of 2015. He's thrown more than 150 innings just once. This is, of course, the point. Undervalued pitchers are supposed to have flaws, otherwise they wouldn't be undervalued.
Yet for all the obvious issues, Chatwood has some extremely interesting underlying skills, too, and we know that outcomes and skill level aren't always the same thing. We can point to five areas that should cause you to look past the uninspiring results and look ahead to a pitcher who could make an impact in 2018.
The Coors factor
As we must do with every Rockies player, we have to start here. It's extremely difficult to pitch at Coors Field, as over 20 years of data has proven, and it was especially so for Chatwood, who had a 6.01 ERA at home, the ninth highest of 139 pitchers who threw 50 home innings. If we look at the past two seasons, his 6.07 ERA is the fifth highest of 138 pitchers with 100 home innings. You can't survive, much less thrive, with numbers like that.
But on the road, Chatwood has been a totally different pitcher. In 2017, his 3.49 road ERA was 29th of 134 pitchers with 50 road innings, similar to Dallas Keuchel or Jose Quintana. Combining 2016-17, Chatwood's 2.57 road ERA was sixth of 126 with 100 road innings, similar to Max Scherzer or Chris Sale. We don't want to dwell on this too long, because there's a lot of other items to get to, but just keep in mind his home field when you think about his overall numbers, because a version of Chatwood not spending half his time in Colorado would almost certainly be a better one.
The high spin rate
It was immediately obvious from the day the Astros signed Morton that part of the appeal was in his high curveball spin. Despite the abbreviated 2016 season, his curveball spin ranked with the elites in baseball, and spin is like velocity, in that you don't need to see a ton of pitches to know that it's there. With Houston, Morton threw his curveball a career-high 28 percent of the time, and it was a successful pitch for him -- among the 90 starters who threw a curve to at least 50 hitters, his was a top-five pitch according to our latest and greatest Statcast™ quality of contact metric, xwOBA.
Chatwood has elite curve spin, too. In 2017, there were 229 pitchers who threw 100 curves, and his spin rate of 2,980 rpm was the fifth highest, well above the Major League average of 2,489 rpm, and just ahead of Morton himself (2,874 rpm). When Chatwood throws it right, you can see what that does to a quality hitter like Jake Lamb, back in July.
But Chatwood threw it only 10 percent of the time in 2017.
"I had a two-year layoff and I didn't have a really good feel for it," he said during Spring Training.
As the Majors continue to move away from fastballs and back towards breaking pitches, this is exactly the type of pitch you'd want to see more of. (For what it's worth, Chatwood has very good four-seam spin for a starter, too.)
The velocity bump
Part of what made Morton so appealing, as well, was that his velocity was up. After averaging 92.2 mph on his fastballs from 2012-15, he was up to 93.7 mph before he was hurt in '16, then 95 mph in '17, touching as high as 98.5 mph in the playoffs.
"I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard," was his deceptively simple explanation in 2016.
It's rarely that simple, but we saw the signs of added heat from Chatwood, too. He averaged 93.5 mph on his fastballs in 2013-14, before his elbow injury, then only 92.6 mph in 2016 as he worked his way back. But in '17, that was up to 94.6 mph, an improvement that could be attributed both to another year off of surgery and mechanical changes he made with his feet.
The ground-ball ability
As hitters continue to try to elevate the ball for home runs, the best way to counteract that is to force hitters to keep the ball on the ground. Looking at the 200 starters who allowed at least 200 batted balls, the top three in groundball percentage were impressive names Keuchel (68 percent), Marcus Stroman (63 percent) and Lance McCullers (62 percent). Chatwood was 11th of those 200, at just below 55 percent. Morton was 14th, at 53 percent.
The changing role of a starting pitcher
We've known for some time that most non-elite pitchers are less productive as they go deeper into games for a variety of factors, and teams have been reactive to this as they go into the playoffs. They don't ask more than pitchers can give, for the most part.
This is true for Morton and Chatwood, too. In Morton's final two seasons before joining the Astros, he allowed a .319 wOBA the first time through the lineup, a .324 wOBA the second time, and a .347 for the third time or beyond. With Houston in 2017, little changed; he gave up a 1.25 ERA the first time, 3.71 ERA the second time and 7.18 ERA the third time and beyond.
It's all but identical for Chatwood. Over his past two years, his wOBA allowed each time through was .296 the first time, .339 the second, .358 the third and beyond. Chatwood gave up a 2.35 ERA the first time, 5.73 the second time and a 7.44 ERA the third time and beyond.
The solution there is simply to set expectations properly. If Chatwood offers the Cubs 16-18 strong outs before leaving the game, that should be considered a solid start, not a disappointing short one.
In some sense, all the Astros did was look past the injuries for Morton. They saw the velocity, they saw the spin rate, they saw the grounder ability -- all of which is available publicly -- and they gambled on health, while encouraging more curveballs. They didn't ask him to go deep into games, and they won.
It's not hard at all to see something similar with Chatwood. His unimpressive career numbers will obscure some of the skills beneath. Chatwood could be the steal of this Hot Stove season.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.