5 reasons to target this under-the-radar starter

Veteran Morton among best rotation options left in free agency

December 8th, 2018

and are off the board, thinning the ranks of free-agent starting pitchers.

The top option still available might be a matter of preference. has the reputation, the Cy Young Award and the strong track record. Yusei Kikuchi, who is being posted by the Seibu Lions, is this year's intriguing arm from Japan. J.A. Happ has enjoyed plenty of recent success, including down the stretch for the Yankees last season.

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But there is another pitcher who has a compelling case as the best remaining starter on the market.

It took a long time for things to click for Charlie Morton, in part because of injuries. Then, over the past two seasons in Houston, the right-hander finally established himself as a highly effective starter.

Morton certainly would come with some question marks. He turned 35 last month and hasn't been especially durable (last year's 167 innings were his most since 2011). He walks more batters than you would want (9.2 percent in '18). But in a market without any superstar arms, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Here are five reasons why every team looking to upgrade its rotation should have Morton in their sights.

1. It's a limited commitment

When it comes to those not in the top tier of free agents, teams have been reticent to hand out long-term deals and part with Draft picks. Morton wouldn't require either. Houston's rather surprising decision to not make him the one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer freed him of that burdensome connection to Draft compensation. There also have been strong indications that Morton does not plan to pitch much longer, suggesting a one- or two-year contract could get the job done.

Contrast that to Morton's former teammate, Keuchel, who did receive a qualifying offer and might require something like a five-year deal going into his age-31 season. Morton doesn't figure to come cheaply in terms of annual salary, but the long-term consequences would be minimal.

2. He still brings heat

Morton didn't really find his velocity until late in his career, but it was worth the wait. The 6-foot-5 righty averaged 96.1 mph on his four-seam fastball last season and 95.1 mph on his sinker, with both of those numbers ranking in the top 10 among starters.

His age makes it all the more impressive and suggests there's plenty left in his arm. While Morton was 34 last season, none of the 14 regular starters who averaged a higher velocity with either fastball type was older than 28, and their average age was 25.5.

3. He can drop the hammer

Morton has a weapon in his curveball, and he is not afraid to use it. The pitch has one of the highest average spin rates among starters, according to Statcast™, and Morton threw it almost 30 percent of the time in 2018 -- to devastating effect.

Opponents managed a mere .135 batting average against his curve, including .061 with two strikes. They whiffed on more than 46 percent of their swings and struck out 117 times. All of those numbers put Morton near the top of the rankings among MLB starters.

4. Count the K's

Considering the combination of that mid- to high-90s heat and bat-missing hook, it's no surprise that Morton can pile up strikeouts. That's how he ended 28.9 percent of his opponents' plate appearances last season, a rate that ranked 13th out of 116 pitchers with at least 120 innings. Among the pitchers behind him: , , and .

And with that aforementioned out pitch in his pocket, Morton was exceptional at finishing off hitters. More than one-quarter of his two-strike offerings resulted in a strikeout, as he trailed only Chris Sale, , Corbin and in that category.

5. It's hard to square him up

Some high-strikeout pitchers don't get hit often, but they do get hit hard. Not Morton, who allowed less than one home run per nine innings over the past two seasons, ranking in the top 20 in MLB (minimum 250 innings).

In both 2017 and '18, Morton showed an aptitude for limiting hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground. As a result, only 5.2 percent of balls put in play against him were barrels -- a Statcast™ term for a batted ball likely to do damage based on its exit velocity and launch angle. That tied him for the 13th-lowest rate during that time, out of 82 starters (minimum 750 batted balls).

Put together the velocity, the curveball, the strikeouts and the weak contact, and you get a pitcher who does a lot of the things needed to be successful. Those factors help explain an expected wOBA -- based on strikeouts, walks and Statcast™ quality of contact -- that was essentially equal to that of Corbin, and in 2018.

Combine that with a contract that is likely to require a short commitment and won't cost a Draft pick, and there are plenty of reasons for Morton to be a popular target as the offseason progresses.