The last image that many will take away from the incredible 2017 World Series is one that few expected several years ago. It was Charlie Morton, the former soft-tossing and somewhat frustrating right-hander of the Pirates, flirting with triple digits on the radar gun as he closed out the last four innings of the Astros' Game 7 victory.
After falling shy of expectations and short of the 2016 postseason, Houston signed Morton to a two-year, $14 million deal with incentives for playing time. The incentives explained part of why Morton's signing was surprising: He'd made only four starts for the Phillies in '16 before tearing his left hamstring and undergoing surgery. Before that, Morton had endured a pair of hip procedures and Tommy John surgery. His career record was just 46-71.
"The lowest point was probably last year," Morton told Sports Illustrated after his Game 7 heroics. "I was a 33-year-old pitcher coming off surgery, wondering who would want me. I thought maybe I was looking at a Minor League free-agent deal with somebody."
The Astros' front office, one of the most heavily involved with analytics, saw more in Morton than an aging pitcher coming off yet another surgery. They saw a guy who was touching 97 mph with his sinker in those four starts with Philadelphia, a good 7 mph faster than the fastball he was throwing just four years prior.
They also saw a guy who was putting elite spin on his curveball, hinting at major potential to rack up grounders and swing-and-misses. Looking just at those tools, Houston signed Morton as a pitcher to fill out the back end of its rotation. What the Astros got instead was a force in October.
As free agency comes back around, could teams follow Houston's example and find their own "diamond in the rough"? Using Statcast™ pitch data, here are three relatively unheralded pitchers who possess the kind of elite stuff that could surprise. As Morton showed, the right combination of timing and team situation can pay off:
Much like Morton, the injury questions are obvious for Bailey. The righty reliever pitched in just four games for the Angels in 2017, thanks to the same shoulder troubles that have limited him since he was traded by the A's in the offseason of 2011. Bailey, now 33, was far from dominant when he was healthy enough to pitch 45 games for the Phillies and Halos in '16, recording a 5.36 ERA.
Still, even in those four appearances for Los Angeles this year, Bailey flashed a transcendent skill: Elite spin on his four-seam fastball. In fact, Bailey's four-seamer averaged 2,715 rpm in those outings, which still led all pitchers who had thrown at least 25 four-seamers by season's end. The first three seasons of Statcast™ data tells us that kind of spin gives four-seams fastballs the ride, or "rising" effect, that we often hear about from hitters (it's what made Justin Verlander's high fastball so dominant this postseason) and tends to elicit more whiffs and weak infield pop-ups than average-spin fastballs.
With Bailey, the caveat is that he simply wasn't bringing the same kind of heat as he used to. A league-leading spin rate is more effective when paired with the 95-mph velocity Bailey was bringing as the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner with Oakland, and not the 91-mph average he was posting this season. If Bailey can ever rediscover that velocity late in his career, similar to how Morton did in 2016, he could pay off as a low-risk bullpen option for a team willing to take a flyer on him.
The trade that sent Cahill with Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer from San Diego to Kansas City wasn't the most buzzworthy non-waiver Trade Deadline deal this past July, but it did feature the transfer of one of the Majors' best curveballs over the first half. Cahill, 29, held opponents to just four hits in 52 at-bats, for a .077 batting average that ranked second best among all MLB pitchers at the All-Star break. Cahill's second half with the Royals was a different story (.318 average against his curve), though that may have been due in part to his highest innings load since 2014.
Cahill's command of his curveball clearly wasn't the same for the Royals as it was for the Padres, but with a healthy offseason and the right workload, Cahill's curve could quickly return as an elite pitch. Only four starters threw a curveball with higher spin than Cahill, which we know can help a pitcher generate more whiffs and ground balls, thanks to the diving action that spin enhances (think Morton last year with the Phillies).
Chatwood was one of those four starters whose curveballs averaged (just barely) more spin than Cahill's. Opponents were forced into grounders on 19 out of the 27 batted balls Chatwood induced with his curve, but such a small sample size hints at the intriguing part -- the Rockies' second-year man went with this elite pitch only 10.5 percent of the time in 2017. In fact, over the course of his career, Chatwood has never eclipsed even a 20-percent usage rate with a pitch that many pitchers dream they had in their arsenal.
"I had a two-year layoff, and I didn't have a really good feel for it," Chatwood said this past Spring Training.
Whether it was fear of reinjuring his elbow after two different Tommy John surgeries, or a hesitancy to throw it at Coors Field, Chatwood has yet to fully embrace his curveball. Coming into his age-28 season, there's still plenty of time for Chatwood to unlock this weapon and use it to his advantage.
That's not the only similarity Chatwood shares with Morton. His four-seam fastball velocity jumped from 92.7 mph in 2016 to a career-best 94.8 mph this past season, while also averaging the seventh-highest spin rate among starting pitchers at 2,480 rpm. Much like Morton, Chatwood could be one change of scenery away from serious improvements.