Charlie Morton's Journey From Roy Halladay Copycat to 35-Year-Old Cy Young Contender
Charlie Morton went from Houston to Tampa, and the nickname followed. The man christened Charles Alfred had picked up a sobriquet—Ground Chuck, a reference to his groundball-inducing tendencies—years ago with the Pirates. But after his decisive outings with Houston in the 2017 ALCS and World Series, that moniker gave way in the clubhouse and on social media to a shorter, punchier alias: CFM. To his teammates and fans, he’s Charlie F---ing Morton, even if the man behind the epithet is as mild-mannered as they come.
“It comes from a really good place,” Morton says before a mid-June game against the Yankees in New York. “You earn your nicknames, good or bad.”
In Morton’s case, it was five shutout innings against those Yankees to clinch the pennant for Houston, then four innings of relief against the Dodgers to close the Fall Classic in that series’ final game, that earned him his R-rated middle name. (The sanitized version—Charlie Freakin’ Morton—is what appears on T-shirts sold online and found in the lockers of his new team, the Rays.) His stint with the Astros was just two years, but it revitalized a long career that was nonetheless short on superlatives and consistency. Now, in his first season with Tampa, Morton has emerged as a Cy Young contender thanks to a 2.77 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 143 innings—and that at 35 years old, an age at which most players are nearing the end if not already there.
“He just keeps getting better,” says Astros righthander Gerrit Cole, who’s known Morton for nearly a decade. “He has a ton of knowledge and just continues to be a craftsman.”
“He’s got the arsenal and arm strength and velocity of someone 25 years old,” says Astros outfielder Josh Reddick. “At his age, doing what he’s doing, it’s pretty spectacular.”
That kind of praise and those results were hard to imagine for Morton just three years ago, when a hamstring tear knocked him out of the 2016 season after just four starts with the Phillies. At that point, he was 32 with a right elbow and hips that had been surgically repaired. Despite eight-plus seasons in the majors, his body of work was relatively small—just shy of 900 innings in total. Now he faced another trip to the operating table, a whole year lost, and free agency that winter. For most players, that’s the point at which the slope becomes too steep to continue climbing.
Yet the offseason prior, Morton thought things had changed for the better. “I came into spring training in really good shape,” he says. “I felt different, like my core was a lot stronger, like I had better endurance, like I was more explosive. I also felt like my delivery was better.” The numbers reinforced that belief: He went from averaging 92 mph on his fastball in 2015 with Pittsburgh to 94.3 in his abbreviated tenure with Philadelphia.
Morton’s last big mechanical overhaul had come after the 2010 season when he decided to copy the delivery and arsenal of Roy Halladay, even tabbing his sinker as his go-to pitch. But with his newfound velocity, he tinkered and reinvented again after the ’15 campaign. At the same time, he took stock of where he was in baseball and found himself at relative peace. “In 2015, I just felt worried about where my career was going, and after that season, I looked back and was like, man, you’ve been in this game for 13 years, you should probably start enjoying it a bit,” Morton says. “I was so focused on my results and the wrong things that I had done, the wrong pitches I’d made, the bad games I’d had, letting people and teams down in big situations.”
Entering the 2016 season in better shape, full health and with an improved delivery gave Morton confidence going forward. “I started thinking I could get a couple more years out of this,” he says. The hamstring injury was a setback, but he was grateful that teams had at least seen that, when healthy, he was throwing harder and better. One in particular took notice: the Astros, who signed Morton to a two-year, $14 million deal just two weeks after the World Series ended. “That offer from the Astros, I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he says. “There were other multi-year offers, but theirs was the best, and that was a team I felt really good about going to.”
It was a perfect match. The data-savvy Astros identified helpful tweaks Morton could make to his repertoire, chief among them using his four-seam fastball more and higher in the strike zone. A groundball pitcher in his youth, Morton was suddenly a strikeout machine with a fastball that touched 99 mph at an age when most guys get by on guile and finesse. Houston’s $14 million investment turned into a 3.36 ERA over 55 starts and 313 2/3 innings, plus the aforementioned postseason heroics, and made Morton a target for the equally analytically-inclined Rays. Like the Astros, Tampa quickly jumped all over Morton, surprising him with the biggest contract for a free-agent pitcher in team history: two years and $30 million. “I didn’t think the Rays were going to be really aggressive, because historically, they haven’t been,” Morton says.
So far, so good for Tampa’s relative splurge, as Morton has become the staff ace in the wake of injuries to 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. But while the newly booming four-seamer defined his time in Houston, with the Rays, Morton is leaning on a pitch that’s been there from the start: a curveball which hitters are batting just .133 against and slugging .187. Blessed with one of the highest spin rates in baseball, Morton’s curve sweeps across the strike zone, averaging a massive eight inches of horizontal movement. “It’s almost like a big slider, but it’s hard,” says Astros righty Brad Peacock. Cole claims it breaks two ways—first right, then left, something he’s seen only one other pitcher do: the late Jose Fernandez.
“That’s his gift,” Cole says. “You can spin it out of a machine the exact same way, and I swear to God it won’t do the same thing. It’s an art. It’s a unique brushstroke.”
“It’s my best pitch, my any-count pitch,” Morton says. “I’ve gotten to a point where I’m living and dying on the curveball.”
As the curve goes, so does Morton, but his disposition doesn’t change regardless. His former teammates in Houston laugh about the gap between his quiet personality and contemplative air and the Max Scherzer-style intensity you’d expect from a man dubbed Charlie F---ing Morton. “You see the fire in him,” Reddick says. But off the field, he’s a soft-spoken father of four who enjoys woodworking and is unfailingly polite. “He’s one of the best guys you could ever meet,” Peacock says. First baseman Tyler White recalls that, whenever Morton would speak during team meetings, he would tell the rest of the clubhouse that he loved them. “Being a great teammate is the top of his priority list, and it comes pretty easy for him because he does genuinely love a lot of people,” Cole says.
In Houston, Morton was a veteran on a young team, but one that had other greybeards dotting the clubhouse. With Tampa, he’s the odd man out—the resident senior citizen on a team where the average age is 27.4 years old, or nearly a decade younger than him. Fewer years separate him from his manager, Kevin Cash (41), and pitching coach, Kyle Snyder (41), than from rotation-mates Snell (26) or Glasnow (25). But that age gap hasn’t alienated Morton from his younger teammates.
“He’ll take the time and spend five minutes with certain guys as he makes his way through the outfield during batting practice or when we get together as a pitching staff,” Snyder says. “He’s meant a lot to them.”
Given how well he’s pitched, it’s possible the 35-year-old Morton could keep going all the way to 40. But joining Tampa was as much about what the franchise offered on the field as off, given its proximity to his home and family in nearby Bradenton, Fla. In the spring, he suggested that, once his contract was up, he’d likely retire. “I’m not slamming the door completely,” says Cole when asked if he thinks Morton will walk away after the 2020 season. “But that level of performance is going to have to be very high, and it’s going to have to outweigh the family.”
However long Morton has left, he’s already left his imprint on the game, and it’s far more significant than he could have imagined when he started his career. “A lot of guys have goals or ideas of what their career is going to be, and a lot of the time, that just doesn’t happen,” he says. “A lot of things have to go right, and you have to be lucky a lot of the time. Did I think I was going to be a 10-year veteran of the big leagues? The odds were not in my favor.”
Morton hung on regardless, and over the years he persevered and went from being Charlie Morton, oft-injured righty, to being CFM, World Series hero and unexpected ace. To some, though, that’s who he’s been all along.
“You heard about Charlie Morton early, his electric stuff with Atlanta, and then you heard about him again when people said he copied Roy Halladay, and you heard about him again when he had that horrific injury in Philly,” Cole says. “And then you hear about him again, he’s f---ing throwing heat and he’s got nasty s---, and it’s just like, there’s Charlie f---ing Morton, and he’s doing it again.
“It’s like coming across Jack Nicklaus,” Cole adds. “There’s one of those. There’s one Charlie Morton.”