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Charlie Morton reinvented himself twice to become a World Series hero

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Morton fixed himself again and again to become the arm the Astros needed.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Morton has pitched out of the bullpen exactly two times in 10 major league seasons, postseason games included.

The first was on Sept. 21, 2008, a couple of weeks before Barack Obama was elected president. Morton worked the fifth and sixth innings for the Braves against the Mets, and he didn’t give up any runs despite walking three guys. The Braves were en route to a 72-90 finish, and the game was meaningless to them.

The next time was Wednesday night, when a 33-year-old Morton pitched four innings of one-run ball to clinch the World Series for the Astros. He entered Game 7 in the sixth inning and shut down one of the best lineups baseball has seen in years. Morton got the last outs (and even the win) in the biggest game of anyone’s life.

To get to this point, Morton reinvented himself. Then he did it again.

Morton’s old, but he’s not quite a journeyman. The Braves drafted him in 2002, and they traded him to the Pirates as part of a package for outfielder Nate McLouth in 2009. Morton spent the next seven years in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t consistently good, but he was sometimes great. Pirates fans imagined a future in which Morton would pitch Game 7 of the World Series, and now, that’s at least happened somewhere.

In Pittsburgh, Morton had two nicknames. The first was “Electric Stuff,” because when the Pirates got Morton in ’09, his reputation was for having a live arm that could generate some swings-and-misses. But Morton was lousy that year, and the wheels completely fell off in 2010, when he had a 7.57 ERA across 17 starts.

In 2011, Morton and the Pirates completely overhauled his approach. He made a biting sinker the centerpiece of his repertoire, throwing it 61 percent of the time and scaling back his four-seam fastball usage dramatically. The idea was to reinvent Morton as a ground-ball specialist, and it worked. Morton’s ground-ball percentage went from 47 to 59, his homers allowed from a ridiculous 1.7 per nine innings to 0.3. And his ERA went down to 3.83 while Morton pitched 171 innings, still his most ever in a season.

So, Morton’s second nickname became “Ground Chuck.”

Morton struggled a great deal with injuries over the years, often living on the disabled list. In 2012, he only made nine starts before having Tommy John surgery.

But he was generally healthy in 2013, when he had a 3.26 ERA as a ground-baller for the first Pirates playoff team in a generation.

The Pirates extended Morton after that season, but he started to decline — first a little bit in 2014, then a lot in 2015, when he started giving up more home runs.

That’s when Morton decided to reinvent himself for a second time.

The Phillies traded for him before 2016. We’re going to pretend that year didn’t happen, mostly because it didn’t: Morton missed almost all of it with a hamstring injury.

This season, Morton did something he hadn’t done in his entire career: He started throwing really, really hard. Morton’s four-seam velocity averaged 96 mph, up from 93-94 during his Pirates years. His sinker averaged 95, up from 90-93. That sinker was still his most popular pitch, but he used a curve, a cutter, and that heater, too.

With his new velocity, Morton transitioned seamlessly from ground-ball specialist to “dude who strikes a ton of other dudes out.” He got whiffs on almost one in four swings, an unheard-of number for him before his brief Phillies stint the year prior. His ground-ball rate went from around 60 percent to 52, but he started striking out 10 guys per nine innings. His career average is less than seven.

All of this, obviously, worked really well. Morton was worth 3.3 FanGraphs wins above replacement, second on the Astros’ staff behind Brad Peacock, and ahead of both Dallas Keuchel and a sometimes-injured Lance McCullers. Keuchel in 2017 is a ton like Morton from 2011-15, in that ground balls are his lifeblood. Having both arms worked well for Houston. There’s not one approach to pitching that every staff has to adhere to.

Morton earned every drop of his success this year.

I don’t know why he didn’t put things together earlier. Baseball is a weird game. It probably didn’t help that the Pirates usually fielded an abomination of a defensive infield behind him, while the Astros gave him Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa. More than usual, balls in play off Morton became outs this year, and then you add all those newfound strikeouts to the mix.

But Morton, more than anyone, did this for himself. He fixed himself when his career was tanking in 2011, and he fixed himself again to put on a brilliant second act in 2017. And 15 and a half years after the Braves plucked him in the third round, Morton threw the last 12 outs for the first championship in Astros history.


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