CHARLIE MORTON IS not in a hurry. You have to assume he doesn't have all day because it feels like he just might. It's not that he moves or talks slowly; he just seems to be in a permanent state of deliberation. When you're accustomed to the staccato, look-at-the-clock, I've-gotta-stretch/hit/lift/eat/get-to-a-meeting nature of most interviews with baseball players, it takes a few moments to get used to Morton's languid and welcoming pace.
Morton, who will start Game 4 of the American League Championship Series for the Astros, their best defense against a 3-1 deficit in this series, is one of the top starters in baseball's best rotation. He is 34 years old, and a little more than a year ago he stood on the mound in Dodger Stadium after getting the last out of the World Series. His deliberative nature seems to stem from two competing facts: 1) he still can't quite believe his good fortune, and; 2) he hasn't fully come to terms with how long it took to realize it.
Rare among athletes and even rarer among pitchers, Morton found his greatest professional success at a time when it was least expected. His career has been marked by a series of career-altering injuries -- two hip surgeries, elbow surgery, hamstring and shoulder issues -- and a lingering sense that his talent would remain forever unfinished.
"It's kind of frustrating in a way," he says. "I've always been told I have good stuff. I've always been told I could be really, really good, but I was always just average. And here I am, 34 going on 35, having figured a lot of things out, and I don't know how much longer I want to play. And that's fine. It's fine, really it is. I've had a rewarding career. I've experienced a lot -- a lot of ups and downs, and the downs have been as fulfilling to me as the good things.
"I don't regret the struggles. I'll say this: It's nice to know that if I reach my physical potential with the repertoire and methodology of the way I'm pitching, that I can be good. I can do the things I want to do, and I know that now."
He was an All Star for the first time this season, and his 15-3 record gave him the best winning percentage in baseball. (Do wins matter? Your mileage may vary.) He had a career-best WAR of 3.2 and a career-best WHIP of 1.17. Along with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, he was part of just the fifth trio in MLB history to each record 200 strikeouts.
Despite all of that, there's a chance Morton might decide to leave the game after this season to devote more time to his wife, Cindy, and their four children, the oldest of whom is 5. (They went boy-girl-boy-girl, like a good pitch sequence, and fellow Astros are astounded by the couple's insistence on raising their children without outside help -- in other words, no nanny -- even though they can obviously afford it.) He will be one of the most desirable starters on the free-agent market this offseason, and this is his last great chance to sign a two- or three-year contract that sets up generations of his family for life.
His teammates tell him they understand if he's ready to hang them up. Dallas Keuchel says, "I get it, and I respect him for it, but I tell him: 'Man, you could be looking at $20 million a year.'" Keuchel places his palms in front of his body and raises them up and down -- the scales of justice, in Keuchel's hands, inevitably land on the side of the $20 million a year. But in deference to his friend, he says, "It's a tough call."
The question Morton faces is this: How do you spend 16 years in an endless quest to find success and then walk away when it finally arrives?
"How many games have I sat in a dugout and watched?" Morton asks. "At least four out of every five, right? I've been playing pro ball since 2002. That's a lot of time spent sitting around watching games. I can't speak for other guys, but I think I would look for some other things that are quote-unquote 'rewarding.' I'm part of a really special group here, but if my career ended today, I'd be perfectly happy with the way it went."
There's a case to be made for Morton being the most interesting man in baseball. Astros manager A.J. Hinch goes back to a game in early June, in Texas, when Morton hit four batters -- an American League record -- and walked six in just 3⅔ innings. The morbidly optimistic among the Astros were quick to point out that Morton gave up only one hit.
"No," Morton says. "Just no. It was a completely unprofessional outing. It was embarrassing. You can't pitch like that. You can't say, 'Oh, I only gave up one hit.' That's not how it works."
He stops, cocks his head as if to think about it and says, "The stuff was there, though. The stuff was good."
At the time, though, humor was not welcome. Hinch knows, because he tried.
"It's going to be such a crazy headline," Hinch told him that night. "Morton Fires One-Hitter."
How did that go over?
"Not well," Hinch says. "He wanted no part of it. Charlie is the only pitcher in my managerial career who has apologized when he's had a bad day. That's just his way of showing vulnerability and true responsibility for his job. I've been around a lot of players -- great players, marginal players, rookies. He's on a short list: every single teammate roots for him."
BEFORE THE 2017 ALCS against the Yankees, Astros pitching coach Brent Strom requisitioned a scouting report on the Yankees' hitters from Perry Husband, a freelance consultant who lives in Southern California. Husband, 56, is a former minor league infielder with a career OPS of .552 whose life's work, a pitching theory called Effective Velocity that he describes as "liquid analytics," has often veered toward obsession. Minutes after accepting Strom's assignment, Husband buried himself in videos of the Yankees, with special concentration on their matchups with Houston. His goal was to inform Strom on the best way to inflict EV on the likes of Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius, but he kept getting distracted. No matter who or what he was looking at, he kept seeing Morton.
Husband told Strom, "You've got a superstar here if he could figure it out."
"Well, OK then," Strom said. "Work me up a scouting report on Charlie, too."
It's worth taking a moment to explain the underground world of the self-proclaimed baseball gurus. The analytics revolution birthed a subculture of intelligent, earnest, passionate thinkers who believe they have a philosophy, a statistical formula or a training method that will shake the game to its core -- if only enough influential people open their minds wide enough to implement it. And, not surprisingly, these core-shaking ideas birthed a sub-subculture of their own: people who vehemently dispute the value of the ideas that aren't their own. Effective Velocity -- it's patented -- is a many-tentacled beast, but it begins with the idea that hitters have to make up their minds to swing within the first 20 feet of every pitch. If all pitches are thrown out of the same tunnel for those 20 feet, the hitter can't discern pitch type in time to swing. Husband uses a football analogy. If a defensive back is asked to cover two receivers and they run routes 10 yards apart, the defender can split the difference and conceivably cover both. If the routes are run 30 yards apart, the sole defender must pick one or the other. Those two receivers, 30 yards apart, are the equivalent of Morton's 96 mph fastball on the hands and his 80 mph curveball off the outside corner. A hitter simply can't "cover" both pitches in the time he has to make up his mind, so he must pick one. Effective Velocity is disputed within analytic circles for its lack of foundational research and Husband, not surprisingly, disputes that, which puts us into a whole Russian nesting doll exercise that doesn't serve anybody's purpose. (Especially but not limited to you, reading this.)
For the purposes of assessing the arc of Morton's career, though, and Husband's backstage impact on the Astros, Strom's opinion matters. "I think Perry's brilliant," he says, "and I think over the past few years his stuff -- especially on tunneling -- has been hijacked without him getting the credit he deserves. We have an exceptional front office, but Perry's stuff is a real now-now type of thing for me. Analytics can tell you what has happened, but Perry's work is predictive. I can't come close to understanding all of his concepts, but as a young pitching coach, I was always fascinated by a guy throwing 98 and getting his ass kicked while another guy throws 88 and punches everybody out. I couldn't figure out why. Perry knows why."
Strangely, despite Strom's evangelism on behalf of Husband, nearly all of his pitchers are unfamiliar with both Effective Velocity and its inventor. Morton has never heard of Husband before I mentioned him, and he can't pinpoint a difference between his pitching before last year's ALCS and now. With a conspiratorial look, he says, "Unless Strommie is subconsciously manipulating me."
SHORTLY AFTER MORTON arrived in Houston after a short, injury-riddled stint with the Phillies, Strom and the Astros' vaunted analytics department undertook a down-to-the-studs remodel of a 33-year-old pitcher whose past, notably with Pittsburgh, suggested he topped out as a semi-reliable fifth starter. Morton's approach through the first nine years of his big league career was passed down like a sacred scroll: Pound his hard and heavy sinker down and in to get ground balls and break bats, mix in a few breaking balls off the plate to induce chase swings, and throw the occasional fastball up on the hands to keep a hitter honest. It was the way pitching had been taught for the better part of two centuries.
"As soon as I got here, they wanted me to throw a lot more two-seamers down and away to righties," Morton says. "I was like, 'Hmm, I want to go in on righties -- that's what works for me. You know, get 'em to hit the ball on the ground.' They were like, 'Well, actually ... we'd like to avoid the ball being in put in play altogether.'"
He stops here to let that sink in. It's deep stuff. The Astros were telling him to discard the only identity he ever had. They were telling him to forget about limiting contact and think about eliminating it altogether. This was Strom's credo, to be repeated a year later when the Astros acquired Cole from the Pirates. As a minor league pitching coordinator in St. Louis, Strom watched young guys with strikeout stuff try to hit spots and pitch to contact. His frustration spawned a philosophy he eventually distilled into seven words: "F--- ground balls; let's strike guys out."
And now he was employing it to "well, actually" Morton's entire life's work.
"For a few months, it was a battle," Morton says. "The battle was between what I'd normally done -- and what I felt my identity was -- and what actually works."
And now? Morton thinks about it, and thinks about it, and finally says, "Several times a game I'll tell myself: 'Hey, just let it rip.' I'll pick a band across the top of the strike zone and just throw as hard as I can. I never did that before."
It has been both successful -- more than 10 strikeouts per 9 innings in two years with Houston -- and liberating. The difference between pre-Houston Morton and Houston Morton is stark. During his best years in Pittsburgh, Ground Chuck's 6-foot-5 body was hunched, his shoulders tucked toward his chest, his hips sinking as he strode tentatively down the mound. It looked careful, as if he was trying to remain within a confined space, and the most he struck out in a season was 126. Ground Chuck was a man eyeing a board and trying to guide a dart to a triple 20. This new Chuck -- Houston Chuck, Strikeout Chuck -- is a dude running across a field and chucking a javelin as far as he can.
THE FIRST TIME I spoke with Morton about his future was in mid-June, shortly before he was named to the All Star team. It was the day before a rare and cherished off-day at home, and he was deliberating (of course) whether to take the kids to the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Natural Science. (For posterity: The museum won.)
The next time we spoke was in August, with another long postseason run on the horizon and Cindy weeks away from the birth of their fourth child. (Emilia Noelle Morton, who was born Sept. 28.) His team is on its way to a franchise-record 103 wins and another AL West title. The crowds at Minute Maid Park are big and boisterous, and every time he takes the mound it's clear they have a growing affinity for what he has brought to the team. I asked him again: Have you given any more thought to your future?
"Yes, I have," he says, and then proceeds to pause until I ask the obvious follow-up.
"And I'd have to say I'm leaning toward playing more," he says, his words unhurried, his tone almost apologetic. He is a man both freed and ensnared by a rare type of success: the kind nobody could see coming.