Charlie Morton's Houston homecoming is about far more than the Astros

The Astros reinvented Charlie Morton in his two years in Houston. But now that he's back in town, his goal is to pitch his new team into the postseason. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Charlie Morton is not like the others.

He's not like Bryce Harper, who spent his entire career with the Washington Nationals before hitting the free-agency jackpot and landing with the division rival Philadelphia Phillies. He's not like Manny Machado, who inked a record-setting contract with the San Diego Padres after nearly a decade with the Baltimore Orioles, the only franchise he ever knew. He wasn't the subject of constant hot-stove rumors or at the center of a wild bidding war, and he hasn't been asked a gajillion times what it'll be like when he returns to his old home for the first time to face his former team.

But that doesn't mean it won't be weird.

"Uh, yeah," says Morton, when asked if he's allowed himself to think ahead to Tuesday night. Seated in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards, the Rays' new ace is 24 hours removed from a so-so start in Seattle (five innings, three strikeouts, one no-decision). He's well aware his next outing will come at Minute Maid Park, the place he once called home. The very stadium where, in 2017, he started Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and tossed five scoreless frames against the Yankees, picking up the win and sending the Houston Astros to the World Series. The same venue where, 10 days later, thousands of fans gathered to watch another Game 7 broadcast live from Los Angeles, where Morton came on in relief and shut down the Dodgers over the final four innings to deliver the first championship in franchise history.

Even though he was a member of the Astros for only two years, it was a decidedly rich two years. So yeah, he's thought about his homecoming.

"I loved my teammates," says Morton, who in December signed a two-year, $30 million free-agency deal with Tampa Bay that officially ended his tenure in Houston. "I loved being an Astro. I was proud of being an Astro. I was proud of what we accomplished. That place meant a lot to me." Besides being the place where he won a ring, Space City is also the town that launched Morton's career into a different orbit.

In February 2017, when the veteran hurler arrived at his first spring training with the Astros, he brought with him the nickname "Ground Chuck." It was a moniker he'd earned during his seven seasons in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates' pitch-to-contact philosophy (and a heavy dose of sinkerballs) had turned him into a ground ball machine. But Morton also brought with him a losing record, an ERA well north of 4.00, and a lengthy medical history that featured two hip operations, one Tommy John surgery and a torn hamstring that ended his 2016 campaign after just five starts with the Phillies, who'd acquired him from Pittsburgh the previous offseason.

Within days of arriving at Astros camp, Morton was whisked away into a quiet room, where a gathering of coaches and staffers proceeded to pepper him with information. They showed him a series of graphs and charts on a big screen. They suggested that his curveball, which boasted an elite spin rate and had always been a plus pitch, should be more prominently featured. They advised him that instead of targeting the bottom of the strike zone with his two-seam fastball (aka sinker), he should leverage the increased velocity he flashed in Philly by throwing elevated four-seamers. Instead of pitching to contact, they said, and simply praying for the best possible outcome, why not actually try to -- ya know -- miss bats altogether?

In retrospect, it might not seem like a big deal for a middling journeyman like Morton to buy into what the Astros' brain trust was telling him. After all, Houston has become something of a hurler's haven -- an analytically driven utopia where pitchers go to be reprogrammed, retooled and reborn.

Don't believe it? Just ask Wade Miley, who in his first season with the Stros has gone from back-of-the-rotation filler to a key starter come October. Or Gerrit Cole, who morphed into one of baseball's most dominant starters after joining Houston last year. Or Justin Verlander, who became borderline unhittable the moment the Astros traded for him during the 2017 stretch run. But before Miley, Cole and Verlander, there was an OG guinea pig who wasn't afraid to take the leap of faith.

"In general," says Morton, "I'm pretty trusting of people that are employed to find out what's good and bad about what you're doing."

What Morton did during his two years in Houston was a revelation. Leaning heavily on his devastating breaking ball and a souped-up four-seamer that seemed to defy the aging curve, he went a combined 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA. In 2017, he was a postseason hero. Last year, he reached 200 strikeouts and was named an All-Star, both career firsts. But he wore down toward the end of the 2018 campaign and lasted just two-plus innings in his only playoff start.

"I wish I could've finished stronger," says Morton, who landed on the injured list in late August with shoulder issues and worked just 15 innings over the final month of the regular season. "But what more could I have asked for those two seasons I was with the Astros?"

There are plenty of people who think that Morton could've asked for -- or at least gotten -- more love from Houston's front office this past winter. That based on his performance and the team's rotation needs, and regardless of his age and health history, he should've received a more competitive offer from GM Jeff Luhnow. For the record, Morton is not one of those people.

"I wasn't thinking I was entitled to something," says the 12-year vet, who celebrated his 35th birthday in November and has still never had a season in which he's made more than 30 starts. "I wasn't thinking they owed me. They took a pretty substantial financial risk on me coming off a season where I made five starts and threw 16 innings or whatever. So what do they owe me? They're weighing risk/reward, just like I am."

So Houston let Morton walk. Well, technically, they did extend him an offer. But it paled in comparison to Tampa Bay's $30 million bid, which became one of the richest free-agent deals in Rays history, and nearly five times what the Astros ended up paying the guy they brought in to replace Morton (Miley). At the time, Houston's decision to part ways with Morton seemed like the kind of good, sound business move that has become a trademark of the Luhnow administration. And the way Miley has pitched this year has done little, if anything, to change that evaluation. As for how Morton has performed, well, that's a different story.

In a season in which incumbent ace and reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell has battled injury and inconsistency, the Rays -- who frequently deploy the opener strategy and therefore have what could best be described as a skeleton starting rotation -- have gotten more than their money's worth from Morton. The 6-foot-5 righty ranks among the American League's top 10 in pretty much every major pitching category, including ERA (2.85, third), WHIP (1.06, fourth) and innings (161, ninth). His 2.70 FIP (fielding independent pitching) is tops in the AL, and for those who still believe in wins, he isn't doing too shabby in that department either (13, tied for eighth).

"Whoa," says Tampa manager Kevin Cash, nearly coughing up a lung when asked where his team would be right now without Morton. "I have no idea. He's certainly been our MVP this year."

Actually, in a world where Mike Trout didn't exist, you could make a pretty compelling argument for Morton as the MVP of more than just the Rays. The Artist Formerly Known As Ground Chuck is flashing a 5.2 WAR, according to Fangraphs, that ranks sixth among all AL players not named Trout, and is only about half a win behind the guy at the top of that list (ex-teammate Alex Bregman). At the core of Morton's success is the secret sauce he first tasted in Houston.

"He's learned a lot about himself as a pitcher and who he is," says Kyle Snyder, a former big league hurler who's in his second year as Tampa Bay's pitching coach. "He understands how his stuff is best put to work." Contrary to the old adage, Morton's stuff works best when he works harder, not smarter.

"I just throw it as hard as I can," he says of the four-seamer that has replaced the two-seamer as his go-to gas. The added oomph is such an essential part of his new and improved pitching philosophy that he feels the need to repeat himself, only this time he draws out the words and places extra emphasis on the most important one. "I throw it ... as hhhhard ... as I possibly ... can." Which, as it turns out, is pretty dang hard.

Last year with Houston, Morton's average four-seamer clocked in at 96.67 mph, third fastest among AL starters behind Luis Severino and Cole. Although his velocity has dipped a little this year (95.04), it's still up a couple of ticks from his Pittsburgh days and still ranks in the top five. That's more than enough to raise the eyebrows of doubters who have trouble comprehending how a guy who's closer to 40 than 30 can suddenly start throwing heaters closer to 100 than 90. While being healthy certainly plays a part, there's something to be said for conviction too.

"There's a mentality with the four-seamer that I didn't have before. The two-seamer was a manipulated pitch. It was something that I was trying to make sink. I was trying to make it run, and I was really focused on throwing it down in the zone." By the end of his time in Pittsburgh, on the few occasions each game when his catcher called for a four-seamer up in the zone, Morton felt like he was just going through the motions. "I'm throwing 95 percent sinkers, and then I'm taking the four or five four-seamers I throw, and you're asking me to let these rip at 95 miles an hour? It's probably not going to happen."

These days, with his four-seam usage way up, it's definitely going to happen.

"I just want to throw it by somebody now. I want to beat somebody with my fastball," he says. "I didn't know what that even felt like before. There's probably 15 or 20 pitches a game where I'm literally throwing the ball as hard as I can. I don't care where it goes."

Ironically, Morton's control is better than it's ever been. From 2013 through '18, he averaged just 122 innings per season, but still managed to lead his league in hit batsmen on four different occasions. This year, despite being on pace for a career-high 199 innings, he's plunked a relatively humane seven batters (tied for 18th out of 70 qualified starters). And his walk rate is the lowest it's been since 2012 (2.5 per nine innings). When it comes to Morton's heater, the grip-it-and-rip-it approach has worked wonders.

"Sometimes," says Rays catcher Mike Zunino, "just throwing a pitch with conviction can do as much as putting a pitch in a certain spot." That said, Morton is pretty good at the whole feel thing too. Especially when it comes to his curveball.

Morton's freakish curve has always been his most dangerous weapon. "He's got the ability to add horizontal movement as much as there is vertical movement," says Zunino. "He can throw it 12-6, or there can be much more sweep to it. Not many guys have that."

In reality, almost nobody has that. According to FanGraphs, Morton's curve averages 10.6 inches of lateral movement (second behind Adam Wainwright) and 6.6 inches of drop, making him one of only a dozen starters who have more than half a foot of break along both vectors. But it wasn't until he got to Houston that he started taking full advantage of it.

"The thing I appreciated with the Astros," says Morton, "is the encouragement of throwing your best pitch as much as you can. I use it in every count."

It got to the point that Morton and his fellow Houston hurlers got custom T-shirts made that said "3-2 BANGERS," a tribute to their propensity for throwing curves at any time, even in full counts. Much like his new fastball philosophy, which made the 1,000-mile trip east from H-town to Cigar City, the curveball credo has traveled well too. In fact, after throwing his hammer a career-high 29% of the time last season, Morton's ramped it up to 37% this year, the highest rate in the majors.

Whatever pitch mix Morton is using this year, it's working wonders. With a little more than a month left in the regular season, the underdog Rays are in the thick of the AL wild-card race. Although their ace is showing signs of tiring -- Morton's 4.10 ERA after the All-Star break is nearly two runs higher than before -- he's still on the short list of Cy Young contenders. It's a select group that includes Verlander and Cole, both of whom he'll see this week in Houston. In fact, it'll be Verlander and Morton going toe-to-toe on Tuesday. In case you're wondering, the ex-Astro isn't buying into the whole chip-on-the-shoulder thing.

"I don't feel like I have anything to prove to them," Morton says. "It's not like they don't know what's going on." That's because he just saw a bunch of them last month in Cleveland. It was All-Star week, and his former teammates were getting ready to take a group photo. In all, there were six Houston players at the Midsummer Classic, the most of any American League club. Five of them, including Cole and Verlander, had spent all or part of the past two seasons playing alongside Morton. Now, here they were in Cleveland, getting ready to pose. But the tableau was missing something.

"Come on over, Chuck!" the Astros squad hollered.

It was a reminder of the lesson Morton has spent this entire season proving: You can take the pitcher out of Houston, but you can't take the Houston out of the pitcher.