Atlanta Braves pitcher Charlie Morton continues to be key their playoff run. But how has the 37 year old continued to defy his age?
In 2017, veteran starter Charlie Morton signed a two year deal with the Houston Astros after an injury shortened stint with the Phillies. In the prior years, Morton had spent most of his career in Pittsburgh as a backend starter with the Pirates. It appeared he was headed for a similar role for an Astros team with World Series aspirations. At age 33, he became far more than that.
Morton made 25 starts for Houston that year, throwing 146.2 innings, finishing with a 3.62 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and a 3.58 xFIP. He finished with a career high 3.1 fWAR. He blew away his career high in K/9 which was 7.24, finishing at 10.00, After another solid year in 2018 with Houston, Morton signed a 2 year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, where he was brought in to help bolster a rotation led by the 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. This is when things really took off for Morton.
2019 was the best season of Morton’s career, finishing with a 3.05 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and a 3.28 xFIP, all career bests. He once again finished with a career high in K/9, this time at 11.10. He accumulated 6.0 fWAR, and finished third in AL Cy Young voting. He followed this up with another solid year in Tampa during the shortened season, then headed to the Atlanta Braves.
Once again, he is providing big innings for a good team. He threw 185.2 innings this year, posting a 3.34 ERA, 3.17 FIP, and a 3.31 xFIP. In the postseason, he has thrown 14.2 innings and allowed 6 earned runs. The big question is, how did Morton find this version of himself at age 33?
Morton has admitted that one day he decided to try and throw harder and it worked. Following an injury shortened season in Philadelphia, Morton added a cutter, a pitch that he threw in the very early parts of his career, which limited the usage of his sinker greatly. In his final season in Pittsburgh, Morton had the 16th highest sinker % among pitchers to face at least 250 batters at 61.4%. Among starters, he was 7th. In 2017, it dropped to 43.5%.
Throughout his career, Morton always had a great curveball. In 2015, hitters managed just a .224 wOBA against his curveball. His sinker however, was demolished, with hitters posting a .366 wOBA against it. Even in 2017, the sinker struggled again, allowing a .373 wOBA to opposing hitters. Because of this, Morton made a change in 2018. He made his 4 seam fastball his main fastball, dropping his sinker usage even more, now down to 27.1%, a massive drop from his Pittsburgh days. The results with it were much better than those with the sinker in 2015 and 2017, with hitters having just a .317 wOBA against it. In 2019, the 4 seamer showed even more promise, holding hitters to a .296 wOBA.
Pair this with an already great curveball that was continuing to be his best pitch, and you have a great pitcher. The struggle for him was finding another pitch to use to get hitters out. The development and velocity added to his 4 seam fastball was the solution. Interestingly enough, Morton once again altered his pitch selection this season, now throwing his curveball more than any other pitch. The results show how effective this has been.
In 2021, the Braves were expected to be World Series contenders, anchored by an elite offense. When Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL on July 10th, a lot of people believed any chance of contending was gone. From July 11th until the end of the season, Atlanta’s starting rotation was 4th in baseball in ERA and 8th in FIP.
What makes this even more remarkable, is the fact that they did this without Mike Soroka following a setback to his Achilles recovery after tearing it in 2020. Individually in this time frame, Morton had a 3.01 ERA and a 2.90 FIP. Teammate Max Fried was also excellent in this span. While the offense was able to keep producing at a solid level, it was the rotation that anchored Atlanta to a NL East title.
The development of this fastball has taken a career middle rotation starter, to an ace in his mid and late 30s. With the Braves punching their ticket to the World Series, Morton is in line to start game 1 against his former team. On Tuesday night, Morton has the opportunity to lead Atlanta to their first World Series win since 1996.
In early September, Morton signed an extension with the Atlanta Braves, a one year deal with a club option for 2023. It seems like despite being 37, he has plenty left in the tank.