It seems as if multiple times since 2009, when Charlie Morton was traded along with two other players for Nate McLouth, his return to Atlanta could have made a lot of sense for both sides. While neither the Pirates nor the Braves significantly benefitted from that trade, it seems the Braves would have gained more value simply keeping Morton than trading him away. (McLouth combined for a lousy 0.1 fWAR in around 1,000 PAs as a Brave; Morton gave the Pirates an underwhelming but still much better 7.3 fWAR in around 800 innings.) Though inconsistency and injuries prevented Morton from truly breaking out for the Pirates, he certainly flashed his significant potential as a starter here and there, including a 2013 campaign where he put up 1.4 fWAR in 116 frames of work while posting better-than-league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP marks.
The unique thing about Morton is not that his eventual breakout would happen later than many expected, but simply that the peak of his career has occurred during his mid-30s, the part of most pitchers’ careers that is normally filled with decline and regression. Yet, when the 34-year-old Morton arrived in Houston for the 2017 campaign, that is exactly what happened, as his career transformed from “What could have been?” to “Where the heck has this been?” Morton went on produce a a 14-7 record with a 3.62 ERA and 163 strikeouts over 146 2⁄3 innings, setting career bests in fWAR (3.1) along with ERA- and FIP-. However, Morton was just scratching the surface.
Since 2017, Morton ranks 13th among MLB starters with 12.9 fWAR. His punch card since then includes two All-Star appearances, a top-three Cy Young voting finish in 2019, and a 31-9 record and 441 strikeouts over 361 2⁄3 innings. While Morton flashed the potential to be a number three starter in Pittsburgh, his jump into being a borderline ace was quite the revelation. A big reason for his success was the impact of working with the Houston coaching staff, who helped Morton turn his breaking pitches, especially his curveball, into absolute weapons. In fact, since 2017, according to Fangraphs, Morton has had the third most valuable curveball in the game.
After finishing third in the Cy Young voting in 2019, there were high hopes for Morton to continue in his great work into 2020. However, Morton experienced trouble right out of the gate, allowing six runs over four innings in his first start and showing notably diminished velocity. Though Morton righted the ship and picked up a tick on his fastball over his next two starts, he left his fourth outing after only two innings due to shoulder inflammation .
Morton missed a month with the ailment but returned in September and improved his endurance and stamina over five starts as the Rays geared up for a playoff run. Though Morton was still significantly less effective than he was in his 2019 season, he produced 14 strikeouts and yielded zero home runs over ten innings in his final two starts. This approach certainly paid dividends for Morton and the Rays, as Morton proved to be a reliable arm as the Rays made their run to the World Series. Over three starts in the ALDS and ALCS, Morton pitched 15 2⁄3 innings, allowing just one run, four walks, while producing 17 strikeouts. Though he was not dominant, he was once again highly effective. Morton ended his season on a less than ideal note due to a subpar performance against the Dodgers in the World Series, as they tagged him for five runs and his only postseason longball allowed in 2020. But, it’s hard to say this dampened his postseason, as he still posted a 2.70 ERA / 2.59 FIP / 3.77 xFIP across his four October outings.
Nonetheless, in a somewhat surprising move, the Rays declined his $15 million option for the 2021 season. Once that decision was made, many immediately identified the Braves as a logical destination for Morton to resume his career. Morton had always seemed open to a return to where his career began, and there were indications both sides had mutual interest in a contract before the 2019 season. Though the opportunity did not work out then, it was a “better late than never” situation for both Morton and the Braves, as he signed a deal for the same amount of his declined option with Atlanta.
For 2021, the Braves would obviously love to have Morton as close to his 2019 form as possible. However, with Morton already having turned 37, the odds are strongly against him hitting that peak once again. Fortunately, there is still plenty of room for Morton to benefit the Braves, even if anything close to a 6 WAR season isn’t within reach. Steamer and ZiPS both see Morton in the 3-win range across 130-170 innings of work. That’s roughly consistent with his 2020 on a rate basis, where despite an inflated ERA (111 ERA-), he still had a sparkling 80 FIP- and better-than-average 90 xFIP-. If the Braves can keep him healthy and able to deal anywhere close to what he did in the 2020 postseason, they and Morton should be just fine.
It’s tempting to say that Morton’s 2021 shouldn’t look any worse than his 2020, especially since he was whammied by the usual combination of bad luck on balls in play (.355 BABIP, .325 wOBA-against compared to a strong .293 xwOBA-against) and a low strand rate (70 percent, his lowest since his renaissance began in 2017). However, there are definite warning signs to be gleaned from 2020 as well. Morton’s fastball averaged 93.8 MPH in 2020, down from 96 MPH in 2018, and though he held 95 for a couple of starts, his fastball may have already faded away from being an above-average offering, especially because it lacks natural “rise” and has relied on velocity to get whiffs and mitigate contact. Across the board, Morton’s effectiveness with his pitches significantly declined as well, especially with his curveball, which featured its lowest whiff rate since 2012 and highest xwOBA-against since Statcast started tracking that metric in 2015. While he has a deep arsenal that includes a sinker, a slider/cutter, and even a splitter he’ll throw a couple times a game, his dramatic career turnaround was really based on a devastating curveball paired with a hard fastball — if both of those are backsliding, he may have to get creative to figure out an effective path forward.
Obviously, the Braves would love for Morton to be above average to elite as much as possible. However, with how their starting rotation is shaping up for 2021, simply being reliable will carry significant value, especially compared to the tribulations the Braves encountered with their starters in 2020. Though Atlanta has to be highly encouraged with how many of their young arms finished last season, there is still plenty of risk in heavily relying on Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and others, as all but Anderson have had their fair share of downs. As a result, bringing in Drew Smyly and Morton was a way for the Braves to add depth, talent, and veteran experience to help stabilize a rotation in support of Max Fried and a returning Mike Soroka.
If Morton can simply provide 5-6 innings of decent to effective pitching over 25 or more starts during the regular season, he certainly will turn out to be a worthwhile investment. However, it should not be ignored that big reason the Braves signed Morton was due to his recent success in the postseason. Over 61 1⁄3 career postseason innings, Morton has a 3.38 ERA with 67 strikeouts. His experiences include multiple World Series runs, and most importantly, he has shown the ability to successfully navigate through opposing offenses two or more times through on several occasions. Adding another arm that can work through an opposing order multiple times in a playoff series could be highly valuable for Atlanta this October.
Morton will likely feature as one of the Braves top three starters early on in the season, especially if Soroka is not available until mid-April or May. Fortunately, with the added depth and experience of Smyly and Morton to go with their young arms, the Braves should be able to manage the workloads of their arms so everyone can be ready to go for another playoff run. If Morton can provide 150-175 innings of quality pitching, the Braves offense should have a chance to win every time he takes the mound. That certainly seems to be a reasonable ask of Morton if you expect his effectiveness to be similar to what it was in 2020, especially after he returned from his shoulder injury.
For Morton and the Braves, a reunion that has been reasonably expected for years is a nice turn of events for both a player and team that really compliment each other well. Hopefully, Morton’s career coming full circle with his return to Atlanta can be symbolized by winning a World Series ring in 2021.