Charlie Morton was a workhorse again for the Atlanta Braves in 2022. Despite leading the team in starts, he had a down year, both by his recent standards, and in general, so what happened?
Although Morton did lead the team in starts, he was third in innings pitched, showing that he did not last far in games. He also struggled with keeping runs off the board. In a year where we saw the second lowest league-average OPS since 1992, Morton still had an ERA of 4.34, which in terms of adjusted ERA, was six percent worse than league average. (Or five percent worse, if you also adjust for park.)
To be fair, Morton was coming off of an intense injury, so we don’t know if that was in the back of his mind. However, MLB has a long season, so odds are that it did not affect him the whole time.
We know that ERA is not the full measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, since there are multiple variables in play, but it is at least a red flag that something was off, considering his league-and-park-adjusted ERA was over 20 percent better than league average in 2021.
In terms of expected ERA (xERA), which is based on the quality of contact he allowed, plus his walks and strikeouts, Morton’s 4.11 was his highest since 2016. His 3.61 xFIP was his second-highest since 2016. So, even if we were to factor in some bad luck (although his BABIP-against does not point to it), it is safe to say that Morton struggled in in 2021 in terms of what we have been accustomed to seeing from him.
Morton did have flashes during the season where he was very good. In 10 starts (60.1 innings) from July 3rd through August 27th, hitters had a slash line of .193/.276/.343 against him with a strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) of 3.85, and 1.34 HRs per nine innings. This resulted in a 3.28 ERA and a 3.74 FIP.
Outside of this 10 game stretch, the results were far less optimal. From April 8th through June 28th, Morton had a 4.73 ERA, 4.13 FIP, hitters slashing .249/.333/.416, 3.03 K/BB, and 1.24 HRs per nine innings in 80.0 innings pitched.
From September 2nd through October 2nd Morton had a terrible six game stretch (31.2 IP). He had a 5.40 ERA, 5.58 FIP, hitters slashed .262/.343/.516 with a K/BB ratio of 2.84, and 2.27 HRs per nine innings.
What changed for Charlie Morton in 2022?
There were obvious fluctuations throughout the season for Morton, but first let’s look at the season as a whole.
The first big eye-opener is that hitters were hitting the ball hard, and often. Morton’s hard-hit percentage was 42.1 percent in 2022, his highest in the Statcast era (from 2015-on). His hard-hit rate was also a whopping 9.6 percent higher than it was in 2021.
Morton was also having issues striking out hitters at his usual rates. In 2022 he had a strikeout rate of 28.2 percent, which was his second lowest since the start of 2018. On top of his strikeout rate dropping, his walk rate rose to 8.7 percent in 2022. This rate was his highest since 2018, and 3rd highest since 2015.
In comparison to the rest of the league, this strikeout rate still put Morton in the top eighteen percent of MLB among full-time hurlers, which is about on par for him recently since Morton had a top seventeen percent performance in 2021. However, his walk rate fell to the thirty-eighth percentile, which was a big drop from the fifty-eighth percentile in 2021.
In terms of overall xwOBA, which of course factors in expected output that helps show an “all-encompassing offense” against him, we see that Morton did not fare as well we are used to seeing. He had an xwOBA against him of .314, which is his highest since 2016 in which it was .316. This was a massive drop off from 2021 to 2022. In 2021 his xwOBA against was in the best nineteen percent (81st percentile) in MLB. In 2022, it was in the bottom thirty-seven percent. The fact that offense was down in 2022 makes the .314 xwOBA even worse.
Digging into the specifics on Morton’s drop-off
Charlie Morton’s xwOBA on his cutter, sinker, changeup and 4-seamer were all up in 2022, which is doubly bad because leaguewide xwOBA was down. Specifically, his 4-seamer had the highest xwOBA-against of his career at .346. Even though his 4-seamer was not as effective, he still threw it 33.3 percent of the time (He only threw the curve more, at 38.0 percent of the time). For reference, the MLB average xwOBA against a 4-seamer in 2022 was .340.
Digging deeper into Morton’s 4-seam fastball, we see that his whiff percentage has gone down every year since 2019, with 2022’s rate of 20.2 percent being a full 3.0 percent lower than 2021.
Whiff rate covers pitches both inside and outside of the zone. If we look specifically at when hitters chase pitches outside of the zone and miss, his 4-seamer rate has dropped every year since 2019. Morton’s chase and miss rate was 27.7 percent in 2022, which was his lowest since 2015.
It is the same story inside of the strike zone as well. Hitters were swinging and missing on his 4-seamer 18.1 percent of the time in 2022, which is his lowest since 2018 when it was 18.0.
In a nutshell, hitters did not miss his fastball as often, no matter how you spin it.
Part of Morton’s struggle was that he was not being as precise as before. He missed the zone more often (as can be seen in the heat maps below). It makes sense why his walk rate went up, and it also makes sense that hitters also could sit back and wait for a pitch they wanted, which played a part in hitting the ball hard more often.
Above we see the heat map of 2022. We see the curve had a lot of red outside of the zone. Specifically low and inside for righties and low and outside for lefties. It also drifted over the heart of the plate. Below, we can see that in 2021, Morton was much more precise in his location. Even when the curve drifted towards the middle, it was low-ish. Last year, a considerably smaller fraction of his overall curves were noncompetitive or down the middle.
The hard hit rate is up on every one of Morton’s pitches since 2021. Morton’s 4-seamer in 2022 had 47.2 percent hard hit rate, which was his highest since 2015. We could have guessed this based on the xwOBA against him, but the fact that not only were hitters hitting his fastball hard, they were doing it almost half of the time is alarming.
Along with hitters hitting the ball hard at a higher rate, they were getting a more optimal launch angle of 22 degrees in 2022 against Morton’s 4-seamer, which is significantly different than the 13 degrees in 2021. This combination of hitting the ball hard more often and at an optimal launch angle typically spells danger. It was no different for Morton in 2022, whose 1.5 HR per nine innings was the highest of his career. Typically this area was a strength for him. In fact, he led the league in 2011 and 2019 for lowest HRs per nine innings.
Earlier we mentioned that Morton had a streak of ten starts that went well for him. It appears that about half of these good starts were due to hitters having a hard time against his curve. In the month of June, hitters had a paltry xwOBA of .173 against his curve. This was mostly due to hitters whiffing on this pitch 48.8 percent of the time as opposed to his season average of 41.8 percent. If you take out this stretch of June and July hitters only whiffed 38.1 percent of the time.
Morton seemed to realize the success. Morton’s curve usage went up every month until it peaked at 42.1 percent of the time. However, hitters caught on and their whiff percentage on the pitched dropped back down to 43 percentile for the last three months of the year.
Although Morton did have a streak of really good starts, the rest of the season was far from optimal. Although his strikeout rate was good for most of the season in comparison to the rest of MLB, it was still lower than what we are used to seeing, and his walk rates were up to a point to where he was in the bottom thirty-eight percent of the league.
Along with losing some command on his pitches, hitters were able to sit back and hit the ball hard against Morton more often than they have since the hard hit rate stat has been tracked by Statcast.
Specifically hitters were able to hit Morton’s fastball with a much higher xwOBA than what we have been accustomed to seeing. Not only were hitters able to hit it hard more often, they were able to get a more optimal launch angle.
Partly due to his fastball being less effective, hitters were able to hit more home runs per nine innings on him than any time in his extensive career.
On a positive note, in his ten starts streak where he did well, he had obviously zoned in on using his curveball in an effective way. Hitters struggled to hit it, and when they did, they were mostly not making quality contact. Although, they seemed to catch on to him using it almost half of the time and started looking for it more.
In a nutshell, hitters were not missing on Morton’s fastball, which resulted more quality swings against it. Morton tried adjusting by using his curve more, but hitters appeared to have adjusted to that over time.
We also know that Morton was coming off of a tough injury, so that we don’t know what mental game that played on him.
Morton obviously has nasty stuff, especially that consistently has a spin rate in the top two percent of the league, and he is experienced enough to make adjustments. Here is to hoping that in 2023 we see more of a 2021 Charlie Morton than the one we saw in 2022. If he can just show the same relative accuracy and location he did in 2021, he should be just fine. But if he can’t, there may be even darker clouds on the horizon for the veteran.