There is no way to sugarcoat it, Charlie Morton did not have the results the Atlanta Braves and their fans were hoping for in 2022. He did pitch in the most games of anyone in the Braves’ rotation, so he did have that going for him. However, he only averaged 5.55 innings pitched per start.
To be fair, Morton was coming off of a major leg injury, which can’t be discounted. Now that the Atlanta Braves Front Office has signed him through the 2023 season (with a team option for 2024), we have to hope that he can bounce back to look more like the 2021 version of himself that we all grew to love.
Let’s take a step back and reminisce on how Charlie Morton was acquired. Most of us probably know by now that his rookie season way back in 2008 was with the Atlanta Braves. He was traded on June 3rd, 2009 as part of the infamous deal that brought in Nate McLouth from the Pirates. Interestingly, Morton’s first start as a Pirate was against the Braves.
Over the years, this trade has been looked at as a terrible trade for the Braves. More recently, when the Braves acquired Morton again it was brought up quite a bit on social media due to him being a dominant pitcher for the Astros and Rays in recent years, along with remembering how much of a flop McLouth was.
That being said, Charlie Morton actually did not emerge as an excellent pitcher until well after team control years. From 2008-2015 he only had two seasons where he was even marginally better than league average on an FIP- basis; his FIP- across the whole span was 107 (seven percent worse than league average), and his xFIP- wasn’t much better at 104.
Once Morton became on Astro in 2017 is when he really started to hit his stride. Since then, he has thrown together an 82 FIP- and 81 xFIP-, even when you include this most recent season (108 FIP-, 90 xFIP-).
In the 2020 offseason, the Braves signed Morton to a $15 million, one-year deal. This was then followed by two consecutive years of Charlie Morton rejoining the Atlanta Braves via a $20 million, one-year deal with a club option.
This past extension was surprising at first after Morton had a down year by his recent standards, but after seeing how crazy this free agency spending has been, surprising is no longer the word that should be used.
What were the expectations?
According to ZiPS via Fangraphs, Morton was projected to pitch 164.7 in 30 starts with a 3.44 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 0.93 HR per nine IP, fifty-six walks, and one-hundred-eighty-six strikeouts (3.32 K/BB ratio). Given that he was coming off a 4.5 fWAR season, and had a 6.0 fWAR season in 2019, expectations were generally pretty high — even given his advanced age and what goes with it, expectations were still for a 3.5+ WAR, frontline-type starter.
It is safe to say he did not meet these expectations without even digging too deep into the numbers.
Morton’s overall numbers were not great. As mentioned above, he did start the most games of any Brave, but was third on the team in innings pitched. He ended up pitching 172 innings in 31 starts, with a 105 ERA-, 108 FIP-, 90 xFIP-, 1.5 HR per nine IP, sixty-three walks, and two-hundred-five strikeouts (3.25 K/BB ratio).
You can tell from the prior sentence that given the huge difference in FIP and xFIP, homers were the real sticking point for Morton in 2022. His K/BB ratio was worse in 2022 than in 2021, but it was not a drastic drop-off.
Morton’s quality of contact allowed also plummeted, which goes hand-in-hand with his homer-happy season. However, we can look at his expected ERA (xERA) and see a drastic change. His xERA, which converts xwOBA-against to an ERA scale, was 4.11, the first time in the Statcast era that it exceeded 4.00. This is more painful considering that leaguewide xwOBA was down in 2022. Last year, Morton’s xERA was 3.32.
All in all, Morton tallied just 1.5 fWAR in 2022, his lowest in any season where he made more than 10 starts since his last year with the Pirates.
What went right? What went wrong?
Last month, we took a much more granular look at what exactly went wrong with Charlie Morton in 2022.
In a nutshell it can be summarized by pointing out that:
- Morton’s strikeout rate was down, and walks were up (although it was not a massive shift).
- Hitters were making solid contact at an alarming rate, especially on his fastball.
- Morton gave up more HRs at the highest rate of his career.
- Hitters were not swinging and missing as often on Morton’s fastball.
Morton’s walk rate rose from 7.7 percent in 2021 to 8.7 percent in 2020. For reference, he was in the top forty-two percent in limiting walks in 2021 and was bottom thirty-eight percent in 2022. His strikeout rate dropped from 28.6 percent in 2021 to 28.2 percent. Interestingly, the strikeout rate was down across the league because Morton was in the top eighty-one in 2021 in strikeout rate, yet was one percent better in comparison to the league in 2022 at the top eighty-two percent.
Based on how xERA is measured, and that his K/BB ratio did not drop-off much, we could assume that quality of contact against him went up; This assumption would be correct.
In 2021, Morton’s hard-hit rate allowed was in the best ten percent of the league at 32.5 percent. In 2022 his 42.1 percent hard hit rate put him in the bottom seventeen percent of MLB. It is no wonder his HR per nine innings almost doubled from 2021 to 2022.
The most alarming part of the hard-hit rate against him is that hitters made hard contact against Morton’s fastball 47.2 percent of the time. Morton threw a fastball 33.3 percent of the time in 2022. This combination can, and eventually will, lead to negative results.
There were some positives to his season. He did have a stretch of 60.1 innings in 10 starts from July 3rd through August 27th in which he had an ERA of 3.28 (albeit with a 3.74 FIP), in which hitters struggled to a .193/.276/.343 against him. His K/BB ratio was also well above his 3.2 career average at 3.85.
Morton’s curve continued to be an excellent pitch as well. Hitters did hit it better this year than last with a .235 xwOBA against it, compared to .227 in 2021. However, considering the league average xwOBA against the curve in 2022 was .267, Morton’s was still very good.
Hitters also swung and missed 41.8 percent of the time against his curve, which was his most used pitch (38.0 percent of the time). In the month of June, hitters had a terrible .173 xwOBA against his curve.
As previously mentioned, his strikeout rate was still top tier. His curve had a lot to do with that. His put away percentage for his curve was 29.0 percent. What this means is that 29.0 percent of the time if a hitter had two strikes and a curve was thrown, they made an out.
Ultimately, in terms of what we are used to seeing with Morton, more went wrong than right. However, there were some bright spots to where if he can make the adjustments needed, he can still be an above average pitcher for the Atlanta Braves.
Fundamentally, the fact that Morton never really figured out his homer issues while more or less pitching like the same guy otherwise led to whiplash in his season. When he wasn’t tagged for a homer, he often looked brilliant. When he was, the starts got ugly. Given that the homers seemed to plague him randomly, as HR/FB will cause, it led to a really inconsistent season.
On July 3, Morton uncorked a dominant vintage Morton start against the Reds, allowing just a hit and a walk over seven scoreless frames while striking out ten Reds in a very small ballpark, while nursuing a 1-0 lead for most of those frames.
(The Braves ended up losing this game after Morton’s departure due to some unusual bullpen meltdown action.)
The curveball helped him get out of all sorts of jams, so long as he could spot it at least decently. Check out this Houdini act thanks for Jonathan Villar, in another nice game for Morton (7/3 K/BB ratio, zero homers allowed):
But, when Morton was horrible, it was tough to watch. Probably the worst game of his season came on September 25 in Philadephia. The Braves won, but with little thanks to Morton, who allowed two homers and had a 4/3 K/BB ratio, but was allowed to keep pitching despite the lack of any success. After being handed a 2-0 lead in the first, Morton immediately blew it by allowing a leadoff homer and then two more runs; after the Braves tied it, he allowed a second homer to Kyle Schwarber. After the Braves had a two-run homer to put them ahead by a run, Morton was left in for the fifth until he was wiped out by a rain delay, and gave up two more runs in the process.
These two homers by Schwarber show some of Morton’s challenges over the course of the season:
As does something like this — an 0-2, not-poorly-located fastball that still gets demolished.
Things, of course, came to a head when Morton was asked to stop the Braves from being eliminated in NLDS Game 4. After wriggling his way out of trouble in the first, Morton had to do so in the second, and a very poor curveball was poorly-timed for the Braves:
What to expect in 2023
According to FGDC via Fangraphs, Morton is projected to pitch 166.0 innings in twenty-nine games with a 25.9 percent strikeout rate, 7.7 percent walk rate, 3.80 ERA, 3.63 FIP, and a 2.6 fWAR.
These projections predict a better performance than Morton’s 2022 that had him pitch to a 28.2 percent strikeout rate, 8.7 percent walk rate, 4.34 ERA, 4.26 FIP, and 1.5 fWAR. The idea is that if Morton could xFIP like he did in 2022 at age 38, he should be able to do so again at age 39, and hopefully have the HR/FB regress to something tolerable. But, given Morton’s huge issues in that department in 2022, it’s not clear whether it’s just going to happen innately, or if Morton needs to change his sequences or mechanics to get there. The Braves didn’t seem too concerned about the FIP-xFIP gap when extending him, but the only way we’ll know whether he can overcome it is by watching his 2023 season.
Charlie Morton does still have the tools, as we saw with his still well above average curve, but time will tell if we see the 2021 version of Charlie Morton, or the 2022 version.