Charlie Morton was once again a key member of the Atlanta Braves’ rotation, making at least 30 starts for the club for the third straight season. He bounced back from a rough 2022, and while he didn’t post eye-popping numbers, he was a more than adequate option on a team that weathered a bunch of pitching injuries and often sorely needed rotation depth.
Some fans that don’t follow transaction history very closely may not know that Charlie Morton was actually drafted by the Braves way back in 2002, out of Joel Barlow High School, and made his MLB for the Braves on June 14th, 2008. Morton went on to have a rookie season that he probably would like to forget, starting fifteen of his sixteen appearances in which he ended the season with a 145 ERA-, 120 FIP-, 114 xFIP-, and 0.0 fWAR despite 74 2⁄3 innings of work.
It’s been quite a career for Morton since, as he was traded to the Pirates, spent seven years there, and then went through a career renaissance that saw him become an above-average arm in Houston and then an elite one in Tampa Bay. He then signed with the Braves ahead of the 2021 season, and has re-upped with them on a series of effective one-year deals. The Braves extended him for the 2023 season on September 30, 2022, for $20 million; an option for the 2024 season for the same amount was exercised by the Braves in November 2023.
What were the expectations?
Projecting Morton heading into the 2023 season was a bit tough. His 2022 was his first season on the struggle bus since his career renaissance — he had a 108 FIP- that season, and hadn’t had an FIP- above 87 since his time in Pittsburgh. Even his xFIP-, which was a still-very-good 90, had only been above 81 once going back to 2015, and that was in a pandemic-and-injury-shortened season in 2020.
As a result, while Morton came into 2022 looking like a reasonable bet to pitch in an ace-like capacity akin to what he managed in 2021, he left that season with his 2023 projections looking more like an average starter — bouncing back from his down 2022, but nowhere near his previous heights. That’s actually pretty much what happened.
Betting on Morton’s projected 2023 turned out to be a sound strategy in this case. Morton finished the year with an 82 ERA-, 90 FIP-, and a 97 xFIP-, good for 2.7 fWAR in 163 1⁄3 innings of work. That was more-than-solid middle-of-the-rotation work; he finished in the top 40 among starters in fWAR.
What went right?
The big, surface-level stuff that went right for Morton was that his homer rate dipped back down from his elevated 2022 levels. The low HR/FB, below 10 percent, despite a juicy baseball, for the first time since 2014, helped nudge his ERA and FIP well below his xFIP.
He also stayed healthy enough to make 30 starts and pitch 163 1⁄3 innings, despite being 39 years of age. Considering that he reversed what could’ve been the start of a rapid decline in effectiveness in 2022, that has to be considered a pretty big win.
On a pitch level, his curveball (Uncle Charlie’s Uncle Charlie) continued to dominate hitters: a .254 xwOBA-against, a whiff rate of 42 percent, and the best run value generated. This all happened despite his curveball continuing a trend of losing drop over time, showing that the exaggerated sweep of the pitch is apparently enough to continue to baffle hitters.
The first area that obviously went right for Morton was his curveball. According to Statcast, his Run Value of twenty-five on his curve was the best in MLB. Hitters had a batting average of .177 against it, while only slugging .258. They also had a swing and miss rate of a whopping 42.0 percent of the time.
Something that Morton couldn’t arrest in 2023 was the decline in his fastball effectiveness — more on that below — but he did finally experiment for a bit with diminishing his reliance on it. From August 11 through the end of his season, he only threw a four-seamer every fourth pitch, compared to every third before that, and his pitching triple-slash in that span was 66/74/102 compared to 87/95/96 before then. While it didn’t fully help the K/BB ratio in aggregate, it did signal a willingness to evolve the gameplan that he had stuck to for quite a while before. He also fixed his giant platoon split that developed for him in 2022, though that seems somewhat self-evident — had he not done so, his 2023 would not have gone as well as it did.
Many of Morton’s best starts of the year came in that span — including an 11/1 K/BB ratio in a 7-0 dismantling of the Mets. It was actually the second consecutive Morton start against the Mets that the Braves won by a 7-0 score, though his first of those starts was a bizarre 4/7 K/BB ratio game where he nonetheless managed five scoreless frames, somehow.
Morton continued not to use his non-curve, non-four-seamer pitches all that much, though he did throw changeups more frequently in 2023 than in any past season going back to 2015. Sometimes, those unexpected pitches paid great dividends, like this sinker early in the year — we’ll see if he ends up integrating them even more going forward given the trends in his four-seamer’s effectiveness.
What went wrong?
The big thing is that, despite Morton’s return to middle-of-the-rotation production, those peripherals really went the wrong way in his age-39 season. Morton’s strikeout rate of 25.6 percent was his lowest in a non-injured/pandemic season since before his renaissance. His walk rate of 11.6 percent was his highest since his rookie season, all the way back in 2008. His zone rate plummeted, his chase rate plummeted, his edge rate plummeted, his overall swing rate plummeted, you get the idea. Morton had a clear strategy of just forcing hitters to get themselves out by waving at his curve, and he executed it consistently, but it led to a lot of walks in the interim.
Part of the reason why there were so many walks is because the four-seamer, well, remains a problem. It first became a real issue for Morton in 2022, and he didn’t really make any strides in addressing it this year. While Morton did fix some of the horizontal consistency with the pitch that plagued him and it in 2022, the four-seamer lost a fair bit of carry this year, which led to it getting smashed to the tune of an unplayable .397 xwOBA-against. Only 12 pitchers in MLB lost more run value on the pitch than Morton in 2023. This helped balloon Morton’s xERA to a terrible 4.70 — thankfully, xERA isn’t as predictive as other things, or else there would be a lot of concern over his impending 2024 season.
Morton’s struggles for the year were probably best exemplified in his start against the Dodgers on May 22. Staked to a 4-0 lead, Morton had little but the curve working in the game, as his four-seamer and sinker were both getting crushed. In the fifth, he gave up a leadoff single on a four-seamer and then pitched way around Mookie Betts. He then chose to attack Freddie Freeman with four straight curves, and the last of that sequence was hung where he hung the first and got crushed for a three-run homer.
Morton generally did figure out how to attack lefties and use non-curveball pitches to keep hitters off-balance during the course of the year, but the lack of a surefire effective complement to his curveball at this point makes him vulnerable to outings, and sequences, like that one.
Another bummer for Morton during 2023 was a finger injury that kept him out of the playoffs. While there was a chance that he could have returned for the NLCS, the Braves getting knocked out in the NLDS left any unfinished business he felt after suffering a broken leg in the 2021 World Series, and pitching terribly in the Braves’ 2022 NLDS elimination game still on the table.
While there was some buzz of retirement in the air, Morton will return to the rotation in 2024, as the Braves picked up his $20 million option. His curveball remains a weapon, and Morton has shown some willingness to tinker with his arsenal, but he’s also going to be 40 years of age for the entire season.
Steamer currently projects Morton for 2.2 WAR over 165 innings, essentially an age-related step back from his 2023 campaign, but not a dramatic one. It’s hard to disagree with that too dramatically, though it should be worth noting that if Morton just reverses one of his unfortunate trends (four-seamer effectiveness, lack of consistency with other pitches, diminishing curveball drop, overall out-of-zone tendencies), he could probably pitch better than that and do something like replicate his 2023 results.