I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Atlanta Braves won the World Series. You would never know it if you visited their website, as the lockout has erased any accomplishment or mention of any active player, but the Atlanta Braves really did win the World Series just one month ago. And one of the big reasons they did is because they made the decision to sign Charlie Morton.
In November 2020, Charlie Morton was coming off a World Series loss to the Dodgers, and faced with the reality that he was now a free agent after Tampa Bay decided to decline a club option that would have paid him $15 million for the 2021 season. Reports at the time were Morton was contemplating one of three moves: re-sign with the Rays, sign with the Braves, or retire. Morton and his family have a home in Bradenton, Florida and he had zero interest in signing with a team that took him far away from his wife and kids. Being so close to the end of his career, he wanted a team ready to win now. Seeing how the Rays had already declined an extremely reasonable option for his services, the ball was in the Braves’ court to do something. Alex Anthopoulos did not wait long to strike. On November 24, the Braves and Morton agreed to a contract essentially the same as the declined club option: one year, $15 million. The Braves had another top-of-the-rotation arm to pair with Max Fried for a better-than-reasonable price.
Expectation and Projections
In the shortened 2020 season, Morton had, by his standards, a mediocre year. His 4.74 ERA was his worst mark in five years, as was his strikeout rate (24.7 percent), which was his lowest since the Pittsburgh years. His average fastball velocity had dropped a full mph from the season before. A deeper look however, showed the league had batted a very fortunate .355 on balls in play and Morton’s FIP of 3.45 was much more in line with his recent success, though his xFIP, adjusted for run environment and park, was also his worst since leaving Pittsburgh. The Steamer projection system still saw Morton as a 3+ win pitcher coming into 2021, with a potential to clear 4 WAR if he stayed healthy. In addition, Morton had missed nearly half of the 2020 season with shoulder inflammation and pitched better after he returned, as well as in the postseason. In short, there wasn’t much of a reason to fear that Morton was going to collapse — even the less-optimistic projections saw him as a 3ish-win player who just wouldn’t pitch that many innings, but still provide 4-win-type production when on the mound. A normal off-season, followed by a normal Spring Training and a normal build-up, would probably help Morton return to the pitcher who was so effective in the three seasons prior to 2020. The expectation from the team and Morton himself was he was going to pitch at the top of a rotation that was trying to win a World Series.
Even with lofty expectations coming into the season, it’s hard to argue Morton did anything other than surpass them. In 2021, Morton stayed completely healthy en route to making 33 starts that spanned 185 innings. He posted a 3.34 ERA/3.18 FIP/3.31 xFIP, was worth 4.6 fWAR, raised his average fastball velocity back above his 2019 mark, and posted the third-best strikeout rate of his career. By every metric we use to measure pitchers, Morton was one of the best starters in the game, finishing 12th in fWAR, 23rd in RA9-WAR, and seventh in WARP, easily turning his $15M salary into a bargain. There were a few minor hiccups early in the year, seemingly related to a bad inning in each start that would derail him, but even factoring those in, he still posted a 3.64 / 3.41 / 3.42 line in the first half and reliably took the ball every fifth day.
As solid as the first half was, it still felt like Morton had another level he could get to and in the second half of the season, he got there. After the All-Star Break, Morton posted a 3.01 ERA/2.90 FIP/3.18 xFIP and held opposing hitters to a .194/.263/.317 triple slash line. When the Braves were making their late push for first place and a spot in the postseason, Morton pitched at his best. His masterpiece of the year came in the season’s most important series, a late September home series against the Phillies that was essentially going to decide who was going to win the NL East. In the first game of that series, Morton matched up against Cy Young candidate Zack Wheeler, as the Phillies had lined up their top three starters for the crucial series. Morton pitched seven shutout innings that night, striking out 10 batters and leading the Braves to a backbreaking 2-1 victory. The Phillies would never get that close to first place again and the Braves locked up their fourth straight division title a couple of nights later.
What went right? What went wrong?
The easiest way to answer what went right for Morton in 2021 is to say: everything. Where metrics started to slip a little in 2020, they rebounded in a big way in 2021. He regained his velocity, regained his strikeout rate, didn’t experience an xwOBA-against way larger than his wOBA_against, and with it all, put together a typical Charlie Morton season.
As far as what went wrong, we could nitpick a bit and say he struggled with the one bad inning thing early, but even with those, he was putting up solid outings that were giving the team a chance to win. The biggest bummer for him was fracturing his leg after being hit with a comebacker in game 1 of the World Series that obviously ended his season. But the Braves had already built a big lead, won that game, won the series, and Morton is expected to be fully ready to go by 2022. So, even a broken leg didn’t turn out that bad.
On a pitch-level basis, Morton’s curveball was disgusting, getting whiffs on over 40 percent of swings and holding batters to a .226 xwOBA even though it was his most-used pitch and he threw it over 36 percent of the time. He struggled at times with his less-commonly-used sinker, changeup, and cutter, but that didn’t really matter much when his curveball was as destructive as it was, and his fastball, which doesn’t have great “rise” but still tunnels off the curveball so well, also suppressed contact and got whiffs at a good clip.
Road to the Title
The Braves won the World Series in 2021, largely because of their run prevention, and Morton was a big part of that. He pitched a terrific game in Game 1 of the NLDS opposite Corbin Burnes but lost a pitcher’s duel by a 2-1 score. He then came back on three days of rest to start the Game 4 clincher that won the Braves the series. Because he pitched twice in the Milwaukee series, Morton only had one start against the Dodgers, Game 3 in LA. It wasn’t a great game by Morton’s standards because walked six batters, his most in a game since 2018, but even with that, he only gave up two runs in five innings pitched and left the game with the lead.
He was set to pitch Game 7 against the Dodgers in Atlanta had the Braves not taken care of business in Game 6, but they did, and Morton was slotted to pitch Game 1 of the World Series against the Astros. The Braves jumped out to an early 5-0 lead on the Astros, but leading off the bottom of the second inning, Yuli Gurriel hit a comebacker that struck Morton on the right leg. Morton was able to make the play at first base and even continued on in the game, striking out two of the next three hitters, before exiting the game as the pain increased. An MRI later showed the ball had actually fractured Morton’s right fibula, abruptly ending his season. But the team was able to win that game, and the series, meaning the injury really only cost him one more start.
Relative to some of the other premier players on the Braves, Morton didn’t add too much WPA (0.14ish) and cWPA (4%ish) in the postseason, and his highest-cWPA effort was his garnering of seven outs in the World Series before the leg injury took him out of play. He did, however, finish 17th among all MLB starters in regular-season WPA, and he had multiple outings where he basically won the game by himself, throwing seven or more shutout innings to make small-ish leads stand up, like he did against the Phillies.
Morton pitched so well for the Braves in 2021, that they really couldn’t imagine 2022 without him. With four weeks still left in the season, the Braves announced they had reached a one-year, $20 million extension with Morton that included a $20M club option for 2023 with no buyout. After winning the World Series and breaking his leg in the process, I actually wondered if the 38-year-old veteran might choose to hang it up. But all reports are he’s full go with his rehab and seems prepared to help the Braves defend their title in 2022, potentially feeling that he has some personal unfinished business given how his season ended, i.e., not on his own terms. The Braves will need him — with the uncertainty around Mike Soroka, the Braves will need Morton and fellow ace Max Fried to headline their rotation and repeat their 2021 success. Charlie Morton had an amazing 2021. Here’s to at least one more.