On Monday, the Braves announced that they signed 37-year-old starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a one-year contract extension for the 2022 season worth $20 million. Morton’s extension includes a $20 million club option for the 2023 season with no buyout. After the Rays rejected Morton’s $15 million team option for the 2021 season, the Braves signed Morton in Free Agency to a one-year $15 million contract, which is the exact contract the Rays declined to give Morton. Although his ERA wasn’t as good as it had been in the past in the shortened 2020 season, Morton has bounced back nicely this season.
In Morton’s first tenure with the Braves, which was in 2008, he was horrible. In 74.2 innings, Morton had a 6.15 ERA, 5.14 FIP, 4.93 xFIP, 5.11 xFIP, 23.4 CSW%, and 0.0 fWAR. Morton started the 2009 season with the Braves AAA affiliate but he was traded to the Pirates before making an appearance at the MLB level. With the Pirates from 2009-2015, Morton had a 4.39 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 3.99 xFIP, 4.01 SIERA, 24.4 CSW%, and 7.3 fWAR (1.8 per 200 innings pitched) across 801.0 innings pitched.
When Morton left the Pirates following the 2015 season, so did the Pirates’ pitching philosophy. During Morton’s time with the team, the Pirates were notorious for encouraging their pitchers to pitch to contact in hopes of forcing opposing batters to hit groundballs. One of the most effective pitches to force an opposing batter to hit a ground ball is a sinker. As a result, Morton’s most frequently thrown pitch was his sinker. Because he threw his sinker so much, Morton’s GB% (ground ball percentage) was 55.8% and he only struck out 16.0% of the batters he faced.
In 2016, Morton only pitched 17.1 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies due to a hamstring injury, but he impressed the Houston Astros enough to land himself a two-year contract with the team. As seen in the graph below, Morton’s pitch percentage changed drastically after arriving in Houston.
The main changes Morton made were throwing his curveball and 4-seamer more while throwing his sinker less. Additionally, Morton began to throw harder. In his time with the Pirates, Morton’s vFA (average four-seam fastball velocity) was 93.4 mph but it has increased to 95.4 mph from 2017-2021. As a result of these changes, Morton’s K% has increased significantly as seen in the graph below. Impart due to his increased K%, Morton’s GB% has dipped to 48.6%.
The new-look Charlie Morton since 2017 has been one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. In this time frame, Morton has pitched 704.1 innings to a 3.37 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 3.41 xFIP, 3.59 SIERA, 30.7 CSW%, and 16.5 fWAR (4.7 per 200 innings pitched). Morton’s 2021 season has been in line with these numbers as he has a 3.47 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 3.25 xFIP, 3.52 SIERA, 31.1 CSW%, and 3.6 fWAR (4.6 per 200 innings pitched) in 158.0 (and counting) innings.
I would give the Braves an A for extending Charlie Morton. Morton has been the best starting pitcher on the Braves this year and has been one of Major League Baseball’s best over the last few seasons. With no signs of slowing down anytime soon, a $20 million AAV for Morton is both a well deserved and fair number. If Morton struggles next season, the Braves will easily be able to reject Morton’s club option and move on without any financial concerns. As the Braves gear up to make potential Postseason runs this year and over the preceding couple of seasons, Morton’s performance will go a long way towards helping the Braves have success. Additionally, extending Morton shows that the club is in contention mode which could sway big free agents, like their very own Freddie Freeman, to sign with the Braves this coming free agency.