Braves: Can Charlie Morton bounce back in 2023?

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One of the most polarizing moves the Braves made late in the season last year was agreeing to a one-year extension with Charlie Morton, who will now earn $20 million again in 2023. Many Braves fans were skeptical, considering Morton was amid his worst season in quite a while and set to turn 39 years old. Pitchers don’t usually bounce back from down years at that age, and the Braves payroll was already going to be the highest it has ever been, which has led to a lot of comments like this.

I understand why Braves fans are unsure. The surface level numbers are unsightly for a pitcher earning $20 million annually, but I also fully expect to see a much different Charlie Morton in 2023, like the one Braves fans got a glimpse of in 2021.

Morton may be getting up there in age, but if Justin Verlander taught us anything last season, age is just a number. There are tons of pitchers succeeding in today’s game approaching 40 years old, and there’s nothing to suggest Morton’s arm has lost anything.

Last season, Morton’s four-seam fastball sat right at 95 miles per hour, and he only threw harder as the season went on, touching 98 at times. For reference, Morton’s average fastball velocity was the third-highest of his entire career, and his curveball spin was in the 98th percentile, breaking as much as it ever has before. The stuff that made him an All-Star is still in his arm, which should have Braves fans feeling confident because the veteran didn’t wake up and forget how to pitch, even if it looked like it at times last year.

Morton’s issues in 2022 stemmed from his control. He didn’t walk an absurd amount of batters, but he did find the middle of the plate way more than usual, especially when he was ahead in counts, which led to balls being hit harder off of him than ever before. Morton gave up a staggering 1.48 home runs per nine innings. To put that in perspective, he had never surrendered more than 1.0 home runs per nine innings over his entire career and led the league in that category with 0.7 home runs allowed per nine innings when he finished third in the AL Cy Young race back in 2019 with the Rays.

So what could be to blame for his struggles in 2022?

I would point to the broken fibula he suffered in Game 1 of the 2021 World Series and the lockout. Not only was he rehabbing from an injury, but he also had to do it away from the team because he was not allowed to see team doctors. Add in a shortened Spring Training, and it’s understandable why he might’ve started the season slowly.

Through Morton’s first 12 starts of the 2022 campaign, he posted a 5.67 ERA and never made it past six innings. However, over his final 19 starts of the season, he recorded a much more palatable 3.63 ERA, going over six innings seven times. That’s a massive improvement, and it can be attributed to him moving further away from the significant injury he suffered during the 2021 World Series.

Morton’s not going to come out in 2023 and win the NL Cy Young. He more than likely won’t even be a top-two pitcher on his team, thanks to the presence of Max Fried and Spencer Strider. However, the Braves don’t need him to be anything close to that. They’re asking him to be a #3 or #4, and he damn well might be the best #3 or #4 pitcher in baseball. Getting him on a one-year deal at $20 million in today’s market for starting pitchers was a bargain. Expect him to look much more like the 2021 version of himself than the guy we saw in 2022.

What do you think Charlie Morton will do for the Braves in 2023?

Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire

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