Alex Anthopoulos’ early offseason signings began 2021 about as poorly as he could have imagined. Smyly posted an 8.05 ERA in his first four starts, surrendering 17 earned runs over just 19 innings, resulting in an 0-2 record (the Braves also lost all four games he started). And Charlie Morton wasn’t much better, recording a 5.08 ERA and -0.2 WAR in his first eight outings (the Braves went 2-6 in those games).
But while Smyly’s stumbling out of the gate was disappointing, it wasn’t necessarily shocking. He hadn’t had a lengthy track record of success like Morton, who finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young race during the last full season (2019). We knew the Smyly signing came with upside but also a lot of risk. There were higher expectations for Morton, who was supposed to stabilize what was a rocky — to say the least — rotation in 2020; expectations that he’s finally begun to live up to over his last two starts.
Last week, Morton pitched a gem against the New York Mets in what felt like a must-win at the time. The Braves were trailing by four games in the division and had dropped the first two games of the series. They needed Morton’s best performance of the season to date, and he delivered, tossing six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts. He could have gone even further, too, but Brian Snitker decided to pinch-hit for him with two outs and the bases loaded. Morton was only at 79 pitches, and with hindsight being 20/20, Snitker probably wouldn’t have made that decision. Pablo Sandoval ended up lining out to end the inning, and the Mets were able to take the lead in the seventh. Thankfully, Ronald Acuna had an answer in the ninth with a walk-off homer.
That outing not only resulted in the best scoreline for Morton all season, but the eye test also suggested he might have figured something out. He was locating his fastball well, and finally, his patented curveball started to look like old faithful again. However, you never want to overreact to one start, especially when it came against a struggling Mets offense that was missing half of its lineup.
Tuesday night provided even more hope, though. This time Morton was up against a much more formidable offense in the Boston Red Sox, and while he got off to a shaky start — loading the bases with nobody out — it ended up being the best performance of the year thus far. Morton escaped the first frame by allowing just one unearned run and only let three baserunners (two hits, one walk) reach over the next six innings.
His final line read: 7 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 9 Ks, and 2 BBs
Morton’s ERA is now down to a much more palatable 3.98 to go along with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. It’s still just two starts, but he’s certainly beginning to look like the top-of-the-rotation arm Alex Anthopoulos thought he was getting when he signed him, which has helped create quite a formidable rotation for the Braves in May.
Aside from Morton, Max Fried has only allowed one run in each of his last four starts since coming back from the IL; Ian Anderson has been Mr. Consistent dating back to last season; Drew Smyly has put together three straight quality performances; Bryse Wilson has been much better in his last two starts, and Tucker Davidson looked very promising in his first major-league start of the season. Not to mention, the 24-year-old lefty has dominated in Gwinnett. Just imagine what this group would look like if Huascar Ynoa didn’t break his hand and Mike Soroka didn’t suffer a setback.
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