On the occasion of his 100th career victory in the major leagues earlier this week, Braves right-hander Charlie Morton said one reason the event made him happy was that he liked the team he was playing with.
“It took me a really long time,” Morton said with a thin smile. “I’m glad I got there with this group. It was a special night.”
His signature pitch, a big curveball with a bit of a spike, was a big key in victory No. 100 against the Mets on Tuesday night. He threw it 45 times, including 44 with elite spin rates above 2,800 rpm. He even threw 17 curves spinning at least 3,000 rpm. All that with no worries about umpires checking him twice for illegal gripping substances like they have been doing across the league. Morton was clean, yet still dirty.
Morton in March showed off his grips for all to see:
The season started as a bit of a struggle for Morton, who said he couldn’t get opponents to chase his breaking pitch. But he’s made an adjustment in his posture and his thinking: let’s throw more curveballs, not fewer. Life as a major league pitcher is a never-ending series of adjustments.
As soon as the Tampa Bay Rays declined to pick up his contract option for the 2021 season, Morton talked about retirement. He was turning 37 years old and had made about $70 million playing Major League Baseball. Morton already had won a World Series with the Houston Astros, played in another with the Rays and been selected to two All-Star teams. Morton and his wife had four kids — two boys, two girls, none of them older than six years — who all could benefit from more together time. The family’s home was in the Bradenton, Fla. area, and Morton disliked the idea of working too far from it. Even so, the MLB free-agent market, coming off a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, wasn’t player-friendly. Morton wasn’t sure how many options he would have. He relished his time with the Rays, from the day-to-day to getting so close to winning it all. And they were still in the game to re-sign him during free agency, but Morton ending his career was a strong possibility.
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his interest known, and even though Morton and the Rays hoped to reconnect, Morton signed with the Braves for one year at $15 million. Morton had begun his major league career with the Braves, as he said, a long time ago. When a reporter asked Morton how he’s changed since his rookie season, he thought for a moment before saying:
“I don’t think there’s a way I haven’t changed, so it would probably take me a while to think about everything.”
A third-round draft pick in 2002 and never an ultra-high prospect, Morton won his first big-league game at age 24 in 2008. He posted a 6.15 ERA in 15 starts as a rookie and didn't make the team out of Spring Training the next season. When he thought about himself as a pitcher in those days, Morton didn’t like where his mind went.
“In ’08, there were times I didn’t even look forward to going to the ballpark because I was not pitching well,” Morton said. “I didn’t really even have an idea what I was doing to even get to the big leagues. I know that I had good numbers in Triple-A, but I didn’t even understand myself well enough to know what caused that to happen. So, when I got to the big leagues and I struggled and just felt lost. l didn’t know what I was doing.”
The Braves traded Morton to the Pirates in June 2009 for outfielder Nate McLouth. At that point in their history, the Pirates still had three more losing seasons in them to make 20 straight. The Braves, with the exception of two seasons, had been winning for 20 years at the time Morton was traded.
But the Pirates would be good for Morton. They rebuilt Morton’s delivery to maximize his natural gifts, starting him off by having Morton study videos of Roy Halladay, who famously had to re-start his own career in the minors, breaking down and rebuilding his delivery. After going 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA in 2010, Morton began to see results.
As he’s gotten older, the performance of the team and the quality of his relationship with teammates have become of greater importance than personal success to Morton, who has played with five different organizations in his 14-year career. He endured four serious injuries along the way: Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2012, hip surgeries on both sides, and surgery to repair a torn hamstring in 2016 that ended his career with the Phillies after four games.
Despite some ho-hum individual results early on and devastating injuries in the middle of his career, Morton also experienced what it was like to grow with a team and win games. The Pirates were a tight group and a postseason repeater by the time Morton ended his time with them. It was obvious, too, to see how Morton was growing as a pitcher. Most of his best seasons have come since turning 33, with an ERA of 3.39 in 112 games and 627 innings. His strikeout rates have improved dramatically, too, going from less than 19% to as high as 30.4%.
Morton’s peak, safe to say, was being on the mound to finish Game 7 of the World Series in ‘17. But victory there comes with an asterisk because of the Astros electronic surveillance/cheating scandal, for which Morton benefitted. Morton didn’t do anything to stop it, which he regrets, but he also doesn’t know what it would have taken to end it.
“Where I was at the time — I don't know where I was, because what's wrong is wrong,” Morton said in an interview with MLB Network. “And I'll never be absolved of that.”
Morton hopes to get another chance at the playoffs and a ring with the Braves, who have made the postseason for the past three seasons as NL East champs. But they came into action Thursday with an unexpected 35-38 record, five games back of the Mets in the division, and eight games back of an NL Wild Card spot. If the Braves are still having disappointing results in a month, Anthopoulos probably won’t be buying much at the non-waiver trade deadline. But if they can show him something better...
“I would say from an organizational strategy going forward, like into the break and into July, if we can’t close the gap or maintain a closeness in the standings, it’s just reality,” Morton said. “Alex is going to have some tough decisions to make if we can’t stay close, if we can’t be competitive.”
Morton reportedly does not have any no-trade clauses in his contract. He still might have to make at least one more adjustment before he’s done.