At this point in his career – age 38 and in his fifteenth major league season – Atlanta right-hander Charlie Morton is synonymous with two things: reinventing himself on the mound and devastating curveballs.
Over the past six seasons, Morton has contributed the 8th-most WAR of any pitcher – 17.6 over about 780 innings by the FanGraphs version – thanks to those two keys.
Prior to the 2017 season, Morton was a sinker-baller with a 55% career ground ball rate, just 6.35 strikeouts per nine innings (16.0%), and 4.54 ERA / 4.10 FIP. Since that season, when the Astros encouraged Morton to pitch to miss bats and avoid contact altogether, Morton has struck out 10.46 per nine (27.9%) with a (still strong) 47% ground ball rate on the way to a much-improved 3.48 ERA / 3.33 FIP.
So far this season, though, he has not been that Charlie Morton.
Through 10 starts, Morton has worked 49.1 innings and delivered 5.47 ERA / 4.62 FIP while his strikeouts (8.39 K/9, 20.7%) and groundballs (33.6%) have moved considerably in the wrong directions. His vaunted curveball has easily been his worst pitch by Statcast run value (+2.5 RV per 100 pitches in 2022, -2.0 RV/100 last season).
The FIP mark and a .326 BABIP suggest Morton has gotten some shoddy luck. That Morton leads baseball with 15 hits allowed with exit velocities under 80 miles per hour, as Stephen Tolbert of Atlanta’s SB Nation site Battery Power painstakingly showed, also gives support to the bad luck idea.
But even with some misfortune factored in he has pitched significantly worse this season than he has in recent seasons. The bad luck case is not significant enough to explain how many of the Statcast measures that we frequently use to determine if stretches like these are just rough patches or something more have backed up. Add in a walk rate that is elevated to a place he hasn’t been since 2016 and it’s all been pretty ugly in 2022.
Of course, anytime we’re talking about a 38-year-old pitcher that is approaching 1,700 career innings, the obvious fear is the inevitable decline caused by Father Time. For a pitcher that is highly reliant on a breaking pitch, you might also be on solid ground to wonder about decreased spin associated with the sticky stuff ban. In Morton’s case, you can also add the recovery from a fractured leg suffered in last season’s World Series to the list of concerns.
Despite all of that, Morton’s pitch level Statcast data suggests he’s more or less the same as he’s been in recent seasons. His overall pitch mix is mostly in line with the recent past – primarily four-seamer and curveball for just over 70% of his pitches, with the sinker, changeup, and cutter each being used 8-9% of the time to make up the rest.
His fastball and sinker are right around 94-95 miles per hour as before. The spin rate on both pitches is actually marginally higher this season than last. Morton’s signature curveball is averaging 81 miles per hour and averaging more than 3,000 RPMs — marks that are right in line with last season. That terrific curveball spin rate lands in the 99th percentile in all of baseball. His less-used changeup and cutter also look nominally the same. There is little difference in the active spin percentages and spin direction information on all his pitches.
Unsurprisingly, though, given the seasonal stats that I shared above, Morton has gotten much different results on those pitches than in the past. The table below shows the year over year difference in some key stats for each of Morton’s pitches:
The curveball results obviously stand out from the rest, although the rest have mostly moved in the wrong direction, too. Across the board, Morton’s pitches are missing fewer bats and are easier for batters to elevate.
One potential explanation for the poorer results, despite most of the pitch level characteristics being the same, is that Morton is getting noticeably less horizontal movement on both his four-seamer and curveball.
Pairing the opposite breaks of his riding four-seamer with its well above average arm-side movement and his sweeping curveball that has been among the league’s best horizontal breakers has been his go-to move since his renaissance began. You can see in the table above that Morton’s curveball has steadily lost sweep over time. Of course, it’s still well above average in that department, but relative to his four-seamer the horizontal movement difference is shrinking. That could be part of the reason why batters are having an easier time making contact against him.
A quick pitch location heat map comparison to last season indicates that a few more of those less sweepy curveballs are ending up to his arm side and in the middle of the plate, which could be part of the explanation for why opponents are suddenly able to lift it:
And driving all of that could be a steady lowering of Morton’s average vertical release point:
The trend there is unmistakable, even if the year-over-year change from last season is mostly in the noise. Whatever the ultimate cause, Morton’s curveball is not behaving the same way as it had and its changed movement profile is impacting a major part of why it was unique.
As a result, he’s been struggling to get the results he has in the past as he recently discussed with Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s hard for me because it’s like, What do I do? What is the problem?” Morton said. “Is the problem that I’m just too old and my stuff is just declining? Or is it just that I’m throwing the ball differently? I would say the latter. I would say I’m throwing plenty hard, and my curveball, it’s spinning well.”
“The spin’s been there; the speed has been there on it,” he said of his curveball. “It’s just not been performing the same for me.”
The good news is that Morton is no stranger to making adjustments to find success. He’s overcome tough early-season starts before, which is a minor obstacle to overcome compared to the magnitude of his other re-inventions. The data does not suggest he’s lost much in the way of physical ability and skill. The velocity is there. The spin is there. He still has great stuff. It’s just a little different than it has been and he’s still figuring out how to best execute it.
Perhaps some mechanical adjustments to reverse his release point trend are in the offing. Maybe a subtle shift to his starting place on the rubber to optimize the curveball he has now and to help it more consistently get to the locations he wants would help. His batted ball luck evening out would certainly help, too.
Whatever the right fix might be, history suggests Charlie Morton will find it.
Photo by: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)
I mean….are the “dead” baseballs the issue here?
I would think the dead baseballs would be helpful to the pitcher. What do you have in mind?