Braves starter Charlie Morton searches for answers on early struggles

Atlanta's Charlie Morton pitches in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets on Tuesday in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta's Charlie Morton pitches in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets on Tuesday in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Credit: AP

NEW YORK — Charlie Morton always has cared deeply about his performance. This has motivated him, but it also has come with an unintended consequence: doubt and anxiety.

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Throughout a long and successful career, he’s experienced on-field struggles leaking into how he feels daily and how he comes into the clubhouse. In MLB, he said, how players perform is a large part of how they are viewed.

“I guess I’ve become numb to that in a lot of ways,” Morton said. “You kind of build a callus up. You struggle and then you succeed, you struggle and then you succeed. You just keep going at it, and eventually, I think you do become somewhat numb to that feeling of being susceptible to the stress and the anxiety and the doubt.

“And certainly, those feelings will always be there as long as you care about something and as long as you’re being honest with yourself.”

During a conversation that lasted about 30 minutes before the Braves’ series finale against the Mets on Wednesday at Citi Field, the 38-year-old Morton discussed his start to the season, searching for answers and staying the course throughout it all.

Charlie Morton has confronted ‘deep existential questions’

“Can I even do this?”

“Can I ever get to a place where I’m at peace with who I am on the field and I’ve proven to enough people and to myself – mostly to myself – that I can do it?”

Earlier in his career, Morton confronted these “deep existential questions,” as he described them. To understand, at least in part, how Morton is able to search for answers while not losing confidence, you must know how he built that confidence.

Answering the questions helped Morton reach a foundation of confidence. Now he’s able to dig into his early-season struggles without spiraling. He’s a human with doubts, but he’s looking for answers without panicking.

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“I think I noticed that some of my motivation was based off of wanting to avoid negative results and situations in the game, which I’m sure is true for a great deal of people,” Morton said. “Whereas some people are driven a lot by what they want to achieve and attain and their goals are actually specific goals, it seemed like my goals were avoidance of failure in motivation. So I still have that.”

But over his successful tenure in the big leagues, Morton has validated himself. He has had a job since 2008. He has a 3.45 ERA since 2017. “I kept getting opportunities to go out there and figure it out, and eventually I did,” he said. “I was able to make some necessary adjustments, and I was able to transform a little bit to a different type of pitcher.”

But this all seems like it began with those existential questions.

“Those questions have been answered, at this point,” Morton said.

‘I’ve always been curious’

Morton said he never has believed in the saying, “When things aren’t going well, it’s going to turn around.” That’s not his mentality.

The motivated Morton is instead wired to search for the reason why something occurs – and what he can do to fix it.

“I’ve always been curious,” Morton said. “Even when I’ve pitched well, I’ve still been curious because I feel like you can always get better. I’ve had the tendency to just be hard on myself and not satisfied with where I am. When you have stretches where things aren’t going well, it goes from frustration to more than frustration because you start to really question exactly what you’re doing at the very core of what your game is, right?”

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After a tremendous 2021 season, which ended when he fractured his right fibula in Game 1 of the World Series, Morton has pitched to a 6.85 ERA through five starts. He’s issued 14 walks and struck out 18 batters. He struggled over his first six starts last season, but he has discussed how that felt different than this. (And in that batch of starts, he walked fewer batters and had more strikeouts than in his start to this season).

Following Tuesday’s outing at Citi Field versus the Mets, Morton brought up a concern: His chase rate is lower. In other words, hitters are not chasing as many of his pitches to begin this season.

His chase rate – which is the proportion of pitches outside the strike zone at which a batter swings – is 19.8% this season, according to Baseball Savant. That is a sizable drop from 27.7% last year. His career high in this area came in 2020, when he had a 31.5% chase rate.

Searching for answers

Morton has looked at the data for the movement and spin in his pitches, as well as for his delivery. He is trying to find the discrepancies.

He has wondered: Is there something in his delivery that’s giving away anything?

“Not tipping (pitches), I’m not talking about tipping,” he said. “I’m just talking about the hitter’s natural ability to pick up on things in a motion that would otherwise be more difficult to see because it’s deception.”

“Being honest with myself and being fair with myself – taking into account everything that has happened since the last week of October to this point – I would say that I'm going to try to just get back where I was last year."

- Braves pitcher Charlie Morton

Morton seems somewhat confused because, as he said, it’s not like he’s throwing pitches in the dirt or ones that are 4 feet out of the zone and hitters are taking them. No, he believes they are not offering at some close pitches.

“I don’t know if that’s because I’m not attacking the zone enough, or if they’re actually picking me up a little sooner,” he said.

The tough part, he said, is that it’s impossible to say hitters aren’t chasing solely because of their approaches, or only because of his stuff. He believes it’s more nuanced than this.

Morton sees one silver lining in a tough situation. Last year marked the third time in his career he’s had surgery on the lower half of his body. The first two were hip surgeries and, in spring training the next season after those surgeries, his stuff was not as good. This season, his velocity didn’t drop after entering camp, which encouraged him because “that was some of the best stuff that I’ve ever had at the end of last year.”

‘I still have a job to do’

For the past five years, Morton has pitched a certain way: Lots of curveballs, four-seamers at the top of the zone, the occasional two-seamer running in on a right-handed hitter, and sometimes mixing in cutters and change-ups.

In 2017, when he pitched for the Astros, Morton set a career high – at that time – by striking out 163 batters. Then he struck out 201 the next season, then 240 the year after that. In 2021, he had 216 strikeouts.

Morton might be looking for answers about why he’s had a tough start to this season, but he won’t be changing the way he pitches. He understands strikeout pitchers who no longer rack up strikeouts naturally begin pitching to contact.

“I really don’t think that the raw stuff is pointing me in that direction,” Morton said. “I just don’t see it, in terms of what I see on paper. What I see with my eyes is telling me something different, but then when I see my just pure stuff, it’s not saying, ‘Hey, you need to make a career-altering decision here and try to become a contact pitcher.’”

Morton knows his job is to get outs, but he said pitchers can’t simply change the way they pitch from outing to outing. He won’t simply become a ground-ball pitcher or someone who tries to induce weak contact. He has adapted before throughout his career, but he’s not at that point yet.

It’s been only five starts. If Morton were throwing 91-93 mph and had a loopy curveball, he might think it’s time to change his approach on the mound. But his fastball is still averaging 95 mph, and the metrics indicate his curveball is still spinning as it should.

“Being honest with myself and being fair with myself – taking into account everything that has happened since the last week of October to this point – I would say that I’m going to try to just get back where I was last year,” Morton said.

Morton, who is as curious as they come, has been frustrated after several outings this season. He’s trying to seek answers. Is it that his stuff isn’t playing as much as it once did? Are hitters seeing something causing them to react differently than in previous years?

His search is ongoing.

“It’s just, at this point in my career, though, I’m still in a clubhouse, I still have a job to do, I still have pride in the way I conduct myself as a professional,” Morton said. “And so the motivation is still there for me to go out and try to better myself on and off the field.”