Charlie Morton proving valuable behind scenes for Braves

When the Braves signed 37-year-old Charlie Morton to a one-year, $15 million deal over the winter, they saw value that transcends his on-field numbers. Aside from a sterling postseason resume, Morton was an ideal person to mentor their younger pitchers.

Morton is, by all accounts of those who’ve encountered him, a phenomenal teammate who goes out of his way to help others. That’s why he was a perfect fit for the Braves’ clubhouse. That’s why younger players have studied him since arriving at spring training in mid-February.

“His attention to detail in everything he does, even days he’s not pitching or days he’s not (starting or has no bullpen session),” Braves starter Bryse Wilson said. “The attention to everything he does, catch play, scouting-report stuff, everything like that. It’s really cool to watch him focus on that stuff. It’s helped me.”

Morton was at one point like the 23-year-old Wilson, trying to find his way in the overwhelming major-league landscape. Morton’s first MLB experience was with the Braves, when he was promoted in 2008 and appeared in 16 games.

A reality of the business hit Morton the next summer, when he was dealt to the Pirates in a package for outfielder Nate McLouth. He would spend seven years in Pittsburgh before stints in Philadelphia (four games), Houston (two seasons) and Tampa Bay (two seasons). In his latter two stops, Morton helped teams win the American League pennant, and in Houston’s case, the World Series. He developed a reputation as a big-game pitcher.

He’s come a long way since 2008. Last winter, the long and winding major-league road took him back to Atlanta. It was the perfect time and perfect place. A reunion made too much sense for both parties.

This time, Morton’s not the deer-in-the-headlights rookie. He’s not the reserved, shy kid who had a 6.15 ERA in 74-2/3 innings. He returned with the confidence and experience that a 14-year career – and life in general – provides.

And Morton hopes to pay it forward.

“When you’re a young player in the big leagues, there’s a lot going on,” Morton told the AJC. “You’re trying to figure out a lot of things. You’re trying to figure out how to have and sustain success. And you’re also trying to figure out how to fit in in the clubhouse and how you fit into a team. You’re trying to grow as a professional and a person, all at the same time. It’s like anyone else in any other environment.

“But I think the key is to have people on your side who believe in you, that want to see good things happen for you and want the best for you.”

While they’ve yet to appear in the same rotation, the Braves have a prized trio of pitchers in Max Fried (27), Ian Anderson (23) and Mike Soroka (23) who they hope will headline their rotation for the long term.

They also have breakout star Huascar Ynoa, 22, who’s been their best pitcher this season. Kyle Wright and Wilson are on the peripherals of the discussion. They’ve produced at the highest level, just not consistently.

Morton’s presence helps. Even if he’s not speaking, his leading by example has made an impact.

“He’s been awesome, he really has been,” Anderson said. “He’s gone out before me and set the tone. I’m just trying to follow his footsteps and what he’s been able to do. Pitch deep in ballgames, limit the hard contact, strike some guys out. He has a bulldog mentality, and that’s something I look to him and pull from that. It’s been fun to watch him pitch with what he’s been able to do with the ball. His stuff is pretty ridiculous.”

Anderson, who like Morton has a calm, quiet demeanor, admires how Morton appears so laid-back off the mound, but increases his intensity on it.

“He’s the same guy on his start day that he is any other day,” Anderson said. “He’s super laid-back. I think that’s his personality. You probably wouldn’t even know he’s pitching if you didn’t look at the box score, so that’s awesome. That’s kind of the way I like to be, too. So he’s awesome to have around.”

Wilson said he’s benefited similarly, specifically adding: “I’ve talked with him about four-seam and two-seam usage, just because we both have both of those pitches. He’s great, talking about strategy and how to approach certain hitters. The experience he has is unbelievable.”

The Braves tried the same “sign a mentor/postseason producer” approach before the 2020 season with lefty Cole Hamels, but injuries limited Hamels to one appearance. The team already has received a much greater return on investment in Morton, who’s outpitched his 5.08 ERA (3.67 FIP) through six starts.

Despite their sluggish start, the Braves consider themselves World Series contenders. That’s why they acquired Morton, who helped pitch the Rays to the Fall Classic just last year. But also the team is still growing. There are pitchers finding their way, even those who’ve found past success. Consistency is what lays the groundwork for a career like Morton’s.

There will be ups and downs for everyone. Take Anderson, for instance, when he had a rough go in his latest start against the Blue Jays. Fried experienced his share of adversity earlier in his career and still is, coming off the best season of his life. Ynoa will hit a bump in the road. Wright and Wilson are works in progress.

Guiding those pitchers is where Morton can make a lasting impact. In fact, Morton values being a teammate more than anything else, even his on-field production.

“I would say I’ve tried to be a good teammate and be a friend and try to create meaningful relationships,” Morton said. “That’s what really matters, at the end of the day. That’s how I’ll look back on my career. How was I in the clubhouse? How was I as a teammate? Aside from the obvious of how I pitched. Because to me, that’s just one facet of a career. I think, for me, what I derive meaning from in the game is more off the field and those relationships.

“It’s nice to hear (what Anderson and Wilson said). I’m really honestly just trying to be a good dude. If that means that somebody wants to ask me a question about baseball. But certainly, the people I have played with who impacted me the most were the ones that cared. So I think that’s where I’d say my focus lies, making an effort to care about how they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.”