Braves pitcher Charlie Morton doesn’t need ‘fountain of youth’ to be good at 40

Right-hander has ‘reinvented myself’ over 15 MLB seasons

NORTH PORT, Fla. — Braves pitcher Chris Sale sits a couple of stalls away from right-hander Charlie Morton at the team’s spring training clubhouse. That’s a good vantage point for Sale to do some investigation.

“I’ve been snooping through his locker to see if he’s got that little bottle of water for the fountain of youth or something,” said Sale, who was acquired by the Braves in the offseason. “I don’t know what he’s doing. He’s the oldest guy in this clubhouse, but he’s still one of the best pitchers in the league. And that’s very respectable.”

You can’t blame Sale for thinking that Morton might have a secret formula. Not many pitchers in MLB history have aged as gracefully. Morton already beat the odds by pitching an effective season at age 39. Now he’ll try to do it again as a 40-year-old in his 15th MLB season.

Morton had a 3.64 ERA over 163-1/3 innings in 2023. Per Baseball Reference, only 15 players during the expansion era (since 1961) have produced a better ERA while pitching at least as many innings at age 39 (as of June 30 during the year). Morton’s 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings are the best among that group.

There is no supernatural phenomenon behind Morton’s longevity and no key to unlock it.

“I don’t think there’s one thing,” Morton said at the team’s spring training complex.

Morton said he learned to appreciate the ups and downs of results at the major league level and the process of navigating them. He said he had to “reinvent myself” a few times during his career. Morton said he’s focused on staying in shape during the offseason. He noted that most young MLB players today are serious about their fitness, but it wasn’t like that when Morton broke into the majors in 2008.

Morton said he also “got kind of lucky” to be in the majors at a time when teams shifted from wanting pitchers who throw sinking fastballs to favoring those with four-seam fastballs.

“I could do both,” he said. “Because my delivery got better over time, I was able to maximize my potential and increase my baseline. My delivery got more efficient, got cleaner. And I was able to utilize that and my natural talent, and the stuff coming out of my hand actually got better.”

Morton’s career results reflect his evolution. He wasn’t effective in his 2008 debut season with the Braves, who traded him to Pittsburgh the next summer. Morton compiled a 5.91 ERA for the Pirates in 35 total starts over the next two seasons before breaking through in 2011 with a 3.83 ERA in 171-2/3 innings.

Morton needed Tommy John surgery after nine starts in 2012. He was good for the Pirates in 2013 and 2014, but not good in 2015 (a lingering hip injury was a problem). A hamstring injury ended Morton’s 2016 Phillies tenure after only four starts. Morton’s late-career resurgence started when he joined the Astros in 2017 at age 33.

From 2017-23, Morton compiled a 3.55 ERA over 191 starts for the Astros, Rays and Braves. There were lots of big playoff moments over those years.

Morton pitched five shutout innings as the Astros beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2017 American League Championship Series. Then Morton pitched the final four innings of Houston’s Game 7 World Series victory over the Dodgers that year. And he famously pitched on a broken leg for the Braves in Game 1 of the 2021 World Series.

Morton said it took a while for him to know himself “physically, mentally and emotionally.”

“And then if you’re dialed into yourself, I think you can make those adjustments, whether it be to work out your mentality, routine, pitch mix,” Morton said.

Last year, Morton relied on his curveball more than ever. According to Statcast tracking data, he threw that pitch more often than fastballs last season, 43.2% vs. 38.6%. (The qualified pitcher with the next-highest curveball percentage was Blue Jays right-hander José Berríos at 29.6%.)

It’s rare for pitchers to throw more breaking pitches than fastballs.

“I don’t know that I was purposely doing that,” Morton said. “You get a sense of where your ‘stuff’ is, you get feedback from the hitters and then you have your own intuition that speaks to you. You’re not forcing it if your (fastball) isn’t as effective or it’s not as effective in these spots when normally you could really ride it.”

Morton still throws plenty hard. His average fastball velocity of 95 mph ranked tied for 15th-highest among qualified pitchers. But Morton got great results with his curveball. Batters swung and missed 42% of the time against those pitches.

Having a swing-and-miss pitch allowed Morton to keep up with younger starters on the staff. His ERA and strikeout rate were both second-best for Braves starters in 2023 behind Spencer Strider (age 24). Only Strider and Bryce Elder (24) threw more pitches than Morton’s 2,842.

Can Morton do it again? It’s rare for pitchers 40 or older to log 150 innings or more during a season. Per Baseball Reference, that’s happened 96 times since MLB increased the schedule to 162 games in 1961. Excluding knuckleball pitchers, who can have longer careers because of less wear on their arms, 40-and-up players have compiled 71 seasons of 150 innings or more during the expansion era.

Morton made 30 starts in 2023 with one stint on the injured list. It wasn’t a serious injury – a sprained index finger Sept. 24 at Washington – but the timing was terrible. Morton wasn’t eligible to pitch in the NLDS. His absence was one of the “what if’s” from that series.

Bryce Elder started Game 3 at Philadelphia and gave up six runs in 2-2/3 innings with two home runs. Maybe things would have turned out differently if Morton had pitched with the series tied 1-1 instead of Elder, who was making his postseason debut. The Phillies scored three runs in two innings against Morton in Game 4 of the 2022 NLDS, but he was much better in the next season.

Getting older hasn’t slowed Morton.

“There are lot of moments over time that happened, that I’ve experienced, that have led to where I’m at right now,” he said.

It’s where Sale and every younger player in MLB wants to be. That’s nearly all of them. Astros right-hander Justin Verlander projects to be the only player older than Morton on an opening-day roster.

I thought Morton was finished when he struggled in 2022. He proved me wrong. Now I don’t doubt that he can be effective at 40. Clearly, magic has nothing to do with Morton’s longevity.

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton is greeted by teammates after live pitching during spring training workouts at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin /


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