Was extending Charlie Morton a mistake?
Just a year ago, Charlie Morton was the Game One starter for the Atlanta Braves in the World Series and delivered one of the crazier moments in World Series history, pitching an inning on his leg which he broke the inning before. Now, many are questioning whether extending him through the 2023 season was the right decision after Morton’s lackluster 2022 season.
A week before the regular season ended, the Atlanta Braves announced they came to terms with Morton for a one-year $20 million extension with a club option for the 2024 season for another $20 million. While many fans were excited by the announcement as it meant a fan favorite would be back for another season, some questioned why they gave a 38 year old pitcher amidst an underwhelming season $20 million for another season.
Morton finished with a 4.34 ERA and a 4.26 FIP, both below the league average. His expected numbers told a similar story. His expected ERA (xERA) for the 2022 season was 4.11 which is a bit better than his results but not by much.
While those numbers don’t look great, Charlie Morton still has the potential to be a formidable starter in this league. The question is, was he worth the money considering his increasing age and the other potential starters the Braves have?
The primary reason Morton was extended was to plug a large gap. The Braves would have had to find two starters if Morton walked this offseason, considering Odorizzi will most likely exercise his $6.25 million buyout. While locking down a fourth starter for the rotation is important for the Braves, there were certainly more cost-effective options in-house.
Bryce Elder made his debut in 2022 and impressed many with the nine starts he made. Through the 54 innings he threw in 2022, Elder posted a 3.17 ERA and a FIP of 3.78. While his sample size in the majors is very small, he has shown enough promise to warrant some consideration as a starter in 2023. There is also Kyle Muller, the Braves’ top prospect. Muller only made three starts in 2022, which did not go great. Regardless, he is bound to become a consistent starter at some point, and like Elder, is a far more cost-effective solution. Finally, there is Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka, who were both fantastic at the major league level at one point but futures with the team are uncertain.
Aside from the cheaper in-house options, Morton will be out-earning many of his peers who are pitching at an elite level. Morton’s 2023 AAV is the same as Joe Musgrove, who posted a 2.93 ERA this past season, the 17th-highest ERA this past season amongst qualified pitchers. Additionally, Morton’s AAV in 2023 is higher than Aaron Nola, Lance McCullers Jr., and Sandy Alcantara. All three of those pitchers are significantly younger than Morton and have been performing at a higher level
Have we seen the bottom of Charlie Morton’s regression?
The other question is whether Morton will continue to regress as he did from 2021 to 2022. Essentially every single one of Morton’s stats and metrics was worse in 2022 than in 2021. His slugging against increased from .309 to .411, batting average against increased from .203 to .233, and weighted on-base percentage against (wOBA) increased from .264 to .320. His ERA and expected ERA both jumped nearly a whole point each. His fastball velocity was also down from 2021 while his offseason velocity was up.
Morton’s 2022 season also made one thing evident, opposing hitters are simply seeing and hitting the ball better off of him. His 42.1% hard hit percentage, 9.5% barrel percentage, and 13.6% average launch angle are his worst season totals since 2015 when Statcast began tracking these stats. Not only are those numbers bad compared to his past seasons, they also were well below the league average this past year. His hard hit % ranked in the 17th percentile and his barrel % ranked in the 15th percentile this past season. Those numbers are pretty indicative of why Charlie Morton gave up 28 home runs this past season, the ninth most out of all pitchers in 2022.
Time is clearly beginning to catch up to Morton and the effects could be even more drastic in 2023. Morton will not only be one of the oldest starting pitchers in the league, but he could potentially be one of the 10 oldest players in the league next season.
Charlie Morton’s extension gives the Atlanta Braves a bit of a payroll problem
While these numbers are sure to change in the next few weeks, Morton currently stands as the second highest paid Brave for the 2023 season, sitting behind only Matt Olson. Morton’s salary next season will be $1 million less than Travis D’Arnaud, Ozzie Albies, Colin McHugh, and Spencer Strider’s 2023 salaries combined. With the Braves luxury tax set at $233 million for 2023, its expected his contract will eat up roughly 10 percent of the Braves’ entire payroll, a large chunk of money for the fourth or fifth best starter on the roster.
With the amount of high-profile free agents available this off-season, not giving Charlie Morton $20 million for 2023 could have made it significantly easier for the Braves to pursue a player like Carlos Correa or Jacob deGrom. Though the Braves do have money to spend and plan on increasing the payroll for 2023, it is hard to believe the money given to Morton wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere.
It’s impossible to establish whether Charlie Morton’s extension will or will not be a mistake until after the 2023 season, but for now, it’s safe to say it was an probably an overpay.