Charlie Morton’s career turnaround began in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA – With the Braves back against the wall in the National League Division series after Friday’s 9-1 loss in Game 3 gave the Phillies a 2-1 advantage in the series, Charlie Morton will start the Game 4 Saturday afternoon in Philly, where he began the transformation that saved his career.

Braves rookie Spencer Strider — whose Game 3 start came in the third inning — has confidence in Morton as Atlanta teeters on the brink of elimination.

“Yes, it’s very frustrating, but Charlie is going to come out and give us a chance tomorrow,” Strider said. “Obviously we have to have a good game, and [we’re] confident that we will. And hopefully [I can] go back there [in the NL Championship Series] and do better.

History says that Morton is the perfect man for the job, considering he’s had more playoff playoff wins than any pitcher in Major League history. He’s 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA (two earned runs in 24 2/3 innings) in those games (four starts and one relief appearance). He wouldn’t be that type of pressure pitcher without a brief stint with the Phillies six years ago.

“I remember it specifically,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said.

Kranitz remembers because he was Philadelphia’s bullpen coach in 2016, when Morton had a brief stint with the Phillies and embarked on changes — starting with a killer curveball — that turned it into one of the most reliable starters just as technology was revolutionizing the way pitchers are built.

Next, Morton was a 32-year-old with a 4.54 ERA in 875 2/3 career innings who was picked up from the Pirates via trade in December 2015 in an offseason wage dump. Morton made four starts in the regular season before blowing out his left hamstring on April 23 while running the bases, and he didn’t emerge as Charlie Morton 2.0 – with a 70-30 record and a 3.53 ERA since 2017 – until he moved. in Houston, then Tampa Bay, then Atlanta.

“When he came in, his stuff was obviously undeniable,” said Kranitz, sitting in the Braves dugout during the rain delay before Atlanta’s 3-0 Game 2 win on Wednesday. “He was basically a plumber. He had just started throwing a box cutter. And he always had a curveball.

“But basically all he did was throw sinkers. Once or once and a half in the alignment, it was crazy. It was like, ‘This guy is the best pitcher in baseball.’ And then it was, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ He was trying to be like [Roy] Halladay. [Morton’s] the delivery was very much like him. They went through all of that, like, ‘We’re just going to throw pellets and hit the ball inside.'”

The Phillies thought Morton needed more diversity and saw something in curveball. Kranitz and pitching coach Bob McClure sat down with Morton after his first start this season, and they suggested he pitch him more often. Much more often.

Morton, to his credit, was open to the idea.

“I would say that was kind of the start of my career as a curveball pitcher,” Morton said.

The project was just getting started, with promising early results, when Morton suffered a sacrificial bunt at Miller Park in Milwaukee and tore his left hamstring so badly he required surgery. His tenure at the Phillies was essentially over. Philadelphia let him through free agency the following fall, and he signed with an Astros team that was on the cutting edge of using technology to transform pitchers. Morton further refined his arsenal to incorporate a four-seam, high-spinning fastball.

“I regret [my Phillies tenure was so short]“They traded for me. I liked the group that was here. I liked the starters that I was with. I liked the clubhouse. I liked my teammates. It was kind of a cool place.

“And I felt really bad about it, because I think it would have been good for me, as a little older guy at the time trying to figure out where I was in that role, because I didn’t ‘d never been in that role before. It ended too soon.”

But over the years, the curveball has become a weapon, just as Kranitz suspected. Morton’s field usage increased steadily over the next several years, reaching a career-high 38% that season. He is in the 98th percentile in turnover rate, according to Statcast.

This season, Morton had a 4.34 ERA in 172 innings. He allowed 28 homers compared to 16 during the regular season last year in two fewer starts. Kranitz and Braves manager Brian Snitker both attribute much of the ups and downs to the fact that Morton spent the offseason nursing the broken leg suffered in last year’s World Series opener against the Astros.

“He didn’t get a chance to work on his legs at all,” Kranitz said. “He literally came without running. He was just throwing. For me, it’s all in your legs. I think we saw some inconsistencies with some of his commands, until he started getting into shape. It’s big. For me, legs were everything.

Eventually, Morton started. He had a 3.96 ERA in his first start in August before allowing at least four earned runs in three of his last five regular season starts. Now he’s kicking off another playoff game. His last such start was Game 7 of the 2020 American League Championship Series, when his Rays beat the Astros. Morton’s last start on the road was the AL Wild Card Game in 2019, when the Rays beat the A’s.

“I’m just amazed by Charlie all the time,” Snitker said. “With all the innings he’s recorded, with everything he’s been through and how that ball keeps coming out of his hands, I’m blown away. It’s always like that ability to spin that curveball and the way the ball jumps out of his hand.

“I have so much respect for Major League players in general, but guys like Charlie who have been in it for a long time, the consistency of their work ethic, their approach to the game, I’m continually amazed by a player from the Major League. It’s very impressive for me. I’m a huge fan of Charlie Morton.

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