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Michael Cunningham: Braves pitcher Charlie Morton doesn't need 'fountain of youth' to be good at 40

Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Baseball

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.

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