When the Pittsburgh Pirates gave Charlie Morton an extension during the 2013-14 off-season, you could see the reasoning behind the move. Morton was coming off a year where he posted a 3.26 ERA in 116 innings. He overhauled his mechanics in 2011 and became a new pitcher. Outside of his 2012 season — which was impacted by an elbow that eventually needed Tommy John surgery — he has been fantastic with those new mechanics. And the 2013 version of Morton was when things were at their best.
The Pirates extended him, hoping to get the 2013 version. That didn’t work out so well last year, as Morton developed a hip injury, resulting in hernia surgery over the off-season. He returned healthy this spring, but the results were horrible. All you need to do is ask Morton to confirm that.
“Pitching hurt last year, I just created a lot of bad habits,” Morton told me this afternoon at Pirate City. “And I never really ironed those things out. I’m just trying to get back to where I was early last year, and 2013, mechanically. You need to be sound, mechanically. At least half way decent. And my mechanics [during Spring Training] were broken down. My bullpens sucked. My catch play even sucked in the Spring. It just all was not good.”
The worst of it came in his final start of the spring against the Phillies. Morton gave up six runs, five earned, in 1.2 innings of work. He gave up four hits and walked five in that span. The Pirates responded by placing him on the disabled list, so that he could go to extended Spring Training and get his mechanics back on track from the injury. Morton said that he has improved since then.
“In my last game I threw in Philly, that was weird, because it felt like I had no idea where the ball was going,” Morton said. “My timing was just so off. Mechanics were off. No idea where the ball was going. And now everything is better.”
Morton was scheduled to throw 75 pitches today in a minor league game at Pirate City during extended Spring Training. However, those plans were cut short by weather. The game was originally supposed to be against the Phillies, but they left around the 1:00 scheduled time when it was still raining. The rain stopped and it looked like things would clear up, enough for Morton to throw a bullpen and one inning during an intrasquad contest. However, a downpour started quickly after his first inning, cutting his day short.
The limited amount of work I saw from Morton today looked good. His command was much better compared to Spring Training. There were also some noticeable differences. While watching his bullpen, I pulled up video of his work in Spring Training as a comparison. He is now lifting his leg up higher and turning a bit at the start of his delivery. I asked him about that after the outing, and he said it’s similar to what he did in 2013.
“I was in a really good spot in 2013, mechanically,” Morton said. “I was watching some video, and I noticed, in general, things were better. And the things I thought were better were my backside. I was getting a bit of a turn, and I think maybe putting some emphasis on positioning in my backside.”
Morton said many times today that the biggest thing for him is staying on his backside. He also said that he feels more athletic now than how he felt during Spring Training. He was disappointed today that his outing was cut short, as he was hoping to build on the 55 pitches he threw in the last outing.
The biggest thing for Morton right now isn’t so much getting built up for a return to the Majors, but taking his new mechanics on the field and replicating his success on the mound while the game environment adds additional intensity. Morton said that he was improving his mechanics towards the end of Spring Training, but couldn’t take it to the games yet.
Coincidentally, I talked to Jameson Taillon today about the same topic of finding his mechanics in flat grounds and bullpens first, then trying to carry it over to face live hitters. Morton equates this to how his progress normally would be at the start of Spring Training.
“The last week or two in Spring Training my catch play got better, my bullpens got better, but it was like I was in where I should have been the first couple of days in Spring Training,” Morton said. “I wasn’t where I needed to be at all.”
Today was too small of a sample to say that Morton is back to his old self, but there were visible improvements. His hope is that he can try again for 75 pitches on Monday, although the schedule is still up in the air. For now, he says he’s feeling good about his progress.
“Today was the best I felt all year,” Morton said. “I could take that in the big leagues right there. It’s just getting built up, and also maintaining my delivery.”
The Pirates would certainly hope that Morton is back to his 2013 self, because that’s a pitcher who could make an impact for them, just like he made an impact down the stretch during their 2013 playoff run.
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