In Morton, Bucs have reliable presence in rotation
After under-the-radar 2013, righty showing off strong sinker in spring camp
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- In reviewing the Pirates' 2013 season, pundits frequently identify the arrival of Gerrit Cole as a flash point, citing the impact of his addition to the pitching staff.
Deserved praise, to be sure, but an inadvertent slight of Charlie Morton, the veteran right-hander who merged into the rotation at the same time and with the same results.
Morton, after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery, made his first start on June 13, two days after Cole's big league debut. The Bucs went 12-7 in starts by Cole, who fashioned an ERA of 3.22, and 12-8 in starts by Morton, whose ERA was 3.26.
So Morton obviously provided the same midseason jolt to the playoff-bound Pirates.
"Hopefully I helped the team," Morton said. "If not, they need to find somebody else who will."
The Pirates like who they have now, just fine. As evidence, the club in December signed Morton to a three-year deal for $21 million. General manager Neal Huntington had given a contract of that length to only one other pitcher, Ian Snell in March 2008.
The security presented by that deal is contributing to the ideal Spring Training being enjoyed by the 30-year-old Morton. In two starts and five innings, he has allowed two baserunners, one on a hit and the other on a walk. Those two starts match the combined total Morton had in 2012, when he was recovering from hip surgery, and in '13, when he was still rehabbing from the Tommy John procedure.
So both physical and financial health are letting him prepare for the season with a clear mind.
"It's an aspect of a career," Morton said of the peace he has found through the contract. "When you set out on a career path, one of your goals is to make money, to take care of your family. So it's a load off my back. But it's not the only reason I play; not even close to being the main motivation.
"Yet it absolutely helps focus attention to other things, like getting the job done -- instead of feeling your back is always against the wall, and telling yourself that the time you did put into baseball didn't pay off."
A big part of the reason it did pay off is Morton's money pitch. The sinker is not exalted as one of baseball's hammers, not like a 98-mph two-seamer or a split-fingered fastball that dives under a swing. A sinker is recognized as a "contact" pitch that earns a pitcher a nickname such as "Ground Chuck."
Coming out of Morton's hand, the sinker can be lethal. Neil Walker, who gets to see it from the perfect vantage point of second base, calls Morton "one of the nastiest guys in all of baseball when he is on, his ball has so much movement."
Morton has been able to throw his best sinker early in Spring Training, to both his satisfaction and surprise, because it usually takes a while to get a feel for the pitch.
"It's been nice to have it early," said Morton, who prides himself in throwing a sinker with multiple dimensions. "What makes it good is I'm not just manipulating the ball down in the zone, I'm also trying to throw it hard. I might reach back and try to throw it by somebody."
On the average, Morton will throw that sinker about 60 percent of the time, making it one of those pitches batters might anticipate but still can't hit -- especially right-handed batters, when Morton is giving it to them low and inside.
"That's usually when my sinker is best, when I can throw it arm-side down and in," Morton said.
In 2011, he allowed one home run in 381 at-bats to a right-handed hitter. Conversely, in 2012, he knew there was something seriously wrong with his elbow when he couldn't command that tough sinker and let righties take him deep five times in only 100 at-bats. Last season, he reduced that yield to three homers in 247 at-bats.
A pitcher's work is never done, and Morton's next phase is trying to tame left-handed hitters. He knows what he has to do to give them a better fight.
"Front-door sinkers [on the outside corner] ... that's what I need to do to be effective against lefties," Morton said, "because they hit, what, .370 ... maybe .400, maybe .500 ... off me? Seems like that, at least."
Of course, it wasn't that fat. But a lifetime left-handed opponents' average of .327, with an OPS of .904, is fat enough.
Morton is working on that, because not facing the hook when an opposing lefty steps into the batter's box in a key midgame situation is one way to improve his chances of working more innings than his modest career high of 171 2/3, in 2011.
Something else the mid-2013 arrivals share: Morton and Cole, in the rotation out of the gate, should cover most of the 191 innings gone with workhorse A.J. Burnett.
Although, Morton would advise against approaching it like that.
"Focusing on not having A.J. here is a useless thought," he said. "Saying 'we got to make this up' distracts from what you should be trying to do. We might as well talk about anybody else who is not here. We're here, so we got to get it done for ourselves, not to make up for someone else."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.