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Pirates starter Morton learns to trust his stuff

| Monday, March 24, 2014, 11:26 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton delivers to the plate against the Tigers during a spring training game in Lakeland, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton delivers to the plate against the Yankees during a spring training game in Tampa, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Trying to decipher why he struggles against left-handed batters, Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton watched video of himself on the mound. It didn't take him long to find an answer.

“I could see that I give away the inside part of the plate,” Morton said. “I'd go in there occasionally, but it was kind of just for show.”

Like most right-handed sinkerball pitchers, Morton's strength is pitching to his arm side — throwing inside to right-handed batters and down and away to lefties. Mechanically, it's the easiest way to pitch.

Also, after being drafted in 2002, Morton spent the formative years of his career in the Atlanta Braves' farm system, where the coaches preached a steady diet of down and away.

“I didn't really understand that you can work the corners of the plate and establish that inside part of the plate with effective balls and strikes,” Morton said.

He finally started to figure that out the past couple of years, working with Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict. This spring, Morton has been grinding away with inside pitches against left-handers.

“He's got stuff to get it done,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think he's finally aware of that and has bought into it. Earlier, the batting average against paralyzed him mentally. It didn't matter if all the hits were ground balls. If it was a hit, it freaked him out. Now, he's realized he's got to pitch to his strengths.”

There's more to Morton's maturation than merely firing pitches in on the batters' hands. He's also learned trust his best pitches — four-seamer, sinker, curveball and split-change — rather than always trying to come up with something new.

When batters were hitting his fastball, Morton would tell himself he had to start throwing the slider more often. When they hit the slider, he'd want to throw more curveballs. When the curve was knocked around, he'd want to go heavy on changeups.

“My original inclination was always to add a pitch,” Morton said. “It was never, ‘What I have now is good enough,' even though that's what everybody was telling me. I was always questioning myself and making things more complicated.”

The past two seasons, Morton saw that A.J. Burnett was able to dominate even as a three-pitch pitcher by trusting his stuff and challenging hitters inside. They had several talks about how to approach batters.

“I saw Charlie grow up,” Burnett said. “The main thing to me is being able to help guys. I don't want to be cocky, but I rubbed off on them the right away. For me, being able to leave on that note was important.”

After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Morton last season went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. However, his stats against right-handed batters (4.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .263 batting average on balls in play) still were significantly better than against lefties (1.56 SO/BB and .377 BAbip).

“It's a process,” Morton said. “Before, I thought I had to trick (batters). But you learn what your best pitches are, and you learn what works for you, in terms of how effective one pitch can be — just one pitch, in any count, any location. You start to trust things more, which is what I didn't do before.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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