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Pirates' Morton continues to tinker with hybrid split-changeup

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 8:39 p.m.
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Pirates starter Charlie Morton delivers to home plate during the first inning against the Rockies on Friday, July 25, 2014, at Coors Field in Denver.

DENVER — The challenge for Charlie Morton always has been to develop a third pitch. Perhaps the thin air of Coors Field accelerated that search for the Pirates' right-hander.

At times last season, Morton was a one-pitch pitcher. It was an excellent pitch, one of the game's best sinkers, but he often was limited to that offering.

This season, Morton added another above average-above pitch: a curveball.

The pitch has the most horizontal movement among curveballs thrown by major league starting pitchers, according to pitch-tracking PITCHf/x data. The pitch has allowed Morton to better combat left-handed hitters and has increased his strikeout totals.

On Friday night at Coors Field, Morton flashed a quality third pitch that he has been working on since last season: a hybrid split-changeup. Morton threw 11 such pitches, doubling his typical usage it.

The increase perhaps was tied to knowledge that curveballs don't break as much in the thin air of Denver.

The split-change showed good fading action at times and sat at 83 mph, which gave Morton velocity separation from his fastball. Morton struck out Carlos Gonzalez with a split-change diving out of the zone in the first and heavily attacked the Rockies star with the pitch throughout the game.

“We were working it in pretty well,” Morton said. “I thought it was a pretty good pitch for me (Friday). I was a little inconsistent with it around the zone, but when I threw it right, it did exactly what I wanted it to.”

Still, Morton is throwing the split-changeup on just 7.5 percent of his pitches. He still essentially is a two-pitch pitcher.

Morton knows that in order to advance from a good to very good starting pitcher, he needs a third pitch, a pitch that will perhaps better allow him to navigate batting orders for second and third times. Perhaps Friday was a night when Morton began to trust the pitch to a greater degree.

Morton allowed four runs in 6 innings Saturday. Most of the damage came on pitches other than the split-changeup, which Pirates manager Clint Hurdle noted afterward.

“A hanging breaking ball for a double, an elevated sinker for another extra-base hit and a little ground ball through the left side chased (Morton),” Hurdle said.

While his breaking ball has been excellent, Morton's groundball rate has not be as dominant.

His fastball velocity has declined from 92.8 mph last season to 91.3 mph this season.

Morton said he was not overly concerned with changing his pitch-mix in pitching at altitude Friday night, but his pitch mix said otherwise.

“I just go out and try to pitch my game,” Morton said. “I just go out there and compete.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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