Pirates starting pitcher Morton fine-tunes his delivery after surgery
BRADENTON, Fla. — While all the other pitchers at Pirates minicamp threw long toss on a nearby field Tuesday morning, Charlie Morton toiled in the bullpen.
Morton was surrounded by curious onlookers: pitching coaches, assistants and a trainer. Small video cameras recorded the right-hander's moves from different angles.
It is unusual for a pitcher to throw off a mound during voluntary workouts in mid-January. Usually this time is reserved for easy tossing on flat ground. Morton is a special case.
“Because I've been hurt a lot, I've kind of gotten used to throwing at weird times,” said Morton, who has endured three operations since 2011. “Guys who rehab a lot get used to the awkward schedules.”
The brief session was the first time Morton had thrown off a mound since he had hip surgery in late September. It was an unremarkable — in a good way — and important step toward reclaiming a spot in the Opening Day starting rotation.
“It felt good,” Morton said. “It's a matter of easing into it, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get off the mound today, nice and easy. This way I'm not getting off the mound at 65 percent (in spring training) when everybody else is at 85 or 90 percent.”
Four years ago, Morton needed surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. Midway through the 2012 season, he had Tommy John surgery.
Last year, Morton made 26 starts and posted a 3.72 ERA but was bothered throughout the season by two health issues. Femoroacetabular impingement, a condition in which irregularly shaped hip bones rub against each other, damaged the labrum in his right hip. As he tried to pitch through the injury, Morton developed pubalgia, commonly called a sports hernia.
Doctors fixed his FAI by shaving the bone and repaired his labrum.
“They cleaned it up and tacked it back down,” Morton said matter-of-factly.
Morton said both hips finally are healthy. The pubalgia also no longer bothers him, but Morton remains wary.
“It kind of came from nowhere and felt miserable last year,” Morton said. “It was very deceiving. There were days when I'd get up and feel OK, but then I'd go throw off the mound and it was bad.”
Morton, 31, got a three-year, $21 million contract extension before the 2014 season. Over the past three years, he made 55 starts and went 15-22 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP.
The Pirates are counting on Morton to help solidify the middle of the rotation. If he cannot stay healthy, the burden will increase on 38-year-old righty A.J. Burnett, who last year was bothered by a groin injury.
Morton threw only a handful of pitches — none of them at anything near max effort — during his bullpen session Tuesday at Pirate City. As he recovers from surgery, Morton is trying to fine-tune changes in his delivery.
On the mound, Morton stood with his back toward home plate. He quickly whirled and threw with a noticeably shorter arm action.
“I'm trying to get it a little cleaner, a little more efficient,” Morton said. “I'm hoping it translates to competition, but I'm sure it's not going to be as pronounced when I actually start throwing in a game.”
Jim Benedict, the guru who saved Morton's career by revamping his delivery in 2011, is behind this latest alteration. Benedict got the idea as he watched Morton's quick and clean pickoff move.
“Benny's always trying to help me improve,” Morton said. “If you make things more efficient, you avoid problems. I can make a firm, accurate throw and still be efficient.”