Right-hander Charlie Morton hasn’t been the same pitcher this season that Pittsburgh saw in 2011, when he posted a career-best 3.83 ERA over a team-leading 171.2 innings. Morton entered the 2012 season having come off offseason surgery on his left hip to repair a labrum tear in mid-October. That injury forced Morton behind during spring training, and delayed his regular season debut until April 14th in San Francisco.
Morton started the season off with a 2.65 ERA over his first three starts in April. But since then, Morton has a 5.67 ERA in his six most recent starts. In his last trip to the mound, the right-hander allowed four runs over four innings, which was his shortest outing of the season.
After his start, Morton said he was healthy. “Yeah, I feel good. I feel fine,” Morton said. However, the Pirates placed him on the disabled list today with right elbow inflammation.
“He went through a stretch where he was very efficient,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said on the difference in Morton from last season until now. “He was as healthy as he’s been in a long time. The sink was there. He recreated his delivery. He found his release point. He found his confidence. And he pitched very effectively like that for a long time. Then the wear and tear of the season kind of picked up on him. He dealt with a hip issue and tried to fight through that.”
The 28-year-old has been struggling with his sinker this season — but on Tuesday, Morton struggled with his secondary pitches as well. Another concern has been Morton’s velocity, which has also been down a notch this season. His sinker is averaging 90.0 mph in May, where last May it averaged 91.8 mph.
“This year, he’s coming off surgery,” Hurdle said. “He knows the surgery was successful. Now, can he find ways to free up his mind and do the things as part of his delivery, that he was doing before? Sometimes self cautiously you hold back. The velocity isn’t where it was last year. We kind of expected that. There’s going to be times after surgery that you’ve got to give them a recovery period for that to pick back up.”
“We’re just really trying to keep him open-minded about what he’s feeling. If there’s anything else he’s feeling and trusting the delivery. Not trying to create more movement by altering things during the delivery or releasing of the ball to create more movement. The hard thing you have with pitchers is they see what they see, and you’ve got to honor that. If they don’t see what they want to see, they’re going to try to create different things with movement, more spin and it gets away from the most important thing about pitching — repeating your delivery and repeating your release point.”
Confidence on the mound has been an issue for Morton since he was traded from the Atlanta Braves. In 2010, Morton finished with a 7.57 ERA over 17 starts in the Majors. But after making several adjustments, Morton bounced back in 2011 and found success. On Tuesday, Morton was asked where his confidence was at this point in the season. He paused for several seconds before talking about where he was mentally.
“I feel like I need to get back to where I’m in a groove and I feel like the decently when I throw it,” Morton said. “I think my confidence comes from not necessarily results, but the feel. The feel of the ball, what the ball’s doing. It’s hard to say I’m extremely confident. I’m confident the next time I throw I’m going to figure something out.”
“I don’t feel great right now. But at this time in 2010, I was sitting at a 12 and a half ERA, seven loses. I deserved it. I was pitching terribly. I came back to spring training and didn’t know if I had a job. I was terrified. I was nervous when I was on the mound. The changes that we made, the physical changes that we made, mechanical adjustments we made allowed me to succeed and have success. I think confidence stems from that.”
Morton was placed on the 15-day disabled list today with right elbow inflammation. He will be in rest mode until the inflammation resolves. Once that does resolve, Morton will progress through a throwing program and bullpen work before the next step in his progression is determined.
Clint Hurdle discussed on Wednesday afternoon if they would consider moving Morton out of the rotation to get back on track, due to the way he had been struggling. The Pirates have right-hander Jeff Karstens on a rehab assignment, not far from returning, plus Brad Lincoln’s dominant 2012, and several prospects in Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson pitching lights on in Triple-A.
“You take it one day at a time,” Hurdle said. “Karstens next opportunity is coming up. He’s got to pitch. He’s got to make that demand. Meet that exercise. Show that he is healthy. We like the work that Lincoln’s done. We just continue to take it day by day and evaluate what’s the best thing we can do for the club at the appropriate time when somebody comes off and is healthy and ready to help at this level. What’s the best move we can make for everyone that’s involved.”