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Interview: Charlie Morton on Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, and what he'll do when he's done pitching

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Here's the fourth installment of a series of posts derived from interviews I conducted with four members of Pirates starting rotation before the All-Star Break.

Charlie Morton speaks emotionally and highly of Jeff Locke

Two Thursdays ago, as the Pirates clubhouse was closing to the media, Charlie Morton and I were finishing up an interview. It had been a long conversation, so I felt bad that we were now going over the time allotted for media availability. With the doors closed and the press gone, players were appearing from the different rooms that encircle the clubhouse and were beginning to prepare for the game ahead. Now I felt like I was intruding on the players' private time. But Morton was making a point that he seemed to want to finish, so I stayed.

The normally soft-spoken Morton, who is cautious with his opinions and typically speaks with a deliberate and halting cadence, was, on this occasion, speaking more directly and emotionally than I had heard from him before.

He was responding to my final question of the interview, which was about the maturation of the two younger pitchers on the staff, Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole. Morton first discussed how impressed he was with how Cole was handling all the pressure of the expectations that were placed on him at a young age. (More on that later.) Then, he started talking about Locke, and began by expressing frustration with way that the left-hander has been treated by the fans and media.

"I still remember the boos at the end of the 2013 season, when we were struggling, and feeling disappointed at what people perceived Jeff to be," Morton said. "I don't want to offend anybody, but that upset me. Because without Jeff Locke, who knows where the 2013 Pirates are. You can safely say, with Jeff, we make the playoffs and he was a huge part of that."

Morton also brought up an incident that to this day that still bothers not only Locke, but many of his teammates. It happened during the time in the 2013 season when Locke was way over-performing his peripherals and the hot topic was whether his success was sustainable. While he was riding high and getting ready to head to the All-Star Game, Locke started to regularly face questions about whether he was aware of the discontinuity between his success and peripherals — indeed, he was even asked about the difference between his FIP and ERA.

"In 2013, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for three, four months of the season — legitimately one of the top five pitchers in baseball," Morton said firmly. "Then the questions started coming in, people started asking him about sabermetrics and regression and ‘You're due to fail.'"

I told Morton that I remembered the FIP and ERA question, in particular. "Yeah," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Morton admires how Locke has rebounded from a strange 2013 season and some struggles over the past two seasons.

"For him to wind up in Triple-A and to struggle while he was there in 2014, then come back up and do a really good job — he was solid last year," Morton said. "Then this year to struggle and now I don't know how many good outings it's been in a row — six really great outings? Now, he's back to where he was. ... I know exactly how hard it is to deal with struggle. I don't know what it's like to not have a job after an All-Star season."

Finally, and this is when the clubhouse was closing to the media, Morton had one more important  thing he wanted people to know about Locke and overcoming struggles.

"You don't think of major leaguers as having struggles," Morton said. "Like, legitimate real world struggles. But Jeff has had those struggles. I don't know if you know about his mom being diagnosed with cancer. It happened recently and then [his pitching has been] up-and-down. And he cares so much about baseball. He cares so much about the team and doing his part. There are [real] burdens [he's had to face] and he's done that and overcome it."

After the game that night, I asked Locke about how his mother was doing and if he was okay with me publishing Morton's quote. I'm happy to report that after going through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, his mother is currently cancer free. Locke said that he found out that his mother was sick last year right before a September start against the Cubs. He still went out and pitched.

Morton on Cole

Returning to Cole, Morton said that we often forget how young the Pirates' emerging ace is.

"He has matured a lot," he said of Cole. "But at the same time, you have to remember how young he still is. He's 24 years old and basically has two years under his belt in the Major Leagues. ...So when I watch him do things day-to-day, it's hard to remember that, it's hard to remember that he just came out of college. Like, he's not a kid, but, yeah, he kind of is."

Not only is he just a "kid," but he is dealing with the heightened pressure that is unique to number one draft picks, and that few professionals in any field can understand.

"He has a lot on his plate," Morton said. "A lot more than I did. There's tons of expectations. People are looking to him to be something that, for whatever reason, they think he needs to be. I'm sure he knows that. I'm sure he knows that people are watching him and know what he's doing and keeping a close eye. And he's handled it tremendously."

When I reminded him that he went something similar, with the #ElectricStuff tag and then the comparisons to Roy Halladay, Morton paused and said, "Yeah, well, then [expectations] plummeted and then went back up and then ..." his voice trailing off with a shrug.

"What Gerrit did doesn't happen a whole lot," Morton continued. "Guys don't come up and have those kinds of expectations, I don't care what field you're in. Whether you're a child prodigy or first year out of med school. 22 years old, that's crazy. I was in Double-A with a 4.50-5.00 ERA at that age."

Morton evaluates his season and looks to the future

Morton has had a very busy and challenging last few years. Besides holding down a rotation spot on a playoff contending team, he and his wife Cindy now have two kids under the age of two, and they're "hoping for more." He's also undergone three surgeries in the past four years. His latest surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip threw off his mechanics so badly that he was placed on the disabled list two days before Opening Day.

That stint on the DL still bothers him and colors how he evaluates the season he is having this year.

"My year is below my expectations because I expected to pitch from day one," Morton said. "I'm still disappointed by that."

Since returning on May 25, Morton is 6-4 with a 4.59 ERA. He had one disastrous start in which he allowed nine runs in two-thirds of an inning. Outside of that start, he's posted a solid 3.38 ERA.

"I feel like I've thrown the ball well," Morton said. "But that was a big disappointment missing basically two months."

The Pirates right-hander is now 31 years old and in the second year of a three-year contract. When I asked him if he thought he was a baseball lifer, he shook his head.

"The thought of continuing to [play or work in baseball] just doesn't appeal to me, because I want to spend time with my family," Morton said.

Morton acknowledges how lucky is to have had the opportunity to pursue a life in baseball, but when his playing days are over he is  considering  starting down a whole new career path and pursuing one of his many other interests.

"I want to do something else, maybe." Morton said. "I've always regretted not putting my best effort into school, when I was in high school, because I feel like there is so much out there in life to be able to experience."

Morton on pitching

Last season I talked to Morton outside the visitor's locker room in Comerica Park for a project I was working on. At the end of our conversation I mentioned that he should think about writing a book someday because he always has thoughtful perspectives on baseball. He seemed surprised by the suggestion and then grinned and modestly said, "Yeah, people are always saying I'm cerebral."

It's true, Morton is cerebral. In particular, he has always struck me as someone who has a keen sensitivity for the complexity of things. He never conveys an air of cocksure certainty. Rather, he is chooses his words carefully and has a tendency to describe events from multiple, often conflicting, perspectives.

It is for these reasons that I wanted to talk him about the intellectual side of pitching. If any player could take us deep into the mental gamesmanship and complexity of the pitcher-hitter confrontation, I thought, it would be Morton.

To my surprise, however, Morton has a straightforward view of his craft. On mental side of pitching, he said, "It's not really that complicated.

"Some people like to make it complicated," he continued. "And I bought into that in the past —the complication. But I don't think it exists, to be honest with you."

Perhaps owing to his eight years of major-league experience, Morton has distilled the art pitching down its fundamentals: it is simply about execution, as boring as that sounds. Every pitcher has a set of strengths, and game plans are designed to maximize those strengths while exploiting hitters' weaknesses. At the end of the day, the key is overwhelming an opponent's weaknesses with your strengths.

If the art of pitching isn't terribly complicated, I wondered if there was some intellectual satisfaction that he still derives from it?

"I think pitching fulfills the want to be competitive," Morton said. "To do something where you feel like you're working and you're working hard doing something. And you're taking a lot of interest and a lot of care and effort. To me, this is a profession. It is a game, in the sense that it is a game. But I take it seriously. Just as anybody in a profession takes their craft seriously."

Like most athletes, Morton values competition, and pitching allows him to satisfy that interest at the highest possible level. If he ever found it intellectually fulfilling, it seems like he's moved beyond that now. Pitching is his a profession and over the years Morton has come to realize that excelling at his craft is less about solving mental puzzles than it is repeatedly meeting the physical demands.

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Additional posts from series:

Q+A with A.J. Burnett

Jeff Locke reflects on friendship with A.J. Burnett

Q+A with Gerrit Cole on how he has developed this year