Charlie Morton has come back from Tommy John surgery even stronger. And that's in the most literal sense. • Morton said almost a year's worth of rehabilitation has allowed him to strengthen his arm and shoulder in ways he hasn't been able to do in the past. As a result, he's throwing the ball harder than ever before.
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He regularly touches 96 mph with his fastball, a plateau he hadn't reached in years as his body struggled to stay healthy. He pitched the end of the 2011 season -- his most statistically productive year -- with a torn labrum in his left hip. As he worked hard to rehab that injury, the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow was slowly fraying. By May 2012, the ligament was completely torn.
During his rehab process, Morton had to take months off from throwing. It was probably his longest break from mound work since he started pitching professionally.
"The whole time, you're getting stronger and stronger and stronger," he said. "Your shoulder is getting stronger and stronger and stronger."
His average fastball velocity through three starts this season is 92.6 mph, according to Fangraphs.com, as fast as it has been since he averaged 93.4 mph in 2010. Last season, he averaged 89.8 mph with his fastball.
Morton's career average fastball velocity is 91.3 mph. The velocity is not as important for Morton as it is a hard sinking action. But add in the velocity, and the pitch becomes even more problematic for hitters.
A pitch-to-contact pitcher, Morton's strikeout rate is higher than it has ever been in his career -- 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings. And he is eliciting twice as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs -- an impressive 2-to-1 ratio.
Though Morton pays close attention to his trajectory, he is interested in his velocity numbers, too. He said he'll frequently peek at the LED screens that encircle the field to see what the radar gun recorded.
"If I let it go, I want to know," he said. "Plus, it's an indicator of where you are. When I was rehabbing, I wanted to know. I hadn't pitched in almost a year."
He's not the only one.
"I can't tell you if I've ever seen him hit 95 or 96 before," manager Clint Hurdle said after Morton's first start this season. "Sometimes it's kind of crazy how that surgery works out where some guys get a couple extra miles per hour when they come back."
Though he expects fatigue to set in, Morton said he believes he can keep his velocity up as the season goes along. The time spent rehabbing his injuries has reinforced the need for strength training.
"I think I, more so now than ever, realize the benefits of shoulder and [scapula] strength," he said.
Alvarez's All-Star bid
A groundswell of fan support for a potential All-Star start for Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez will likely fall short.
David Wright of the New York Mets had a comfortable voting lead heading into this weekend. Alvarez wasn't even mentioned among a list of also-rans. Alvarez's All-Star fate then lies with his peers in a player vote or with National League manager Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants.
Alvarez leads all NL third basemen in home runs and RBIs, but his low batting average will likely weigh down his other stats. Still, he is second among third basemen in slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging), regarded by some as the most important metric for a player's overall value.
But Alvarez doesn't have the name recognition of players such as Wright or San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval or Washington Nationals slugger Ryan Zimmerman. It's not impossible that Alvarez will make the All-Star team when rosters are announced Saturday night. But it is an uphill climb.
There is a chance, however, that Alvarez could be a part of the All-Star festivities without being selected to the NL roster. Home Run Derby participants don't have to come from the pool of All-Stars, and Alvarez is certainly deserving of a spot in that lineup.
Heading into the weekend, Alvarez was tied for third in the NL with 19 home runs, a number that soared in June as Alvarez crushed the ball. Alvarez said last week he has not given any thought to the All-Star game. And he is trying not to think about the Derby, either.
"It's not really up to me," he said.
Wright will serve as the NL's captain, meaning he will select the Derby representatives for the NL team.
"It all depends on what they're paying attention to," Hurdle said. "Could it be brought up and have it be a topic of discussion? Yeah. Is it one to wear or beat the drum on? Not for me. I just like where his stroke's got to now."
Hurdle said, ultimate, it's a decision Alvarez will have to make if asked. But if he were in that position, he would probably decline.
"Wouldn't it be kind of weird?" Hurdle said. "Wouldn't you feel a little weird going in just for the Home Run Derby?"
But this All-Star experience might be different for Alvarez, who grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, just a short cab ride from Citi Field in Queens.
Alvarez might give it some thought.
"If the situation presents itself," he said, "we'll see."
Looking ahead: Phillies
After their fifth day off Monday in the past eight days, the Pirates start the Fourth of July week by welcoming in the team from the city where America was born.
The Philadelphia Phillies start a three-game series against the Pirates on Tuesday at PNC Park. The teams played a four-game series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in April. The Pirates dropped the first game of that series before winning the final three.
The Phillies entered the weekend third in the NL East with a 38-42 record.
The Pirates hit the road for a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. It will be the Pirates' second trip to Wrigley and their fourth series against the Cubs this year.
The Pirates are 6-3 against the Cubs this year.