With Pitchers, Tiny Tweaks Can Make A Big Difference
In less than 24 hours, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park played host to two extremes of player development.
In a night game, Rays prospect Matt Moore made his second Triple-A start for the host Bulls against Gwinnett. Moore made the game look easy, striking out 13 in eight scoreless innings. Moore, who has led the minor leagues in strikeouts the last two seasons, "cruised," in the words of manager Charlie Montoyo, who added that Moore's effort ranked with any of those from Bulls alumni who have gone on to the major leagues. That's a long list that includes David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Moore continues to get better as tweaks bring the best out of his quick, electric left arm.
Two minor adjustments stand out in Moore's progression from a 2007 eighth-round pick out of Moriarty (N.M.) High to the best pitching prospect in the game. First, the 22-year-old says he moved to the extreme third-base side of the rubber in instructional league in 2008, at the suggestion of Rays minor league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman.
"I used to stand on the first-base side," Moore said. "I thought it would help me get inside against lefthanded hitters. With my arm slot, Bos thought it would help me locate better glove-side if I stood on the third-base side of the rubber. It opened up that side of the plate for me, for sure. I'm able to get inside to righthanded hitters a lot better now."
It seems like a minor adjustment, and veteran Durham reliever Joe Bateman said it's not an issue all pitchers think deeply about. "For me it was just trial and error," the sidearming righthander said. "I used to stand on the first-base side. When I went with the lower slot I have now, I was experimenting a little and it seemed like I threw better when I was on the third-base side."
Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen said it makes a difference in getting a pitcher on a line to home plate. For Moore, Allen made another adjustment last season that seems insignificant but proved to be anything but.
"Matty used to throw across his body," said Allen, who coached Moore at high Class A Charlotte in 2010. "So that helps him with his direction. We also had him take his hands over his head when he starts, which helped with his rhythm and direction. He was inconsistent with the way he took his hands out of his glove and wasn't repeating, but he's located much better since we made that change."
Overhauls vs. Tweaks
That's one way to put it. Moore has been the minors' best pitcher since the change, which occurred at midseason 2010. Since then, he's 14-7 with a 1.76 ERA, and his secondary numbers are even better. In 199 innings, Moore has 281 strikeouts, 56 walks and a .171 opponent average.
About 16 hours after Moore's duel with Mike Minor ended, the DBAP played host to the championship game of the Breakthrough Series, a showcase event organized by USA Baseball to give players who might miss out on the expensive summer showcase circuit a chance to gain greater exposure. It's geared at helping Major League Baseball reach out to minorities at the amateur level.
The championship game between the Chicago-based White Sox team and the Most Valuable Prospects (MVP) featured the two top arms in the event, Auburn commit Rock Rucker of Marietta, Ga., and righthander Courtney Hawkins of Corpus Christi, Texas, who has committed to Oklahoma.
Hawkins and Rucker had the longest resumes at the Breakthrough Series, with Hawkins a veteran of USA Baseball's 2009 16U team that won a gold medal at the World Championship in Taiwan. Both pitchers are raw, and where they stand on the rubber is the least of their worries right now.
Rucker, a physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, hit 90 mph and is expected to be a two-way player if he makes it to Auburn. He didn't make it out of the second inning on this day, giving up eight runs on five hits, two hit batsmen and some poor defense behind him.
Hawkins hit 91 mph and flashed a changeup with potential while mixing in curveballs and sliders. The strong-bodied 6-foot-3, 220-pounder gave up a home run to Chicago rising junior Corey Ray, an impressive 5-foot-11, 165-pounder who had five extra-base hits in 13 Breakthrough Series at-bats. But that was the only hit Hawkins allowed while striking out four in three innings.
His delivery has plenty of effort at this stage of his career. But as Moore has shown, sometimes the smallest adjustments pitchers make can pay the biggest dividends.