Moore Rebounds From Disaster To Dominance
If there was ever any doubt that the art of pitching is a delicate ballet, a study of Matt Moore's season would prove it.
Coming off a 2009 campaign where he led the minors in strikeouts and entrenched himself as one of the game's most intriguing pitching prospects, the lefthander looked to carry that dominance to high Class A Charlotte.
But two months into the season, Moore's numbers looked like they came from a middling low-ceiling prospect, rather than someone with top-of-the-rotation potential.
After a start on June 3 in which Moore gave up five earned runs in six innings, his record sat at 0-7, his ERA a bruised 6.63 and he had walked 34 batters in 54 innings.
That's when he uncovered a mechanical flaw that had thrown his season off kilter. Moore had been tucking his thumb under his fastball, which caused him to grip the ball too tight.
"Me and my pitching coach, Neil Allen, figured it out a month-and-a-half, two months into the season," Moore said. "He had no idea that I had been doing that."
He also tinkered with his windup and started rocking his hands over his head in an attempt to get into a better rhythm going into his delivery.
Two simple changes—that's all it took to bring the Matt Moore who had sparkling ERAs and staggering strikeout rates in each of his professional seasons out of hibernation.
After fixing his mechanics, Moore went 4-4, 1.50 with 123 strikeouts and 27 walks in 84 innings. He has walked just 27 hitters in that timespan, a far cry from the control issues that plagued him earlier in the year.
One Pitch At A Time
Even when he was going through the rough stretch, Moore felt like he was just an adjustment or two away from getting back on track.
"I never felt like that kind of pitcher," Moore said. "I always felt that every week it was going to turn around. I still believed that I was going to get back to the way I was doing, I just had to figure a couple things out."
That confidence didn't make it any less frustrating, however, especially since most of the damage was being done in just one fateful inning each start.
"Really it's not like I was giving up a lot of base hits and a lot of home runs throughout the game," Moore said. "It was just one inning that would creep up on me. I'd have one or two walks, get a little lax and not have any command that particular inning. That one inning would get me every game," he said.
Instead of backing off and trying to locate his pitches with more accuracy during that one inning, Moore was trying to overpower hitters.
"He was trying to throw too hard and do too much," Rays minor league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman said. "When in a lot of cases, you don't throw harder, you throw less hard."
Bosman looks back at Moore's two-month slump as a positive that has allowed him to grow as a pitcher and figure out how to get out of jams.
"If he's pitching at another level where he gets his brains beat out and has to come out of the game in the second or third innings because they can't keep him out there anymore, well, he doesn't learn anything then," Bosman said. "He has grown into the fact that he's got some composure," Bosman said. "He can step back off the rubber and figure out how he's going to get out of this thing with maybe one run or no runs or whatever it may be. Damage control is something that kids gradually learn as they go along with proper guidance."
That development has helped Moore position himself for a historically dominant season. He leads the minors with 197 strikeouts after posting double-digit totals in six of eight recent starts and was on pace to become the first pitcher to fan 200 batters in the Florida State League since 1971.
"I don't know exactly what the record is," Moore said. "It's just something that the guy sitting next to my locker, Marquis Fleming, always gives me a hard time and teases me about," Moore said. "Other than that, it's something I try not to pay too much attention to."
The formula for the electrifying strikeout total is no secret—outstanding stuff mixed with improving command.
"He's got an above-average fastball and an above-average curveball," Bosman said. "On some nights, his changeup is above-average too."
Moore gets a lot of funny swings on his curveball, which he uses as his primary put-away pitch.
"The curveball is very sharp. It's big league quality and on nights where he's got it going to the point where he locates it a little bit, it's very very effective."
Even with the erratic start to the season, Moore has posted a walk rate over a full walk per nine innings under what he did last year. Since June 3, Moore was walking just 2.9 batters per nine innings, which would easily be a career best.
"On a scale of 10, there are certain days when (his command is) probably an eight," Bosman said. "A lot of days he's six. But we're still in a league here where kids are going to swing at the ball a little bit."
One of the benefits of his developing command is working deeper into ballgames. After not pitching into the seventh inning until his 12th start of the year, he had pitched at least that deep in six of 14 outings.
"It's allowed me to pitch ahead in the count more," Moore said. "To be in counts where I'm at an advantage. A big goal of mine is to get strike one. If I get strike one, that sets me up for the at-bat."
Moore has discovered the benefit of getting ahead in the count early and then expanding the strike zone. He can put away hitters throwing pitcher's pitches, which has made him even more nasty on FSL hitters.
"When you've got that kind of stuff, you don't really have to (throw strikes ahead in the count)," Bosman said. "At that level, kids start learning that if they can get ahead with strikes and their stuff's pretty good, then you don't have to throw a whole lot more strikes to get them out. That's pretty much where Matty is."