as a kid, baseball was about the only thing i enjoyed more than exploring the creek that trickled past my buddy's backyard. and since baseball commands my career attention these days, the creek gets the title nod here.

planning to use this as an outlet for thoughts and observations (sports, outdoors, travel, etc.) that have no other resting place. we'll see how it goes ...

* 2012 update: one post a day. that's the goal. good luck with all that, eh?

ryan

(@ryan_fagan on twitter)

Friday, September 16, 2011

interview with rays rookie matt moore

(Moore shows me the grip on his highly effective knuckle-curve.)

Had the chance to chat with Rays prospect Matt Moore the afternoon after watching him shut down the Charlotte Knights. He only lasted five innings, though it wasn’t for lack of production on his part. He struck out nine in those five, but sat for what seemed like an eternity between each frame as his Durham Bulls rolled up 18 runs in the victory. There was no real reason to keep him in there, so the Bulls didn’t. 

His numbers this year were pretty impressive—in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, Moore had a 1.92 ERA and 0.948 ERA, and in 155 innings, he struck out 210 and gave up just 101 hits. OK, they’re damn impressive. We used portions of this interview in Sporting News magazine and on the website, so I held off posting the complete Q/A.

But now, a few days after Moore made his major-league debut, seems like a good time to post it in its entirety. We talked about his development as a pitcher, his movement through the Rays minor-league system and about some of the highlights of his year, among other things. (Remember, some of it might feel dated; I talked with him way back on August 3.)

The interview’s after the jump …

SN: What’s this season been like for you? Seems like just one great start after another.

MOORE: You know what, man? I started out the season and the first three or four starts were just pretty average starts. I didn’t feel intimidated by the league or the fact that I had a couple bad outings early. It came to the point where Chris Archer looked at me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to step this up.’ A couple of his first outings were pretty average and we weren’t winning a lot of ballgames early as a team, and it was one of those things where something just clicked. I can’t really say what it was. I didn’t really change anything. It was just like using legos, building on top of one start after another after another after another. And every fifth day, I want to go out there and build off that last start. That’s kind of where I’ve been up to this point.

SN: You had a slow start last year, too, though it was a lot longer than this year. Did dealing with that last year help you adjust this time around? 

MOORE: You know what? It wasn’t slow to me this year. I felt like good stuff was coming out. It was just working too deep into counts and not challenging guys enough. I felt like the stuff was there and the confidence was there. I knew that start, every day before going out there, I knew before it that I was going to have a good outing. I was always convicted in that. And it’s the same way now. I’m not going to let anybody … before, it was kind of like I’d let the hitter dictate the at-bat, and now, it’s like, as long as I can get strike one over then I can be in control of the at-bat, and things usually go much better that way.

SN: Is that a matter of confidence that you’ve developed in the minors?

MOORE: Yes and no. I think a little bit—not even a little bit, a lot of it—has to do with working at each level and each pitching coach I’ve been with, starting early with Marty Demerritt. We call him Dog, and he taught me loads about not just about pitching, but about being a professional. This is a job, and if you get hit around, don’t wear your feelings on your shoulders. Figure out why and fix it. So I think a lot of development came early. I was only 18 years old, and dealing with a guy like that who told me that this was no longer just the game you go out and play on weekends, this is what you do Monday through Sunday, and you have days you go out in the field and work, and it’s not going to be fun every day. That kind of opened up my eyes, and ever since then it was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this the right way and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. When I’m done playing, I’m not going to say I wonder what would have been different if I had done this or that.’

SN: The Rays have been very measured in their approach with you, even though you’ve been consistently averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings at every stop. Is that something that’s been helpful, to stay at one level a season and not get moved up more quickly?

MOORE: Sure. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to go to the big leagues when I was 18 or 19. I had a lot of things I needed to work on. I was not nearly as polished of a pitcher as I am now, not three years ago or two years ago or even last year. Every year I feel like I’ve been at the level I’ve needed to be, I’ve been in the right place at the right time at every point in every year. Could I have pitched at a different level last year? Possibly, but I felt like I was where I needed to be, working on the things I needed to be working on, with the people I needed to be around.

SN: Talk to me about the no-hitter.

MOORE: That was great. It was June 16th, and that was my brother’s 25th birthday. My brother was there, and my mom and dad were there and my brother’s wife was there, so it was a special moment, being a no-hitter and having the family there to see it and celebrate my brother’s birthday, that was just the cherry on top of it all.

SN: Did he tell you before the game to do something special for his birthday?

MOORE: You know what? The outing before that, I think I went six and gave up three or four runs or something. It wasn’t a great outing, and I wore the same polo that day. We went and ate before they dropped me off at the field. He asked me if I was superstitious and if I eat anything (every time), and I said, ‘No, it’s actually the opposite. I told myself I was going to wear the same polo I got hit around in last week just to prove to myself it wasn’t the polo.’ And I wound up going out there and throwing a complete game. It was cool just to have said that to him and have it work out the way it did.

SN: Tell me about the experience of participating in the Futures Game.

MOORE: That whole experience was probably the funnest time I’ve ever had on the mound. I can’t quite tell you what I was thinking about out there just because it was one of those things that happened so fast and it didn’t seem like I was out there very long. I was actually probably more focused than it I was in the seventh or eighth inning here. There was so much going on around me, I told myself, ‘I don’t want to get caught up in that. Feel comfortable on the mound and feel yourself and feel the things that you do throughout your mechanics, and don’t get numb.’ I went out there and tried to smile as much as I can because I do enjoy doing this, and that helps me keep things light and not put too much pressure on the situation.

SN: Do you look at the radar guns in situations like that?

MOORE: No. I can honestly say I don’t. I’m not going to lie, once or twice or maybe three times during a game, if I give up a flare to right field or just a hit anywhere and my eyes are in that direction, I’ll look up there.

SN: You’re not going to avoid it, right?

MOORE: Right. And it’s not necessarily even on fastballs. Sometimes if I throw a changeup, it’s like, ‘Oh, alright, that changeup was around 84.’ But I definitely try not to look up there because it’s not important to me. If I’m not getting guys out then maybe I’ll take a look at that area but so far it hasn’t been. That’s for someone else.

SN: Along that same line of thinking, with what you did at the Futures Game and with the no-hitter this year, people are starting to talk about you a lot more. You’re being brought up in the conversations about the best pitching prospects in baseball. Do you pay any attention to that? Is it possible to block that out? How do you handle that?

MOORE: I think that part of development is the same as developing things on the field. Going level to level and recognition and being with the fans, and other things, that’s just a part of development, learning how to handle that and not letting any of it get to your head. Because at the end of the day, I do understand that I’m still in the minor leagues and I’m still making minor-league money, so there’s no reason for me to rush into being anything that I’m not. I don’t plan on going to the Google bar and typing in my name. That’s not how I am. That’s not how I’ve been for a long time. What’s important to me is what’s going on around me, and of course my family and that kind of thing. I usually keep my nose out of the newspaper and things like that.

SN: With the level-to-level approach the Rays have taken with you, I would imagine it helps knowing the Rays have a track record of success when developing their own pitchers with their system. That the case?

MOORE: I watched Hellickson and Davis and McGee and guys like that do it. Sonnanstine was drafted. Shields was drafted. They went extended spring training, and then level by level, and those guys have been very successful at the major-league level. There’s no thought or reason in my mind for me to challenge that. So far things have been great for both ends of the situation. I’d have it no other way.

SN: Describe your repertoire of pitches.

MOORE: I throw a four-seam fastball, a circle change and what I guess would be considered a knuckle-curve—a spiked curveball.

SN: I read somewhere a current minor-leaguer you knew in high school taught you that knuckle-curve. Who was that?

MOORE: Jordan Pacheco.

SN: He taught you the pitch?

MOORE: He did. Well, the thing was, I was throwing that pitch but I was throwing it on a two-seam grip, and I was only getting the rotation of these two seams. But he threw his on a four-seam, so when you throw it it’s catching four seams and can bite harder. It just makes more sense to throw it like this. I had the grip, but he showed me this curveball, which is really two different pitches. (The two-seam) is garbage, and this (four-seam) is what it is now. I’ve never really changed it and nobody’s really ever said ‘Hey, stop throwing that.’ So it’s something I’ve gotten comfortable with, and I feel like I know the ins and outs of the pitch I’ve been throwing the last five years, since my senior year in high school.

SN: Do you have a pitch you consider your “out” pitch, the one you’re going to throw when you have to get a strikeout?

MOORE: It really has to do with the pitches I’ve thrown in the at-bat and it really depends on the hitter. If Pujols is up there, I mean, I’m probably not going to try and back-foot him with a breaking ball because he’s liable to take it out. There’s just certain pitches you don’t throw certain guys, and it really just has to do with who’s in the box and what the situation of the game is. Very rarely does the situation call for a strikeout, so I don’t find myself in a situation where I think, ‘I’ve got to strike this guy out.’

SN: Were there any pitchers you tried to emulate growing up? Any styles you liked watching?

MOORE: I grew up watching the Braves in the ’90s when they were on TBS, and I was born in Fort Walton Beach, which isn’t too far from Atlanta. We grew up watching them, and I liked Smoltz’s mentality on the mound. I liked watching that guy throw. And obviously Maddux. I liked watching Mark Wohlers throw, when he was throwing strikes. That whole squad, with Glavine, was something special. And I watched Andy Pettitte throw a lot when I was growing up. For some reason, when he threw the ball—with some guys, I can tell when other stuff is coming—but with his delivery, he looks the exact same every single time. He’s always in control. He’s a guy I’ve watched for a while.

SN: So, with Smoltz and Maddux, it wasn’t just lefthanders that you watched.

MOORE: Right. The lefthanders I watched, obviously I loved watching Randy Johnson. I don’t throw from way over here like he did, but watching him was exciting. The mentality of those guys on the Braves in the ’90s, though, they weren’t going to be denied. Those guys won 20 games a year. That was who I watched when I played.

SN: Your walk rates are down this year. Is that something you’ve specifically focused on, or is that a result of the “lego” approach you talked about?

MOORE: To me, it really is a result of me trying to throw strike one, to start off every hitter. Regardless if I gave up a leadoff double, I still need to get strike one over to that second guy. Because whenever I find myself ahead in the count, that’s when my pitches come alive and things start to work well in my favor. They have to protect, and I can usually get guys to chase a little bit more when I’m ahead. If I’m putting the ball in the zone more, that means they’re putting the ball in play more, which hopefully means I’m working deeper into the game. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I can’t walk anybody,’ but it was, ‘Let’s think about this from a different way. Let’s throw strike one and see where we’re at after that, then work on throwing strike two.’ It was really a positive mindset going into it. Not that I can’t walk guys, but let’s just throw strike one and see where we’re at.

SN: Because you’re a strikeout pitcher, and your pitch counts tend to be higher, is that something you see as a way to stay in games longer?

MOORE: Yeah. I think two or three years ago I was trying to throw as hard as I could for strike one. And now it’s like, I’m going to throw it in there nice and easy at the knees and hopefully I’m getting a guy swinging and he rolls over something on the first pitch. I love first-pitch outs. I love short innings. It’s just been recent where I’ve been working deep into games, and I like the feeling of being out there late, looking out to the bullpen and seeing them still sitting down. It’s good. And they’re getting their rest. It’s been a new thing for me, but I like it so far.

SN: Where are you comfortable working at, around 92-93 or 94-95?

MOORE: It kind of depends on the hitter and the count and what inning it is because, for me, I tell myself all the time, ‘Be easy. Be slow and easy.’ When I am, that means everything is working easy and I’m getting through the ball and it’s not cutting and it’s doing what it needs to do. If that’s 92-93 one night or that’s 95-96 one night, I don’t really know what it is because I don’t check the sheet for it too much. But if the count calls for it and I want to go up or up and in, maybe put a little more on it, I can. But as a starter I realize that I have to pace myself; I can’t pitch at max effort for seven or eight innings. I’ve got to, not conserve, but be smart about things.

SN: When you faced Dayan Viciedo last night, you struck him out twice on pitches that were a couple miles per hour faster than the previous fastballs.

MOORE: Oh, was it?

SN: Yep. Is that something you’re consciously trying to do, put a little extra gas on the pitch with two strikes?

MOORE: Yeah, if there’s two strikes. I think in that situation with him, me and Nevin, my catcher, he’s been setting up a little off the plate and kind of angling himself in towards the hitter so that way when he catches it, he pushed it in and gets a different look, and hopefully the hitter sees fastball away and wants to protect and gets a bad swing at it. That was one oft those situations where that pitch was even up a little bit so it might have looked a little better to him. But, yes and no. I wouldn’t say every time I do that, but when I know I’m going for a pitch I don’t need to dot-up on the inside corner or outside corner, then I’m gonna try to throw it a little bit harder.

SN: You stand on the extreme third-base side of the rubber. Have you always done that?

MOORE: When I first signed, I was on the first-base side and I couldn’t get the ball inside to a righty—extension side for me. I couldn’t do it, or at least couldn’t do it regularly without dropping my arm. So they moved me over to the middle and we tried that, then moved to the third-base side and that’s where I’ve been since 2008, the year I was in extended spring training.

SN: I guess you’re comfortable there.

MOORE: I like it. I can get on top of the ball and have it be true to the inside corner, then get on the side of it and get a little run, if I need it, if I’m ahead in the count. Pitching from that side allows me, with my arm slot, to do that.

SN: What’s the difference, to you, in standing on different sides of the mound?

MOORE: Well, you know, inches up there equate to feet down here. If I move over six inches on the mound, that’s six inches more that. Basically, you want your hips to open up to a certain point for your hand to be able to stay on top of the ball and get through the pitch to the inside corner. For me, on what we call the extension side because I have to really extend to get it out there, pitching from that side allows me to clear my hips enough. If I had a little bit higher of an arm slot, then maybe that wouldn’t be too much of a difference. But I’ve got more of a high three-quarter, so if I’m on the first-base side, I’ve got to really cut myself off to get the ball in there. It’s like shooting a gun. Do you want to shoot it straight or shoot it at an angle?

SN: Has that always been your arm slot?

MOORE: Yeah. Haven’t really changed it. Never was sidearm and never was crazy up high. That’s been where I was comfortable from when I was a little kid.

 

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