When Matt Moore takes the hill on Saturday against the Orioles, the phrase "fastball command" will once again play a major role in his success. In fact, throughout his entire 2012 campaign (six starts, 1-2 record, 5.71 ERA), Moore has admitted to trying to find this mysterious characteristic.
After his previous outing in which he endured his worst start as a Major Leaguer, allowing eight earned runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings, the 22-year-old phenom uttered variations of the words "fastball command" close to 20 times during his post- game chat with media members.
"I did expect to have better command of the fastball this year than I've had," Moore revealed when asked if he was disappointed in his season so far. "It's a matter of getting the fastball command early and establishing it with conviction. Personally, I don't know if I'm going through anything (physically). This start, (the command) was pretty bad. The biggest thing is getting ahead and staying ahead. Between my ears, I couldn't be better. But I've just got to get a better handle on my command."
So, what is this elusive, yet cherished, component for pitchers?
Moore throws both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, but he is still experimenting with finding the command of both of them.
I decided to venture over to Eckerd College and discuss fastball command with Bill Mathews, the head coach for the Titans baseball team for the past 22 years. Matthews, who has coached alongside future MLB coaching standouts Brian Butterfield and Carlos Tosca as well as current San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean, has been instrumental in helping several players make it to the professional ranks, including former Seattle Mariners pitcher Jim Mecir and current Tampa Bay Rays catching prospect Craig Albernaz.
Mathews, who holds a bachelor's degree in management and a master's in educational administration, has also led the Polish National Team to two gold medals and two silver medals in international competition. He is currently the director of the Rays' summer baseball camp.
"It's essentially about the feel of the ball and how it feels coming out of your hand," Mathews said. "Then, it boils down to the team you're facing and how you're feeling that day. Sometimes, you might not be focusing on the task at hand because you're worried about the guy (up next). Sometimes, you might be having a poor day from a bio- mechanical standpoint and you don't feel right. There's a whole lot going on up there for a pitcher. It's not as simple as people make it out to be."
Mathews explained the dichotomy related to a pitcher's environment, including his connection and trust with the catcher, the physical skill set of the particular pitcher and the stress level related to attacking a different hitter in a different situation each time the pitcher faces the batter.
"And you have to remember, Moore is still essentially a kid in this game," Mathews said. "People are expecting him to blaze a trail and to be perfect every time out because of the hype and attention he has received. Every young pitcher has gone through a development phase and Moore will, too. But the great thing about Moore is his greatness will come because he's physically blessed to be able to throw 96 (mph) and do it free and easy."
Rays manager Joe Maddon discussed Moore's maturation following the lefthander's start last Sunday.
"Everyone expects him to be perfect and he's still young," Maddon said. "It's going to happen. The confidence will come and it will be determined on how he feels about himself. (David) Price went through this with his fastball command. David figured it out as he learned to develop his off-speed stuff. Most starters go through this evolutionary phase when they first arrive in the Majors."
In Price's first full season after his memorable debut in 2008, the 26-year-old southpaw tossed 100 pitches in his first start of the 2009 campaign in the Rays' 11-10 loss to the Cleveland Indians on May 25, 2009 and was pulled after allowing two runs in 3 1/3 innings. Four starts later, he surrendered five earned runs on 10 hits over seven innings in a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies, then he gave up10 runs, five earned, on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings in a 10-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on June 23.
After winning his next start, Price had the shortest outing of his career when he gave up six runs on three hits with five walks in just 1 1/3 innings while tossing 61 pitches. But after Price's ERA ballooned to a season-high 5.60 on July 25 after giving up six runs on nine hits over three innings to the Toronto Blue Jays, Price finished the year with 12 consecutive starts that lasted five innings or more.
He compiled a 7-3 record over this period and allowed 32 runs, 30 earned, over 75 1/3 innings (3.60 ERA) while striking out 48 and walking 21.
When the Seattle Mariners face Yankees 39-year-old lefthander Andy Pettitte on Sunday, they will be going up against a future Hall-of-Famer who had similar struggles during his first season in the big leagues. In four of Pettitte's first 19 starts of the 1995 season, he failed to get out of the fifth inning, with three lasting three innings or less. In his 18th career start and his 17th Major League appearance, Pettitte gave up six runs on eight hits in just 2/3 of an inning against the Oakland Athletics and then surrendered six runs on five hits over 2 2/3 innings in a loss to the Mariners in his next start on August 30.
Pettitte finished the season with seven straight starts that lasted seven innings or more while giving up four runs or less in each of them. Over this time, he went 6-1 and registered 41 strikeouts with just 13 walks.
The 240-game winner went on to compile a 21-8 record with a 3.87 ERA in 1996. Numbers don't lie when it comes to great ability and exceptional talent.
And Moore has it, yet he's a victim of his own success.
After rocketing through Tampa Bay's farm system, dominating in such a way to force the hand of Rays' management, Moore was called upon on Sept. 17 to keep the club's hopes alive in one of many September do-or-die games. In his second Major League appearance, he allowed one run on two hits and two walks over three innings in a 4-3 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
When Moore struck out 11 while not allowing a run over five innings against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in his first Major League start on Sept. 22, Maddon admitted the New Mexico-native who was drafted in the 8th round by the organization in 2007 was "pretty advanced for his age and experience level."
Moore's performance is a byproduct of him developing from a 6-2, 195-pound potential to a 205-pound player with a fastball that consistently sits in the 94-96 mph range. This natural ability has played a role in Moore finding and losing the command of his fastball.
"Because the ball comes out with such ease, sometimes it's difficult to have that feel," Mathews said. "He has this gift to let the ball fly without worry."
Moore proved he is more than capable of establishing and maintaining command after posting 210 strikeouts and just 46 walks in 155 minor league innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. He has struck out 700 would-be hitters and walked just 212 batters in 487 innings over five Minor League seasons.
After interviewing Moore following his start last Sunday, I turned to Price, who is locker neighbors with Moore, and asked him if he dealt with the same type of thing.
"Yeah, everyone does, but he'll fix it and he'll be just fine," Price said. "He's got amazing stuff. It's just a matter of getting comfortable with the amazing stuff and using it effectively. People shouldn't worry so much. He's a great pitcher and he's only pitched (nine) big league games."
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years and is currently the Rays Senior Writer for RaysDigest.com. His other writing credits include MLB.com, the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, Kentucky Basketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @crgrand
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