The first month of the Tampa Bay Rays' season has been an uneven proposition, to say the least. On a positive note, James Loney is batting .375, Evan Longoria is healthy, the Rays rank a heady (for them) 22nd in the major leagues in attendance, and the Joe Maddon garden gnome giveaway was an enormous hit with fans.
On the not-so-cheery side of the equation: New shortstop Yunel Escobar is off to a disappointing start, the Rays are 4-11 on the road and it can safely be said that Tom Hallion will not be making an appearance at the team's next winter caravan.
The Rays' 12-15 record has prompted Maddon, the team's manager, to seek comfort in the words of a late, great Hall of Fame pitcher with 363 career victories and a Purple Heart in World War II. When Maddon was managing in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1981, he used to play golf with Warren Spahn, and a particular phrase stuck in his memory bank.
"When Spahnie would take his second shot and it would land 10 or 15 yards off the green, he'd say that it was 'handy,' " Maddon said. "I used to love that. In the words of Warren Spahn, we just need to 'stay handy' and hit a hot spot, and we'll be fine.''
The Rays, as always, will try to elevate their handiness quotient with superior pitching. As the season's quarter poll approaches, they're being led by a young, hard-throwing lefty who is cutting a swath through opposing lineups and making an early All-Star Game push. His name is not David Price.
Matt Moore, living up to his early prospect hype in his second full season, has joined New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey in making a major impression in April. If not for a missing "t'' and a lack of national publicity, Cincinnati's Mat Latos (2-0 with a 1.83 ERA) would be center stage with them in the "Matts across America'' tour.
Moore isn't putting up Spahn-like numbers just yet, but according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he joined Babe Ruth (1917) and Greg Swindell (1988) as the only American League pitchers under age 24 to go 5-0 in April. With a 10-4 victory in Chicago last weekend, Moore joined Dwight Gooden, Dontrelle Willis, Swindell and Fernando Valenzuela as the fifth 23-and-under pitcher since 1980 to record five wins in the season's opening month.
The only blot on Moore's 2013 ledger is an ill-advised tweet last Sunday that earned him a $1,000 fine from Major League Baseball in the aftermath of the Price-Hallion verbal spat at U.S. Cellular Field. Beyond that, Moore has been an exemplary citizen -- if a 0.88 WHIP, a .121 batting average against and a 1.13 ERA count toward good citizenship points.
No bonus baby
As Moore prepares for a major challenge with his Coors Field debut Friday night, he realizes it's best not to get caught up in the euphoria if he expects to ride this stretch of dominant pitching for a while.
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"You hear about guys having breakout seasons and getting a lot of attention,'' Moore said. "Well, just as fast as that came, it can leave you. I've found a way to not take myself so seriously. I understand I'm pitching well right now, but at the same time I have respect for it. I'm really trying to stay in my lane and stay focused for my next start. Maybe that helps it last longer.''
Those sentiments come from the perspective of a player who took a roundabout route to success. Moore was born in Florida and spent four years in Okinawa, Japan, where his father, Marty, worked on Air Force helicopters before the family moved to New Mexico when Matt was 11. The Rays gave him a $115,000 bonus as an eighth-round pick in the 2007 draft, and Moore began his journey through the minors with no delusions of grandeur.
"When I walked into my first spring training and there were 140 guys trying to make the same squad I was trying to make, that was my wake-up call,'' Moore said. "I could see how much of a grind I actually had in front of me.''
Despite his apprehensions, Moore quickly established himself with his smooth delivery and a fastball that clocked in the mid-90s. He burned his way through the Tampa Bay system in 94 starts and 497 1/3 innings, and attracted lots of attention with a five-inning, 11-strikeout performance against the New York Yankees in his big league debut in September 2011.
Moore's rookie year was a mixed bag. He broke Scott Kazmir's franchise rookie record with 175 strikeouts and ranked second to Detroit's Max Scherzer in the American League with an 11.8 swing-and-miss rate. But he also ranked seventh in the AL with 81 walks and lasted seven innings in just six of his 31 starts.
One potential red flag this season: Moore is throwing first-pitch strikes only 50.4 percent of the time -- 109th among 112 qualifying starters. Only Jon Niese of the Mets, Brandon Morrow of the Toronto Blue Jays and Jason Marquis of the San Diego Padres have thrown fewer first-pitch strikes.
Falling behind in the count can be a recipe for trouble, but Moore has survived thanks in part to two formidable secondary pitches. He throws a curveball that he learned several years ago from Jordan Pacheco, current Colorado Rockies infielder and former teammate of Moore's older brother Bobby at New Mexico. Moore's changeup has also evolved into a major weapon; according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, righty hitters are batting .075 against the pitch this season.
Overall, opponents are 0-for-18 with eight strikeouts in at-bats ending with Moore's change.
Feel the rhythm
The Rays talk to Moore a lot about "tempo'' -- maintaining a comfortable rhythm and making sure not to rush his delivery with runners on base. Fastball command is also pivotal to his success.
"It really comes down to repeating his delivery and throwing strikes with his fastball,'' Maddon said. "He has a good curveball, a good changeup and a great head on his shoulders. He doesn't get caught up in the moment, and the game doesn't speed up on him. All those things are good. When he's in his delivery and his tempo is good and he throws his fastball where he wants to, everything else plays off that.''
Tampa Bay continues to be one of baseball's most productive learning labs. Maddon divvies up the credit among the organization's scouts and the player development people who nurture talent through the minors, and raves about pitching coach Jim Hickey's direct, no-frills approach to teaching the craft. Hickey's humor, candor and tough love have resonated with Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Moore and numerous other pitchers who have flourished under his watch.
"Hick takes the personal approach with them,'' Maddon said. "They know when they take the mound he totally has their back. But he's also going to call them on BS when necessary. Some coaches will just agree with players to avoid conflict or confrontation, but Hick will call them out in different moments, and that's why they respect him so much.''
No looking back
The Rays and Moore can take comfort in knowing the relationship will last a while. In December 2011, when Moore had a total of 9 1/3 major league innings on his résumé, the Rays signed him to a five-year extension that guarantees him $14 million. The deal includes three club option years and escalators that could increase the overall payout to $40 million and buy out two of Moore's free agency seasons.
I have zero regrets about this contract. I have security for the rest of my life, and it's put me in a good place to be able to relax and treat baseball as a game.
”-- Matt Moore
If Moore stays healthy and productive, he's leaving millions on the table. The contract is routinely characterized as one of the most "team-friendly'' in the game. But Moore understands the risk of injury in baseball -- particularly for pitchers, and even if the Rays exercise all his option years, he will have a chance to go on the open market in 2019 at age 30.
"What's there not to be comfortable with?'' Moore said. "I have a major league contract worth multimillions of dollars. People can say, 'Matt, you can set the market and win Cy Youngs.' Well, I'd love to do that, but you're not always in control of everything that goes on. Just look at David Price. He's our Cy Young winner and he's pitching well and he has one win this year.
"I have zero regrets about this contract. I have security for the rest of my life, and I think it's put me in a good place to be able to relax and treat baseball as a game. I didn't necessarily want to go through the struggles that some people go through, and one of those struggles is injuries. Crazy stuff happens.''
Price is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, so Moore might have to assume the staff leadership role sooner than he anticipates. In the meantime, the Rays have faith that Moore's internal compass and pure stuff will carry him through the inevitable rough patches. Maybe he harbored a few doubts along the way, but the people who've overseen his progression never saw a trace of apprehension in his eyes.
"Matt has a real quiet confidence about him,'' said Rays general manager Andrew Friedman. "He's always had it. Even coming into our system as an eighth-round pick, he had an air about him and a confidence that helped him when he got to the big leagues. He didn't have to go through that learning curve of, 'Do I belong here? Am I good enough to be here?' He always knew he was, and in a good way.''
It's all about staying "handy,'' as Joe Maddon's pal Warren Spahn liked to say, in five-day increments. As good as Matt Moore is at age 23, the Rays are betting the best is yet to come.