Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Moore takes modest approach to All-Star Game

ST. PETERSBURG — Fathers, in theory, always know best. And Marty Moore is certain his son Matt should walk comfortably and confidently into the Citi Field visiting clubhouse in New York on Monday as a member of the American League All-Star team.

"I think it will just reaffirm that he's where he's supposed to be and doing what he's supposed to do," Marty Moore said.

But don't expect to see Matt strutting down the stadium hall and bursting through the doors.

Moore is obviously thrilled to be part of the team, named to the squad Thursday as an injury replacement. But having recently turned 24, in just his second full season in the majors, with only 51 starts to his name, Moore is a little leery about taking his place among the game's elite.

"I'm sure it's going to be eye-opening getting in there for the first time," Moore said.

As impressive as Moore's statistics are, sharing the major-league lead with 13 wins, and as well as he has pitched, with 12 quality starts among his 19, he acknowledges he has to make considerable improvements to truly be considered among with the best pitchers.

"Absolutely," Moore said. "When I throw right now, we're still talking about the very basic building blocks. I'm sure in certain conversations you don't necessarily talk as much with the Prices, the Verlanders, the Wainwrights, the Kershaws, you don't talk much about fastball command early in the count. It's there. That's already established. …

"Just how repeatable they can be inning to inning, jam to jam, baserunner to baserunner, you can expect the same type of stuff. I don't think you're holding your breath too much when those guys are out there. They're in control.

"I feel like sometimes there's moments when the dugout might be holding their breath with me right now. So I wouldn't exactly feel comfortable by any means saying I'm close to where I'm going to be."

How far away is he?

Quite a bit actually, which might not be the most comforting news for hitters around the league.

"He can be considerably better," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I would say he's probably somewhere a little bit halfway past his potential, which I know is saying something, especially when the guy is 13-3 and he's done the things he's done. But he's a pretty special talent."

The fastball remains Moore's prime weapon, even with the velocity down slightly to 92.4 mph. But the changeup has become very good, and the curveball has potential — as he executes it better more often — to be quite effective.

"When he starts to improve his fastball command and combines these other two pitches with that," Hickey said, "you're going to see a guy that's top 10, if not higher, in the game."

To manager Joe Maddon, that means consistently in range of 15 to 20 wins a season, pending the requisite luck.

"But the overriding element about him that can permit this to happen is his ability to miss bats on pitches in the strike zone," Maddon said.

The key is consistency, not to have the occasional lapses in concentration or performance that can mar an inning or waste a whole night's good work. Much less the horrid three-game stretch Moore had in June, inflating his ERA from what would have been an AL-best 2.08 to 3.44.

"Matt is doing what you'd hope to see him do in his second full season," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's becoming more consistent, controlling game situations better and learning how to limit damage.

"With his stuff, he absolutely has an ace-level ceiling and, as it does with all guys with his raw stuff, it will come down to consistency of execution. His work ethic is extremely good, and I think that is why you are seeing the improvement year over year. Overall, he has made great progress. And the scary part is that he is still only scratching the surface of what he can be."

Besides having the ability to be an ace, a pitcher also has to have the desire, both on and off the field.

Moore has slowly gotten used to the fortune — signing a $14 million, five-year deal that could grow to $40 million over eight — and fame of being a star, saying he will pose for a photo when fans ask but tries to be subtle "because I don't really like to have everybody looking around at what's going on."

He's also becoming more comfortable in the media spotlight, still a bit dry in his answers, certainly compared to the sense of humor and quick wit he shares with teammates — "You don't want to get in an argument with him," pitcher Alex Cobb said — though with good reason: He pauses to ponder what his mom will think of his response. (By the way, Marty Moore said, "She reads them all.")

For the next couple of days in New York, Moore will be one of the game's best. Then he will get back to working his way into a regular role.

"He has some mechanical things, and he's got some control issues that he needs to work on, and some mental aspects of the game which is totally common for a 24-year-old pitcher in his second year in the major leagues," Hickey said.

"But just close your eyes and imagine in two more years and 70 more major-league starts that this guy is going to be 26 years old, and that is really, really scary."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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