Moore continuing to focus on fastball command

Left-hander walks two over 2 2/3 innings in second Grapefruit League start

Moore continuing to focus on fastball command

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The answer came without hesitation, a two-word response to the query about what Matt Moore needs to improve on the most.

"Fastball command," manager Joe Maddon said prior to the lefty's start against the Twins on Tuesday afternoon.

Moore struggled in that regard during his Grapefruit League debut on Feb. 28, allowing two runs on three hits and two walks in 1 1/3 innings against the Tigers. There were similar issues on Tuesday, as the Rays' expected No. 3 starter allowed two runs on two hits and two walks over 2 2/3 innings. Falling behind hitters was again his downfall, and Moore was the first to admit it.

"I don't know how many first-pitch strikes I threw, maybe one or two, but I fell behind with fastballs," Moore said. "I was pitching behind with my fastball and trying to make a quality strike after getting behind."

It started with leadoff hitter Joe Benson -- who drew a walk -- and went on from there. While Moore walked just one other batter in his outing, he continued to have trouble locating his heater. There was some good news: His velocity continued to climb after an outing that saw him only in the low 90s. But Moore knows there's much more work to be done than just getting the radar gun humming.

"I'm not sure about the radar gun at this point," Moore said. "This is my second outing, so if I'm making strides here and there in the miles-per-hour department, that's great. But mostly I'm trying to figure out what's going on from strike one."

While that was still a struggle, Moore felt there were signs of encouragement in that regard. He was working on coming in to right-handed hitters more during Tuesday's outing, and when he was working to his extension side, he was more effective on the inner half. He was missing when he was going away, but he feels like he has a handle of what he's doing, that it's a mechanical issue more than anything.

"It feels like I'm not letting my arm catch up enough," Moore explained. "It felt much better today. I actually had an idea of when it was going high, I could feel my arm being left out there. We were working on extension side today, and we got a lot of good work out there.

"Working to the extension side, working inside to righties, was a lot better. When I would go away, the ball would run out of my hand and be left out there high and outside. It seems like a matter of staying back on pitches, and I can definitely feel when it's happening and not happening."

"I was fine with the way the ball was coming out of his hand, but certainly not with where it was crossing home plate, or not crossing home plate," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "The goal for the day was to have a nice path to home and have the ball come out of his hand nice and clean, and that would translate into throwing strikes. He did have a decent path to the plate, and the ball did come out of his hand OK. He wasn't really yanking and spiking balls, but it was a little disappointing just because of the fact he was behind some hitters. But overall, I'm perfectly happy with what transpired for his second Spring Training outing."

Problems with fastball command aren't new to Moore. In his rookie season, Moore walked 81 in 177 1/3 innings, and much of that stemmed from his inability to throw strike one with his fastball. Overall, his ability to throw strikes with his fastball wasn't far from the league average in 2012, at 63.6 percent (league average was 64.8 percent).

But those numbers can be deceiving. If Moore, or any pitcher for that matter, can't get strike one early in the count, then he has to start throwing more fastballs, grooving more in to be sure of getting strikes. That makes it more difficult, as Moore pointed out about his Tuesday outing, to throw a quality pitch behind in the count.

It also makes it tougher to use secondary pitches effectively. Moore has an outstanding slider and a good changeup, but he often abandoned them in 2012 when he fell behind. That slider that can be an out pitch? Moore threw it just 4.2 percent of the time when he was behind at any point in the count. Though he improved later in the season on all fronts, particularly command and control, it's still a work in progress.

"You think in your mind's eye the times he would miss up in the zone or miss up and away to a right-hander," Maddon said of last season. "Several games where he had high pitch counts after four innings. That's a fastball command issue, always. When your pitch count is not very good in the fourth inning, almost 100 percent of the time, you don't know where your fastball is going consistently. Once he masters that, which he will, then he's really going to take off."

Moore is looking forward to that coming to pass, and he has the confidence he'll get things figured out, just as he did later in the season last year. For now, though, he'll keep plugging away knowing that this is what this time of year is for.

"It's frustrating," Moore said. "You want to do well every time you go out there, regardless if it's Spring Training or a regular game. Having said that, I understand that this is a time to iron out those kinks and figure things out on this stage."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.