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August 28, 2012
Putting Matt Moore Under the Microscope
I can’t remember the last time a rookie starting pitcher entered the season with as much (or more) hype than Matt Moore this past spring. Even back in 2010, it was clear that Stephen Strasburg was going to start the season in the minors, so paying a premium for him didn’t make sense. Moore slow-roasted his way through the minors, as Rays prospects are wont to do, culminating with last year’s breakout season. He spent two-thirds of his season at Double-A (102 innings) and another third at Triple-A (53 innings), posting a ridiculous 1.92 ERA (powered by a 1.37 mark in nine Triple-A starts), 0.95 WHIP, 12.2 K/9, and 4.6 K/BB. The only number that could remotely be considered a blemish was his 2.7 BB/9 in the 155 innings. Otherwise, he was flawless.
He packed a lot into his 9 1/3 innings of major league work at the end of the season, including five shutout innings in a key game against the Yankees in the Bronx during which he fanned 11, allowed just four hits, and walked one. He followed that up with an even more impressive Game One outing in the American League Division Series, during which he threw seven shutout innings while allowing just two hits and two walks with six strikeouts in Arlington. Despite just 19 1/3 professional innings, Moore’s stock for 2012 was sky-high.
This preseason, he joined Mike Trout and Bryce Harper atop virtually every single prospect list. Spot number four ran the gamut, but it was always Moore with the two young hitters in the top three. Moore was a sure thing in a field that doesn’t have sure things. He even had some re-thinking their mantra and adjusting it to TINSTAAPPEMM (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect except Matt Moore).
The fantasy experts were on board too. In Tout Wars Mixed, he went for $14, which was actually a dollar more than Daniel Hudson, who had just put together a big season at the major league level with 16 wins, a 3.49 ERA, and a 1.20 WHIP in 222 innings; that was after shining for 95 innings the year before too. Brandon Beachy also went for $13 despite fanning 10.7 batters per game with a 3.7 K/BB in 142 innings the year before as a budding 24 year old. Those two failing due to injury doesn’t change the point, though. Expectations were high and everyone was buying in.
In the AL-version of Tout Wars, Moore pulled down a $19 salary, just a dollar lower than teammate James Shields, who was coming off of a brilliant 2011 during which he fell just 0.2 K/9 short of career-bests across the board (8.1 compared to 2010’s 8.3). The price was equal to C.J. Wilson, whose transition from the bullpen was a resounding success. After two big years with the Rangers, he was headed out west to LA. Getting away from Arlington combined with his major improvement in walk rate was setting the lefty up for another huge year.
While I am normally quite conservative with young arms, I was all in on Moore in my 2012 starting pitcher guide, ranking him 10th in the American League and 17th overall. Sure, his post-call-up dominance occurred in a tiny sample, but it was late season and postseason, so when combined with his minor league work, it was just so tantalizing.
Of course, things didn’t go so well for Moore believers early on. He had a 4.68 ERA through April and needed a Memorial Day gem against the White Sox to push it below 5.00 through May (it was 4.76). He finally started chiseling it down, but it was still an ugly 4.42 at the All-Star break, hardly a top 20-worthy performance. Walks were killing him. He had a 4.5 BB/9 at the break, and he was sub-2.0 with his strikeout-to-walk ratio despite a healthy 8.7 K/9.
Even back in April and May when he was struggling, Jason Collette and I were convinced that his second-half would be better than the first, and we discussed it seemingly weekly on the podcast. He came out of the break with another five-walk outing—his second in a row against the Indians—and it looked like more of the same for the second-half. Then, things started to turn.
He followed the Cleveland outings up with a gem against the Mariners, and he has taken off from there. Since July 22, he has a 1.79 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, and 4.2 K/BB in 45 1/3 innings of work across seven starts. Most important of all, he has a 2.2 BB/9 in that span. What’s different? Obviously he is hitting the strike zone more often, which is leading to fewer free passes, but let’s look deeper:
Moore has had nearly across-the-board improvements for every pitch in his recent stretch. He is throwing a ton more strikes—especially of the called-strike variety—with his fastball and changeup. Part of that could be related to his wildness through the All-Star break. Hitters are taking borderline pitches that Moore is now throwing for strikes, when before he was all over the place. Take a look at these two heat maps of his taken pitches and notice the sharp difference:
This shows why he had such an ugly walk rate through mid-July. Hitters could essentially just wait him out, and they would eventually be given first base for free. Moore has made great strides, on par with what many of us expected from him all year long.
His improved control has made his curveball deadly. When things weren’t going well, he was timid with it, likely because he knew hitters wouldn’t chase and he wouldn’t get any borderline calls. Before the recent run, he pitched in the zone 55 percent of the time with the curve and hitters put it into play 41 percent of the time while chasing just 17 percent of the time. During the surge, he is hitting zone just 39 percent of the time; it’s being put into play just 26 percent of the time while the chase percentage is up to a whopping 40 percent.
Hitters are swinging 12 percent more frequently and doing a helluva’ lot less with it. While their .240/.278/.240 line against the pitch before July 22 was hardly good, they have posted a ridiculous .086/.135/.114 line against it since. He ended 54 plate appearances with a curveball before July 22 and netted 15 strikeouts; he’s ended 37 plate appearances with it since and has gotten 17 punch-outs. He is using it more often (up 7 percent to 21 percent) and is much more confident with it, using it as a true out-pitch.
His season numbers are now down to a more palatable 3.60 ERA and 1.33 WHIP (yes, a 1.33 WHIP is actually more palatable than where it was) in 150 innings. It would take another month at this level, however, to land him anywhere near the level commensurate with his preseason buzz. And while he will almost certainly fail to live up to that hype, he has clearly shown that he’s capable of such performance at times.
Moore is just another lesson in how difficult pitching in the majors over a full season really is for a youngster. No matter how good the minor league numbers are or how shiny a September/October someone has, it is a lot different when you have to put together a 200-inning season over six months. The beauty is that those burned by Moore this year will be gun-shy about taking the plunge again in 2013, when he is far more likely to reach the heights of his 2012 price tag. Keep an eye on his finish and be ready to pounce next spring.