Lost in the shuffle of celebrating Chris Sale’s incredible 15 strikeout performance from Memorial Day is the fact that heralded prospect Matt Moore had far and away his best start of the season in the same game. Moore, a top three prospect anywhere you looked this preseason, has been consistently overshadowed by the opposing pitcher in his starts this season and while Monday was no different in that respect, it finally wasn’t because of Moore’s shortcomings.
Moore parlayed a pair of late season starts, one in the Bronx and one in Arlington during the playoffs, along with an exquisite minor league track record into a lofty preseason ranking on prospect lists everywhere. In many instances he out-ranked either Mike Trout or Bryce Harper including topping both at Baseball Prospectus as Kevin Goldstein slotted him atop the list. He never landed lower than third in the lists I saw.
The polished lefty had 497 minor league innings under his belt posting a 2.64 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 12.7 K/9 and 3.3 K/BB. That said, just 53 of the innings came in AAA and his MLB experience amounted to all of 19 innings.
I am not pointing any fingers when it comes to preseason praise as I went against my own code and heaped plenty of praise on the rookie myself. Despite pointing out the pitfalls of teammates of David Price and Jeremy Hellickson during their rookie seasons, both uber-prospects like Moore, I still slotted him 10th in the American League projecting some Strasburgian success right out of the gate.
The control issues that plagued him early in his minor league career have been present in many of his starts this year resulting in a 4.4 BB/9 and preventing him from even seeing an eighth inning as high pitch counts have limited him to an average of 5.7 innings per start. He was in control on Monday and while he still didn’t see the eighth inning, he finish the seventh for the first time all year.
He was pulled after 104 pitches which just so happens to be exactly how many pitches he has averaged per start topping out at 109 and falling below 100 just once (97 in his May 22nd start). He threw a season-high 73 strikes, 18 of which were swinging, also a high watermark for the season. Strikeouts haven’t been an issue this year as his 9.2 K/9 is 10th-best in baseball, but Monday’s 10 were due in large part to Moore being in control of the hitters as opposed to neither Moore nor batter knowing exactly where the ball is going from pitch-to-pitch.
Great stuff can generate strikeouts at an elite clip whether it is paired with command and control or not, just ask Nolan Ryan among many others. That’s why it is important to make the distinction between Moore’s previous nine starts and the Memorial Day gem. While everything was working for him, it was the secondary stuff that really stood out, specifically his 70-grade curveball.
Baseball America rated the pitch as such on the 20-80 scale in their 2012 prospect guide, but he hasn’t thrown the 70-grade version too often this year. On Monday, it might’ve been 80-grade. He threw 15 benders, eight of which were swung (flailed?) at and four of which resulted in punch outs. That doubled his season total for strikeouts on the curveball. Meanwhile he got four more strikeouts out of his 21 changeups boosting his season total to 13 on the pitch.
Here are the four curveball strikeouts as well as an additional strong curveball that he threw in the seventh inning at-bat to Alexei Ramirez that resulted in one of the foursome:
How does he build on this game and enjoy more success as he continues through his rookie season? He still needs to be more pitch efficient. In the first inning alone he threw 15 pitches in two strike counts. He had Alejandro De Aza and Paul Konerko 0-2 and Gordon Beckham 1-2. He threw seven more pitches and eventually hit De Aza. He eventually fanned Konerko and Beckham, but Konerko drew him full from 0-2 while Beckham fouled a pair of extra pitches off before going down.
It appears as though he is going to get about 105 pitches per outing so if he wants to go deep into games, he is going to have to average about 13-15 pitches per inning (that would give him seven-eight innings). He is currently averaging 18.3 per inning. His 4.14 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) is the third highest amongst qualified starters just behind Felix Doubront (4.20) and Neftali Feliz (4.19). Coincidentally enough, Sale is just behind Moore at 4.13 in his 57.7 innings.
Strikeout pitchers are naturally going to have a high P/PA than other pitchers, but consider that Moore’s 62% first strike percentage is highest by an average of 7% among those in the top 10 of P/PA meaning he isn’t taking advantage of his ability to get out ahead of hitters. By getting ahead of hitters at that clip, he should still be able to generate strikeouts without expiring so much of allotted pitch count.
He will get it and there will be more and more glimpses of greatness on par with or better than Monday’s outing. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see him get better as the season wore on. In fact, I expect it. While his in-game pitch count appears to be capped around the 105-mark, his innings for 2012 shouldn’t have any sort of cap that would leave him short of a full season’s allotment.
He threw 174 innings between the minors and majors (postseason included) last year so even if the Rays conservatively allotted an extra 25 this year, he could throw 199. At his current pace of 32 starts with 5.7 innings per outing, he would throw about 182 innings. That would still leave him plenty for a playoff run should the Rays win the division or secure one of the two wildcards.
In keeper leagues, he is no doubt coveted as one of the best in the game as he is still contributing this year and has an excellent long term outlook, but you might be able to get a discount in redraft leagues. I would definitely explore the option and do so immediately as Monday might have cut into that discount already. It may take still another month before we see some consistency out of him from start-to-start, but the second half of the season should yield more positive results than what we have seen thus far.