Matt Moore, Finished or Unfinished

Matt Moore was a tippy-top pitching prospect, and like all tippy-top pitching prospects, he was supposed to become an ace. Based on his current sub-3 ERA and number of strikeouts, he’s arrived at a young age. Based on the rest of the picture, Moore remains at least partially unfinished, as he continues to struggle with command consistency. But that’s “unfinished,” relative to perceived ceiling. And players, of course, don’t always reach their ceilings. Most of them fall well short. Just how “finished” is Matt Moore?

Command has been a problem for Moore in the past. Here’s a thing from this past spring:

With Opening Day now a week away, Moore said he isn’t too concerned about his command issues.

“I’m pretty competitive,” he said. “It’s not so much that I can turn it on, but when the time comes around and I’m battling in those moments, when I have runners in scoring position, it’s better (when it’s the regular season).”

Moore started against the Tigers Tuesday night, and the Tigers make for a difficult opponent. But they’re not so difficult as to warrant six walks in 2+ innings, which is what Moore did before being replaced. Following, watch Moore issue a four-pitch walk to Brayan Pena, on four fastballs, in a situation in which Pena was trying to give himself up:





Of course Moore is going to look wild in the .gifs when I select for a bout of wildness. Nobody looks good giving up a four-pitch walk on four fastballs. But Moore didn’t have it Tuesday night, and he hasn’t had it for much of the year, ERA be damned. In some regards, at least, Moore has been too wild, and while it’s possible that he’s “buckled down” when he’s had to, Moore’s first two months throw up all sorts of red flags.

Did you know that Moore has thrown fewer than half of his first pitches for strikes? Did you know that he’s thrown just under 59% of his pitches overall for strikes? Did you know that his zone rate is below average and that his contact rate is right on average? Moore doesn’t even seem particularly “frame-able,” if that’s a thing. Jose Molina arrived in Tampa Bay before last season. Since then, 13 Rays pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings. Moore’s rate of strikes, relative to expected strikes, is second-lowest in the group, ahead of only reliever Jake McGee. Molina’s specialty is getting called strikes off the plate. The league average is that about 7% of pitches out of the zone are called strikes. David Price shows up at 10%. Moore shows up under 5%. One could interpret this as being indicative of poor command. That’s a theory on my part, but the best framing, or receiving, involves a pitcher who can locate. You can make a wild pitcher look only so good.

If it were 2006, I’d write a standard article about how Moore’s current ERA is unsustainable. That’s simple and uninteresting. His ERA is 2.95. His FIP is 4.31. His BABIP is .228. The runs are going to come, if the control and/or command don’t. We can guess that Moore isn’t unusually skilled at home-run suppression, since his rates are more or less normal. We can guess that Moore isn’t unusually skilled at hit suppression, since his BABIP a year ago was .293 in front of a good defense. Tuesday represented a bit of over-regression, but Moore isn’t an ace, not yet.

And the trick’s in identifying his future path. You should know that this post started as an attempted deep analysis. Looking at Moore’s mechanics, looking at his release points, looking at his individual pitches and so on and so forth. I dug in for entirely too long, since I’m not a mechanical expert and since we don’t actually need to get that complicated. Here’s what we know: Moore doesn’t throw enough strikes. He’s taken a marked step back from last season in that regard. What’s the history of success for young pitchers who perform like Moore has been performing?

Things are about to get impossibly arbitrary, so consider that your warning. Moore is in his age-24 season. I wanted to look at other starters in their age-24 seasons. I set a minimum of 50 innings and covered an arbitrary window between 1980-2008, because I wanted to look, arbitrarily, at their next four years. I isolated pitchers who walked at least 11% of opposing batters, and then I also isolated, from those pitchers, guys who struck out at least 15% of opposing batters, to capture only guys who had some ability to miss bats. I was left with a pool of 39 pitchers, from A.J. Burnett to Ubaldo Jimenez. Burnett, as a 24-year-old in 2001, walked 11.3% of batters. Jimenez, as a 24-year-old in 2008, walked 11.9% of batters.

Moore’s at 12.6%, by the way. Jonathan Sanchez‘s career rate is 12.5%. Now, again, I looked at those 39 pitchers over the next four years, covering ages 25-28. Of those 39, 20 would surpass 400 innings. Meanwhile, 12 would generate at least 10 WAR, topping out at Mark Gubicza‘s 17.9. Then we have Jimenez at 15.5, Then Juan Guzman at 13.4. A bunch of guys, like Danys Baez, Eric Gagne, Arthur Rhodes, Joaquin Benoit, and Aaron Heilman shifted to the bullpen. They had varying degrees of success, but they didn’t make it as top-of-the-rotation starters.

It’s clear, based on the history, that Moore doesn’t have an easy route to achieving his potential. It’s clear, also, that Moore is his own man, with his own issues and his own instructors, so history doesn’t tell us anything about him specifically. But Moore doesn’t throw even three-fifths of his pitches for strikes. More troubling, he’s gotten worse about that. Because he hasn’t thrown enough strikes, he’s been behind too much, and he hasn’t maximized his natural ability to throw the ball by the hitter. It’s great to have putaway stuff, but those hitters are good. They’re not idiots, about baseball.

Clayton Kershaw would be the best possible outcome. In his first two years, ages 20 and 21, Kershaw walked one of every eight batters or so. Since then, the walks have tumbled, and Kershaw has become arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He wasn’t included in our pool above because he was too young when he scuffled. Jimenez had stretches of looking unhittable, but he still hasn’t figured out how to throw strikes consistently so he’s become a reclamation project. And one can’t help but think of guys like Sanchez and Oliver Perez, guys who never consistently overcame their wildness. When they were younger, coaches said encouraging things about their chances of getting it straight. They got older, and not every adjustment is the solution.

Moore is a highly talented young pitcher with strikeout stuff and borderline insufficient command. Because he’s still so young, the command issues are partially dismissed, and a lot of people assume he’ll figure it out. If he does figure it out, it stands to reason he’ll be incredible. But lots of guys have been similar, and lots of them haven’t figured it out. Command is one of those important things for a young pitcher to have, not unlike discipline for a young hitter. You can work hard on improvements, but it’s meaningful if you need to improve substantially when you’re already reasonably experienced in the bigs.

It’s hard, with top prospects who graduate. You don’t want to expect too much too soon, but you also don’t want to write off any problems as “they’re young, they’ll get it.” That assumes that top prospects usually eventually get it, and that’s unrealistic. The Rays have known about Moore’s command issues for more than a year. If anything, the issues have gotten worse. The only thing we can assume is that Moore is trying really hard.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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