Matt Moore Unleashed: What Should We Expect?

The Tampa Bay Rays are notorious about being extra slow and cautious with their pitching prospects, but once those pitching prospects reach the majors, watch out! Contrary to how many teams operate, the Rays rarely put their young starters on a strict innings limit in the majors, and according to GM Andrew Friedman, they’re not about to start with Matt Moore:

Friedman said rookie LHP Matt Moore’s innings will be watched but don’t have to be limited because he’s been “built up in a pretty systematic way” in the minors. (Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times)

Moore was ranked the #2 prospect in baseball this morning by Baseball America, which got me thinking: how have top-ranked pitchers fared in the past during their rookie season? If given a full work-load, how do these pitchers typically perform?

For a quick-and-dirty look, I used the rookie leaderboards to find the top rookie pitching performances over the past 10 seasons. Over that time frame, there have been 48 rookies who have started at least 28 games. Those starters have run the gamut; some put up decidedly mediocre seasons (Kaz Ishii, 0.1 WAR), while others have skyrocketed to success (Brandon Webb, 4.8 WAR). But overall, it’s not uncommon for there to be  above-average rookie starters in a given year. Since 2001, there have been 20 rookie starters to have a +3 win season or better. That averages out to two starters per season, which is a higher rate than I would have guessed at the outset.

At the moment, Moore is projected to post around +3.8 wins over 166 innings according to the Fans Projections. If we were to assume a full workload of around 180-200 innings (granted, this is a best case scenario and precludes injuries), he would seemingly have a chance to clear the +4 win hurdle. Since 2001, there have only been three rookie starters to start their careers that well: Brandon Webb (4.8 WAR, 2003), Roy Oswalt (4.4 WAR, 2001), and Francisco Liriano (4.1 WAR, 2006).

But none of these takes quite answers the question I initially posed: how have top-ranked pitchers typically adjusted to the majors in their rookie season? If we look back at the top pitchers selected by Baseball America each year, we get the following results:

Year Pitcher IP K% BB% WAR
2005 Felix Hernandez 84 24% 7% 2.6
2006 Francisco Liriano 121 30% 7% 4.1
2007 Daisuke Matsuzaka 204 23% 9% 3.9
2008 Joba Chamberlain 100.1 28% 9% 3.3
2009 David Price 128 18% 10% 1.3
2010 Stephen Strasburg 68 34% 6% 2.6
2011 Jeremy Hellickson 189 15% 9% 1.4
2012 Matt Moore

First of all, kudos to Baseball America. Even at the top levels, prospecting isn’t an easy task, and they hit the nail on the head in almost every case here. That’s not to say that they may have underrated other pitching prospects lower down the list, but when they rate someone the best pitching prospect in baseball, they don’t tend to miss. These pitchers have all dominated in the majors at one point or another, even if half of them have dealt with injury issues.

Second, almost without exception, the pitchers selected as the top pitching prospect for the year have performed exceptionally upon reaching the majors — well, except for the Rays’ David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Is there some sort of Rays-related conspiracy going on here? To be fair, Matt Moore is a more refined pitcher right now than David Price was in 2009, and he has more dominating stuff than Jeremy Hellickson. Instead of going the way of the Rays other top picks, I could see Moore challenging Scott Kazmir (3.8 WAR, 2005) for the title of best rookie starter in Rays history.

Mark this down as Reason #5,792 why I wish the season would start already. Stephen Strasburg and Matt Moore will both be pitching in the majors this year? Be still, my heart.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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