You remember what Scott Baker used to be. He used to be the model of what the Twins were going for. Lots of strikes, easy outs, strikeouts not so much as a result of stuff but as a result of throwing in the zone enough and throwing fastballs high enough. Baker was a dependable guy right up until his elbow surgery. He came back and took a while to get right with the Cubs. In three starts to close last year, he struck out six of 57 batters before becoming a low-profile free agent. He wound up with the Mariners, seemingly with an inside track for a rotation job. All he needed to be was Scott Baker.
According to Chris Cotillo, Baker is leaving the Mariners and becoming a free agent again. Didn’t like his chances, despite rotation injuries. About that: let’s go back to March 1. In the second inning of a start against the Angels, Baker struck out Chad Tracy. The strikeout was called. The pitch was in, and out of the zone. That’s been Baker’s only strikeout in the Cactus League, even though he’s faced 64 batters. He’s walked seven, and he’s hit three, and all three in a row, incidentally. The point is this: we’re conditioned to dismiss spring-training statistics. Sometimes, though, it sure feels like they’re telling us something. In this case, it sure feels like they’re telling us that Scott Baker isn’t right, and he’s always had a pretty slim margin of error.
Not that this is a post about Scott Baker! I promise.
MLB.com hosts spring-training statistics going back to 2006. That spring, among qualified pitchers, R.A. Dickey had the highest walk rate, at 6 per 9 innings. He spent the regular season pitching mediocre baseball in Triple-A. In 2007, Matt Albers was the guy with the 6.0 walk rate. He spent the regular season below replacement level.
In 2008, Daniel Cabrera was the only guy who reached 6.0, and he exceeded it, settling in at 6.9. In the regular season, he was awful. No one walked 6 batters per 9 in spring 2009. In spring 2010, both Rich Harden and A.J. Burnett finished at 6.0 walks per 9. Harden’s regular season was worth -0.5 WAR. Burnett’s was worth 1.2, down from the previous year’s 3.1.
No one reached 6.0 in 2011. In spring 2012, Carlos Zambrano shot all the way to 8.7 walks per 9. His regular season was worth 0.7 WAR. Last spring, Jason Marquis and Tyler Chatwood ended up at 6.2. Marquis wound up worth an incredible -1.6 WAR. Chatwood, actually, was pretty good. He shook off his spring to post a sub-4 FIP in Colorado. That’s the one success story, and it took just about everybody by surprise.
This has been a long build-up. Here’s the point. This spring, Scott Diamond has walked 6.4 batters per 9 innings. Matt Moore has walked 9.4 batters per 9 innings. Among qualified pitchers, Matt Moore has the worst spring-training walk rate since at least 2005.
What we’re actually talking about are 15 walks in 14.1 innings. That’s to go with one hit batter and 14 strikeouts. Last time out, Moore had four walks and four whiffs. The time before that, six walks and four whiffs. The time before that, three walks and three whiffs. Obviously, it’s just March, and obviously, Moore’s got all kinds of time to work things out, but this is one of those cases. You want to ignore spring-training numbers, but when you see something like this, something extreme, it’s hard to fight the sense that the numbers are speaking directly to you.
Moore’s always been a little wild. That’s kind of part of the point. In spring 2012, he had five walks in ten innings. Last year, 14 in 21.1. The main criticism of Moore in the regular season is that he hasn’t thrown strikes often enough. He seems to be going in the wrong direction, and a spring like this isn’t going to generate actual optimism, sub-4 ERA be damned. People are waiting for Matt Moore to make the leap, which means people are waiting for Matt Moore to locate more of his pitches. So far, not enough luck, and talk of mechanical consistency is believable for only so much time. Every pitcher has issues to work on. Some of them never get conquered.
I’ll say this much for Moore: it’s not like he’s ever been bad. He’s always been fine enough, and he belongs in a rotation. But when people have thought of Matt Moore, they’ve thought of his ceiling. To fall short of that — well short of that — would be to many a disappointment. You only get so many years of being a developing ace, and then you either are an ace or you aren’t one. Moore’s coming up on 350 major-league innings.
I’ll also say this much for Moore: he’s about to have an awesome catching situation. The past couple years, the Rays have had a good pitch-framer and average pitch-framers. Now they’re going to have two good pitch-framers, in Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. Between 2012-2013, Moore made 21 starts with Molina and 37 starts with not-Molina. With Molina, he threw 64.8% strikes, and he was one called strike per start above the expected league-average. With not-Molina, he threw 60.2% strikes, and he was 0.4 strikes per start below the expected league-average. Moore’s thrown more pitches in the zone with Molina, and he’s gotten more calls in his favor, and now Hanigan should also be able to give him some help. Moore’s numbers could look better just because of the guys he’ll be throwing to.
But last year with Molina, Moore threw just 62.2% strikes, despite some quality receiving. And improvements on the catchers’ end aren’t improvements on Moore’s end. Even the best receivers have their limits, particularly with pitchers with middling command, and if Moore intends to reach closer to his ceiling, that’s going to be up to him to pull off. The catchers can only be helpers. There’s a strike zone there, and Matt Moore needs to find it with greater regularity.
And he’ll keep trying, and he’ll keep saying the right things. The Rays will keep giving him opportunities, because he’s good enough, even with the concerns. But Matt Moore came into the spring with a control problem. Most of the way through the spring, he still has a control problem, and it might be even worse than it’s been. Plenty of pitchers with good stuff want to throw more strikes. Some of them manage it.
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