On Matt Moore’s Return
Today was a special day, mostly because I got to take in a game with my son on Fathers Day, but also because Matt Moore returned to the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Moore is making his way back from April 2014 Tommy John surgery and this was his fourth rehab start. The first three have been at the High-A level, so today represented not just an increase in his pitch count – he threw 78 on Tuesday and was scheduled for 90 today – but a big jump in the quality of competition.
The Bulls faced the Columbus Clippers, an Indians affiliate. It’s too bad (for me) that Francisco Lindor made it to Cleveland just ahead of Columbus’ appearance in town but today’s roster was abnormally interesting for Triple-A. Jose Ramirez, a preseason favorite of mine, was demoted when Lindor was called up. As the driver of the Giovanny Urshela bandwagon, Lonnie Chisenhall is not a favorite of mine but he is just 26 years old and has 1400 major league appearances. Tyler Naquin and James Ramsey will both play outfield in the majors not long from now. Jesus Aguilar won’t, be he is a quad-A kind of guy, a nice test for Moore at this stage of his rehab.
Moore worked in the low 90s with his fastball and struck out seven over 5.1 innings, though there was also plenty of loud contact, most of it after Moore tired and some of it because he was obviously working on his changeup. Ramirez and Chisenhall both tagged the wall, Ramsey homered in his second at-bat after a hard lineout in his first, and Carlos Moncrief hit a huge bomb immediately after Ramsey’s. Moore walked only one, throwing 67 of his 92 pitches for strikes, an especially encouraging sign.
With momentum building towards a return, now is a good time to test the trade market, as you may find an owner willing to overpay for name value instead of a realistic projection of Moore’s performance. You’re much more likely to hear about his pedigree than his track record as he gets closer to rejoining the Rays rotation. Recall that Baseball America called him the second best prospect in baseball before the 2012 season, right in between Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Baseball Prospectus went a step further and gave him the prospect crown that year. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems unfathomable that Moore was ranked alongside generational players like Harper and Trout (not to mention Machado and Cole) but he was an exceptional talent with true number one upside.
The evaluation was just, as Moore utterly dominated the minor leagues with stuff that simply doesn’t come around very often. His 32.8 percent strikeout rate in 2011 was the lowest of any of his minor league stops and he achieved that while also lowering his walk rate to a career low 7.0 percent. The Rays promoted him to Triple-A midway through that season, where he struck out 13.50 batters per nine innings against 3.08 walks. I was fortunate enough to catch a couple of those starts, including a 13 strikeout game that was the best minor league pitching performance I’ve ever seen. Major leaguers didn’t fare any better over almost 20 innings at the tail end of 2011 – he made two incredible starts, including one in the playoffs – and that performance raised his already-high stock to a new level.
Moore’s 2012 and 2013 seasons in Tampa were passable but nowhere near the lofty expectations hoisted upon him. He struck out almost a batter per inning over 327.2 frames during those two years but struggled with his control. Moore walked greater than four per nine in each season and the result was a WHIP north of 1.30 both years. He did deal with some elbow issues in 2013, perhaps a precursor to his 2014 surgery, but the control was an issue well before his DL stint in late July. Despite the injury and the control problem he managed a 3.29 ERA, far outperforming his 3.95 FIP.
Given that command and control are typically the last things to return after a Tommy John surgery, it’s fair to be concerned about Moore’s ability to not damage your WHIP in the short term. If and when Moore does make progress limiting free passes, it will likely come at the expense of a few punch outs. He works deep in counts in pursuit of strikeouts, where he may be wise to use his plus stuff to induce weak contact. The deep counts also limit his inning totals. In 58 starts in 2012 and 2013, Moore averaged only 5.6 innings per game. Even if the ratios get corrected, it’s difficult to ascend to SP1 territory if you can’t approach 200 innings.
I’m generally the low man on pitchers who walk this many batters, even in the face of obvious strikeout upside. Therefore, I think Moore holds very limited value in re-draft leagues and may only be useful if your roster is constructed in such a way that you can afford a little damage to your ratios in order to chase strikeouts. It goes without saying that you should exercise more caution when thinking about a deal in keeper and dynasty formats because of the raw talent level and the fact that he is barely 26, but exploration is warranted there too. Assuming a return to full health, Moore will be have electric stuff some days and will be wild others. That’s the kind of player that has more name value than in-the-lineup value and you’d be wise to see if someone in your league weighs his lofty former prospect status more heavily than his underwhelming production relative to expectations.
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