By Marc Normandin
Matt Moore was only average in 2012, and that seems to have made people forget that he was still all of 23 years old and one of the game's most impressive young arms. With the access to information that we have nowadays, in a world where Bryce Harper can come up as a teenager and excel, or Mike Trout, not yet legally able to drink, can lead the world in offense and defense and everything in his first full season, it's easy to move on down the prospect pipeline and away from someone as relatively ancient as the now 24-year-old Moore when they don't immediately impress.
The Rays didn't forget, however. Part of the reason they could afford to trade James Shields -- apart from the knowledge that their short- and long-term plan for success involves bringing in as much value as possible on someone they know they can't keep, anyway -- was because there was the chance that Moore would step up his game, take things to the next level, or whatever your cliché of choice for a breakout campaign might be. Whoever was brought in to replace Shields wouldn't have to replace him -- they'd be taking on the role of 2012 Matt Moore: Average Starter. The 2013 iteration of Moore was always the one meant to become the next James Shields, and, to this point in this young season, that's precisely what he's accomplished.
Let's back it up a bit, though. Prior to the 2011 season, Moore was the No. 15 prospect according to Baseball America. In 2011, he dominated both Double- and Triple-A about as thoroughly as you can, posting a combined 1.92 ERA with 4.6 times as many strikeouts as walks, and then capped off the season with 9 ⅓ major-league innings between two relief appearances and a start. He then threw another 10 frames in the ALDS against the Rangers, giving up one run while punching out eight, but thanks to the Rays dropping the series, that was the end of his run. All of this propelled him to the No. 2 spot on Baseball America's 2012 list, though, and helped earn Moore a rotation spot out of the gate.
Reality set in for most of the first two months of the season. He was in the AL East, facing big-league hitters all of the time, ones who had been provided with newly created scouting reports from his 2011 work. This is an adjustment period for any pitcher, but given the parks and lineups that populate the East, it is maybe never as difficult as it is there. Moore's ERA stood at 5.07 following his start on May 22, one year ago yesterday, with opponents flashing too much power (.435 slugging), getting on base too often (.360 on-base percentage) and Moore not throwing quite enough strikes, at a very average 61 percent.
From his next start onward, however, Moore became a changed pitcher. He began to throw more strikes, starting with his May 28 performance against the White Sox in which he went what was then a season-high seven innings while striking out what would prove to be a season-high 10, with one walk. He continued in that vein from that point forward, posting a 3.31 ERA over his final 22 starts, with 127 strikeouts in 127 ⅔ innings, 2.4 times as many punch outs as free passes, and, last but far from least, just 10 more homers the rest of the season, helping drop his slugging against average all the way to .357.
This development was clouded a bit by his overall numbers, unless you happened to recall what his ERA looked like prior to the change. He would finish with an ERA+ of exactly 100 (or, with an ERA+ of average as defined by the statistic) and having thrown 177 ⅓ innings. He still walked over four batters per nine, and while his homer rate had recovered, it still finished at just under one per nine innings.
There was still work to be done, but that's normal for a pitcher transitioning from their early to their mid-20s. He needed to be better at just about every pitch split you can think of, as he was dominant when ahead in the count, holding hitters to an OPS of .334 in that scenario, but tended to be much worse than average with the batter ahead, on even counts, even with two strikes on the hitter. This helped him average just 5 ⅔ innings per start in 2012, as those extra hits and extended plate appearances do a pitcher no favors. These are the things you learn with experience, though, and while 2012 wasn't the end of his education, it seems to have informed his 2013 season.
Moore currently owns a 2.29 ERA, putting him at an ERA+ of 170, easily tops in the Rays' rotation. This not only comes at a time when he's supposed to be replicating (or exceeding) the work of the departed Shields, but also when reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price isn't quite right, Jeremy Hellickson is getting lit up, and the first free agent starter the Rays have used in ages, Roberto Hernandez, is reminding Tampa Bay fans why homegrown pitching is so important to begin with. Moore is a huge part of why the Rays have pushed through a tough start to remain competitive in a difficult division and league, and even though there's some luck involved -- he's not going to hold batters to a .203 batting average on balls in play all season long -- there's plenty of potential legitimate improvement as well.
He's once again dominating when ahead, to the point where he's more than twice as effective as your average hurler in that situation. He's been similarly effective when the count is even, too, and has been much better at putting hitters away once he gets two strikes on them than he was in the past. Early indications are that increased usage of his slider -- it's currently his most valuable pitch according to the PITCHf/x values at FanGraphs -- is behind at least some of this. These numbers might not still be as extreme as they are now as more innings are thrown and some hits drop in, but if Moore can at least continue in this direction, then the end result will be extraordinary for the Rays and his development. He still needs to improve with three balls on the opposition -- he is walking over four batters per nine again, after all -- and he could still stand to put some length in his outings, but one thing at a time. He's up to over six innings per start now, and if he can continue to improve his pitch selection and sequencing, then the rest should fall into place.
There is a whole lot of season left, and time for Moore to unravel a bit. Maybe we can only expect him to be as good as he was last year once he turned things around - that wouldn't be so bad, given that pitchers capable of a 3.31 ERA in a tough division aren't exactly showing up in rotations across North America. With his stuff, his age, and the rapid improvements shown last year, though, it's not hard to believe that at least part of what he's doing in 2013 is real. If that's the case, then, Moore might just be giving the Rays enough confidence to make their next trade of a front-line starter.