It's primetime. Is Matt Moore ready? - J. Meric
Matt Moore will be an elite starting pitcher some day. With Shields gone from the Rays' rotation, though, he needs to take that step forward now.
When Andrew Friedman traded James Shields to the Kansas City Royals, he wasn't just swapping a top pitcher (and more) for a top hitting prospect prospect (and more). He was trading certainty for uncertainty -- and I don't mean Will Myers, the closest thing to a can't-miss prospect out there.
James Shields was a sure bet, if you can say that about any major league pitcher. Forget all of the BABIP and HR/FB fluctuations that plagued his 2009 and 2010 seasons. They were weird and, like all things weird in baseball, interesting. They were not, however, very useful in predicting future success. As I wrote in last year's season preview, Shields had been remarkably consistent when viewed through the superior lens of SIERA. And not only was he consistent, he was getting better. Sure enough, at the age of 30, Shields went out and produced his best season ever, with a 3.19 SIERA over 227 innings.
But enough about Shields. He's what the Rays won't have in 2013. Instead, they will have Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, and presumably Chris Archer all stepping into larger roles. I will let someone with a rosier outlook preview Archer, but the other three present a fascinating study in high variance projections. Niemann was off to what looked like a career year when his season was cut short by a freak injury (before he pitched enough innings for us to be confident his improvement was a true talent improvement and not just a hot streak). Hellickson continued to post stellar ERA results despite a questionable FIP process. Who knows if he can keep that up?
But Moore is different. We know exactly who Moore is. He is our talisman against Texas. He is a multiple Cy Young award winner. He will take the league by storm and waltz into Cooperstown. Probably Canton, Columbus, and Nashville too while he's at it. All of this is fact. It doesn't take a Weatherman to know that Matt Moore is really good. The only thing we don't know is when.
For the Rays to be immediately successful in the post-Shields era, it would be very nice if the when was 2013. His 2012, however, was a perfect illustration of how hard baseball really is. Matt Moore has a fastball comparable to David Price's. That is to say, he has arguably the best fastball in the nation. His curve (with slow and fast versions, both of which are curves), in a vacuum, is better than any of Price's secondary pitches. And his changeup is serviceable, and light-years ahead of where Price's change was when he was a rookie. He dominated the minors in a way that few pitchers have (and that Price did not).
But while Price was the best pitcher in the league in his fourth season, Moore struggled with command and control at times, walking more than four batters per inning and even occasionally getting hit despite his superior stuff. Bradley Woodrum demonstrated that Matt Moore's struggles were tied to problems of control (and were largely independent of fluctuations in fastball velocity). He may have been tipping his pitches, as first noticed by Kevin Gengler (now at Dock of the Rays) and followed up on by Scott Grauer, and I observed that he hit a rookie wall late in the season, losing movement on nearly all of his pitches.
Frankly, I don't have very much to add to that. There will be plenty of time for fancy numbers, both about the other members of the Rays pitching staff and about Moore during the season, but timing the inevitable is not something I know how to do. Right now Moore is a pretty simple equation. He has all of the skills needed to be successful at the highest level. He found that success in spurts during the 2012 season, but not often enough to satisfy the admittedly ridiculous expectations placed upon him. If I owned a house, I would bet it that Matt Moore will place at least third in the Cy Young voting some time in the next five years. I don't own a house, though, and that bet is a good deal safer than the one Andrew Friedman made this offseason. Friedman traded the certainty of an established ace for the uncertainty of an immense but developing talent. For the Rays to compete, they need the future to be now.