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Matt Moore: Slow Starter?

Betcha didn't think anyone would use "slow" and "Matt Moore" in the same headline. Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Betcha didn't think anyone would use "slow" and "Matt Moore" in the same headline. Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

I don't think there's much analysis to be done after just a weekend's worth of minor-league games, but early box score round-ups are up every day at DRaysBay, and John and myself will be providing prospect coverage throughout the season. You can also check out the minor league preview podcast at RaysProspects. But for today, I'm focusing on this afternoon's starter, Matt Moore. You can find Brad's season preview piece on Moore here.

I would introduce you to Moore's work, but he introduced himself pretty loudly last October, holding the Texas Rangers scoreless for seven innings in game 1 of the ALDS. Even to those familiar with Moore's dominant minor-league numbers, it was impressive. Following an off-season of articles declaring him the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year, he makes his first start today. But Moore's terrific minor-league numbers mask one area where he's struggled: he's been a slow starter in terms of early-season performances.

He made his full-season debut in Bowling Green in 2009. The results in his first nine starts, spanning April and May:

IP: 35.1
Hits: 25 (6.37 H/9)
Earned Runs: 17 (4.33 ERA)
Walks: 33 (8.41 BB/9)
Strikeouts: 51 (12.99 K/9)

So he had no trouble missing bats, but he was walking nearly a hitter per inning and was averaging less than four innings per start. Starting June 1, he reeled off eight straight starts of two or fewer walks and was a much better pitcher than his April/May days. There was genuine improvement in the second half, and after sporting an 8.4 BB/9 in the early going, finished at 5.1. Sent to Charlotte next season, here's how he fared in his first eleven starts:

IP: 54.1
Hits: 58 (9.61 H.9)
Earned Runs: 40 (6.63 ERA)
Walks: 34 (5.63 BB/9)
Strikeouts: 74 (12.26 K/9)

Again, no problems striking guys out, but walks were still an issue and with the uptick in hits he was allowing roughly the same amount of baserunners per inning in 2010. It might be easy to attribute to his sky-high BABIP to bad luck, but his line drive rate was also quite high. Not that minor-league batted ball data is anywhere close to accurate, but it would make sense. Like in 2009, Moore recovered from this start to finish strong, with a 6.8 H/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 3.36 ERA. An improved fastball grip was credited with his control and command improvements, and he was promoted to Montgomery for the 2011 season. Here are his April stats there, spanning five starts:

IP: 24.1
Hits: 24 (8.88 H/9)
Earned Runs: 14 (5.18 ERA)
Walks: 4 (1.48 BB/9)
Strikeouts: 32 (11.84 K/9)

So this season he started with exceptional control, but his hit rate was still up there (8.9 to start compared with his career average of 6.1; he finished the 2011 season at 5.9) and his ERA was again much higher than his 2.64 career mark. And again, Moore went gangbusters for pretty much the rest of the season, finishing with excellent stats and a playoff win.

So what gives with Moore's slow starts? It hasn't necessarily been one specific area he's struggled with -- walks one year, hits the next, home runs another -- but the resulting ERA hasn't been pretty. Admittedly I'm setting arbitrary endpoints here, and it's worth noting that my look at 2009 and 2010 is basically April and May, while 2011 is just April. Was it just bad BABIP luck hitting him early in the season twice in a row? It's possible given that he's shown a demonstrative stinginess with hits throughout his entire career. But if Moore gets off to a slow start in 2012, it probably shouldn't be a surprise. In addition to the natural rookie struggles, he's never been his usual dominant self in April. So if he doesn't throw a 12-strikeout complete game shutout this afternoon, hold off on pressing the panic button.