When you take a look at the rotation of the Tampa Bay Rays, one thing probably comes to mind instantly.
This team has the potential to throw quality starts every single day. How many teams can say that?
It wouldn't be a reach to say the Rays have baseball's top rotation, but even if you don't agree with that, ranking them outside the top three would just be silly.
The rotation really consists of three solid contributors and two question marks. For the most part, the Rays know what they will be getting out of James Shields, David Price and either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann.
Jeremy Hellickson won the 2011 Rookie of the Year, but what many people don't realize is that it was the worst season of his professional career command-wise. Whether or not he can improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio will be a major indicator of how good he will be in 2012.
Then there's Matt Moore. He's the Rays' best pitching prospect ever, and it isn't even close (no offense, David Price). He showed in the final weeks of 2011 that he has every bit of talent needed to become a true ace.
2012 is going to be a very interesting year for Matt Moore, mainly because of two factors.
For one, he will be religiously monitored for his pitch count and innings. For a team that is so reliant upon home-grown talent, the Rays will be taking extra care of Moore to make sure he is not burned out.
The second factor will be more of a question of how good Moore really is. Is he going to be as dominant in a full season in the majors as he was in the minors?
Did we see how good he can be in the playoffs last year? Or was that all just an act, a farce because of hitters' lack of familiarity with Moore?
That's what we're going to decide today. I'm going to look at several factors involving how the Rays have handled pitchers in the past, and how Moore can expect to fare in his first full season.
How Much Will He Throw?
Baseball isn't what it once was in terms of pitching. In the old days, 300-inning seasons were not unheard of for pitchers, and 100 pitches was more of a halfway point rather than a stopping point.
But with all the emphasis on preserving arms now, pitchers are throwing fewer pitches than ever.
But look at Moore's delivery, and you will see one of the easiest throwing motions in baseball. The fact that he can throw in the upper 90s with such an easy motion is as impressive as it is encouraging.
However, that doesn't mean the Rays should be any less strict with his pitch counts.
Take a look at this table:
|Pitcher||Starts||Innings||Innings per Start||Pitches per Start|
|Scott Kazmir, 2005 ||32||186||5.81||103.0|
|David Price, 2009||23||128.1||5.58||99.2|
|Jeremy Hellickson, 2011||29||189||6.52||101.9|
The Rays learned the hard way with Scott Kazmir. They overworked him early in his career, and he ended up burning out by 2009.
One would be inclined to think a similar fate awaits Jeremy Hellickson, but there are several differences. For one, Hellickson is not the pure power pitcher that Kazmir was. Second, his delivery is much smoother than Kazmir's.
That leads me to believe that the Rays will treat Matt Moore much more like Jeremy Hellickson than they did David Price. Consider this—Moore has thrown 432 innings in the last three years. Hellickson threw 422 in the three years before 2011.
With similarly easy deliveries, Moore and Hellickson will probably have nearly identical rookie workloads.
I would expect Moore to start between 27 and 30 games in 2012, barring injury. He will probably be capped slightly lower than Hellickson's 189 innings, depending on performance. I would be surprised if the Rays let him throw more than 180 innings this year.
Now, the question revolves around just how good Moore will be.
How Good Can He Be?
It is very difficult to predict how a pitcher who has carved up minor league hitting will fare in the majors.
You could look at what Matt Moore did at the end of 2011 and think that he could very easily be an ace right off the bat. But at the same time, it wouldn't be overly surprising if Moore had somewhat of a struggle in 2012.
Let's first look at Moore's numbers in the minors as a starting point.
*- Self-calculated FIP
A few things jump out at you right away. Moore's strikeout rate has remained largely constant over his five professional seasons. His walk rate, however, has fluctuated dramatically, with nearly a 4.5 walk swing during his career. Thus, his K/BB ratio has been as low as 1.81 and as high as 4.57.
For comparison, the former K/BB ratio is similar to that of Ivan Nova, Mike Pelfrey, Charlie Morton and, oddly, Jeremy Hellickson. The latter K/BB is similar to Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels.
It does seem that Moore has been commanding his pitches much better as of late. It's therefore unfair to think he will revert to his 2007 or 2009 numbers.
The other issue to look at is the differential between ERA and FIP. For those who don't know, FIP is a statistic invented by Tom Tango to measure factors a pitcher can control rather than the defense, including home runs, walks, strikeouts and hit-by-pitches.
Some years, a high FIP indicated that Moore was not pitching as well as his ERA would indicate. In others, he was pitching better.
There isn't a solid explanation for why this happens, but part of it may be due to the fact that Moore's BABIP and LOB percentage have been historically high (meaning that, strictly speaking, he's been unlucky). Having a top-notch defense behind him with the Rays will help both of those numbers.
So now, let's put it all together. We're going to assume that Moore throws 180 innings in 28 starts this year. I've put together several scenarios based on Moore's average season in the minors.
To quickly explain my methods, I considered a large improvement or decline as being 10 percent likely, a mild improvement or decline as 20 percent likely, and staying at average as 40 percent likely. I then calculated the expected value for each statistic.
So this final table is the result of those expected values, along with my personal predictions for wins and losses.
To be honest, this season would be absolutely ridiculous. If Moore didn't win the Cy Young, he'd definitely be in the top three.
But the point I'm trying to make is this—Moore has scary, scary potential.
He can be the best pitcher in baseball. Wrap your head around that one.
He's not going to be a Cy Young candidate next year. But if he even comes close to the numbers I have suggested, he'll be a lock for Rookie of the Year and be well on his way to a terrific career.
Rays fans should be extremely excited about Matt Moore. He truly is a special talent. We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to accurately predict how he will do in 2012, but he's the type of pitcher where it will be fun to step away from the numbers and just watch him pitch.
You're guaranteed to be amazed.