Matt Moore is back for the Tampa Bay Rays, but instead of being a boon to their chances, he has caused them to slip further back in the race. In his first five starts, he is just 1-2 with a 7.61 ERA and a 15-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 23.2 innings pitched. It’s not as though he is struggling to hit 90 MPH with his fastball–his stuff is still there even if it is not as impressive as it once was–but he simply doesn’t know where it is going often enough. And at a certain point, the Rays need to consider other options.
However, one thing that we are incorrectly doing is judging Moore against ordinary major league pitchers. That really doesn’t make sense–he just came back from Tommy John Surgery, and it is understandable that he is struggling. The question we should instead be asking is this: from a statistical standpoint, do his first five starts prompt reason for actual concern when we compare him to his peers?
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Since 2000, there have been 27 pitchers who have undergone Tommy John Surgery and returned to make five starts the following year as a primary starting pitcher. Overall, they averaged a 4.83 ERA and a 4.43 FIP. Moore’s 7.61 ERA ranks third-worst, but his 5.35 FIP is only eighth-worst. Very rarely do we see cases like Jose Fernandez this season and Stephen Strasburg in 2011. And what is especially amusing is the pitchers right around him: none other than Jordan Zimmermann had the worst FIP and Adam Wainwright ranked ninth-worst. We can also rattle off three others–Edinson Volquez, Randy Wolf, and Carl Pavano–that returned to being solid major league starters afterwards. Also bear in mind that Wolf and Pavano had their surgeries after their best days were already behind him yet still came back to respectability.
Moore cleared the first hurdle after surgery, which is coming back the following season. The fact that he has done that already improves his expected outcome by a significant margin. Unfortunately for Moore, the pitchers that have surgery following a season and don’t return until 16 or so months later tend to do better, but now that he is back, the recovery process is underway and things will only get better for him from here.
Bear in mind that of these 27 pitchers, 16 of them made 50 more starts in the major leagues. 12 of them have even made 100. And yes, that is starts, not appearances–teams trusted these pitchers enough to keep starting them for multiple years afterwards. And those figures could easily end up higher between Fernandez, Danny Duffy, Brett Anderson, and yes, Moore (not to mention the pitchers between 50 and 100 already).
One of the worst cases was John Smoltz. He went back on the DL immediately after his 5 starts, but he came back as a reliever, was strong as the Braves’ closer for a few years, and then returned to starting. Obviously Smoltz is a Hall of Famer and there is no guarantee that Moore would achieve the same results, but even if heads to the DL or is optioned to the minor leagues, there would be no shame in that. Pitchers with worst stuff than Moore and higher up in years have come back strongly from this surgery. We have seen nothing at all that suggests that Moore should be any different.
The Tampa Bay Rays have enough starting depth that there is a decent chance that Moore doesn’t end up in their future plans. However, given Moore’s talent, he should still have at least a few more solid seasons as a major league starting pitcher ahead, whether with the Rays or elsewhere. He is no longer the top prospect with a fastball that easily hit 96 MPH, but we learned that years ago, when his velocity went down.
Even with that the case, though, why can’t he turn into Francisco Liriano and be a solid major league starter with flashes of dominance? Why can’t he be Charlie Morton, who had only one good season pre-surgery but has looked good in a couple of years since? Or maybe he will be like Edinson Volquez and be mediocre for years before finally finding himself again at age 30.
We will see how the future turns out for Matt Moore, but something that should not be disputed is that Moore will get multiple more chances to succeed in the major leagues and has a chance to return to the pitcher he was before surgery. He isn’t done, as some have claimed, and even if the Rays ever become convinced that he is, another franchise would be happy to disagree.
Criticize Moore’s first five starts as much as you want and it isn’t off-base to say that his recovery could take longer than others’, but what we have seen thus far does nothing to take Moore off the usual path after Tommy John Surgery. Most pitchers return to being most of the pitcher they were before, and as a 26 year old still bristling with promise even if his command is not back yet, Moore has as good of a chance as anyone at getting back on track.
That really should be the conclusion of the piece, but let me just insert a comment about the Rays’ apparent decision to keep Moore in their rotation for at least one more start as he is listed as a probable starter for Saturday (and obviously hasn’t been optioned or placed on the DL).
It can’t be surprising that Adam Wainwright posted a 3.52 ERA for the remainder of 2012 after starting off about as badly as Moore did, but even Edinson Volquez and Kris Benson–who were worse and also had horrific strikeout to walk ratios–managed ERAs around 4.00 for the remainder of their return seasons. Things will certainly get better for Moore from here, and there is a real chance that something will click and he can get back to being respectable. You don’t have to agree with the Rays, and their decision may prove to be wrong, but especially if Jim Hickey remains optimistic that Moore’s command will soon return, there is an argument to be made that keeping him in the rotation is the right move.