Matt Moore vs. Jeremy Hellickson: Wait, what?

Is this a thing? Apparently this a thing. BaseballProspectus rolled out their Rays top 10 prospects today, and included was their “top 10 talents 25 and under” section, written by Jason Cole (the prospect list was written by Jason Parks, who notes in the comments he agrees with Cole’s rankings). The relevant section:

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP

2. Matt Moore, LHP

[…]

Despite their differing approaches, both Hellickson and Moore have the talent to become consistent no. 2 starters; Hellickson is much closer to that reality than Moore at present.

So. This seems to make the argument that Moore and Hellickson have different ways to get to identical ceilings, and Hellickson gets the nod because he’s closer. Ignoring the no-shit point that Hellickson’s entering his age-26 season and Moore is entering his age-24 season so of course Hellickson’s going to be closer to his ceiling, the basic premise here is flawed.

Look, Hellickson’s a good pitcher. 2.95 and 3.10 ERAs the past two seasons aren’t chopped liver, but come on. He pitches in the Trop in front of a very good defense so we can’t take ERA as a true representation. He struck out 15.1% and 16.7% in 2011 and 2012, while walking 9.3% and 8.3% respectively. His fastball is nothing special. His change-up is very, very good. His curveball is decent. He’s had 9.7% and 8.9% swinging strike percentages his last two seasons.

Now, how about Moore? His 3.81 ERA was worse. He walked too many guys, 10.7%, but the point is that Hellickson’s control and command aren’t so special that he has some massive edge here. In fact, Moore posted the better K/BB rate in 2012 (barely, but again we’re comparing Moore’s rookie season to Hellickson’s sophomore). Moore struck out 23.1% of hitters faced. Moore had an 11.8% swinging strike percentage. That ranks sixth among 88 qualified starters on FG’s leaderboard.

Hellickson’s 8.9% ranks 38th. Matt Moore had the third-highest fastball velocity among the same 88. Hellickson ranked 49th. Moore had some of the best minor-league strikeout numbers of the past decade. Hellickson has consistently been more homer-prone throughout his career. These numbers aren’t flukes. Moore got off to a rocky start before flourishing in the summer, finishing somewhat poorly in September. Did his rookie season live up to the exaggerated hype that came with his 2011 playoff start and being the third-ranked prospect behind a couple fellas named Trout and Harper? No but it’s not like it was bad. His fastball was still firm, his breaking ball was sharp, his change-up showed promise, and he didn’t walk an unacceptable amount of hitters.

Cole says in the comments:

Moore undoubtedly has the pure stuff of an ace, but the vast majority of the scouts I’ve spoken to (and this is an opinion that I agree with) believe the command and overall feel will never develop quite enough for him to be considered an “ace.” Sure, there’s always a very slight chance that he reaches that potential (as there is with Hellickson, given his youth and pitchability), but I see a #2 ceiling as much more realistic.

Given the definition of “ace” being the top 10-15 pitchers in baseball, there’s just no way Hellickson can be in that conversation. Moore can be, with his stuff, if his command and control improve some. He doesn’t have to be Roy Halladay painting corners (note: Hellickson is not this nor particularly close) because his stuff so far outweighs Hellickson’s. To not entertain the notion that Moore has more than a “very slight chance” at being a #1 is insane.

Cole continues:

Hellickson ranks first because I believe he will be a better pitcher over the long haul. In terms of stuff and results, Hellickson is certainly better than a 3/4 type. His overall command is still improving…

and Moore’s isn’t? Moore doesn’t have the minor-league track record of control that Hellickson did, but again, his control doesn’t need to equal Hellickson’s to be the better pitcher because of the difference in stuff.

…and he can really manipulate and locate his entire arsenal. Obviously his changeup is fantastic. As I wrote above, Moore’s stuff is better than Hellickson’s (not that Hellickson has bad stuff; it’s plenty fine), but I believe a lot more in Hellickson’s overall feel for pitching. I think he’s going to be a very good major league starter for years to come.

If this is the league-wide perception of Hellickson, maybe the Rays should shop him. I’m not sure where this Hellickson-as-total-control-artist take is coming from. Hellickson’s BB% ranked 64th out of the 88 pitchers. Sure it’s improving, but at age 26 is it going to jump high enough to off-set the stuff difference? On that:

One of my questions regarding Moore is this: A lot of times, plus-plus fastball starters see their velocity begin to dip after a few years in the major leagues. If that happens to Moore and he becomes more of a low-90s guy who touches the mid-90s, does he have the command/secondaries to have staying power near the top of a big league rotation?

We can play the what-if game all day. Now it’s a comments section so I don’t expect a dissertation but is there a reason to expect Moore’s velo to dip other than “it happens to a lot of guys?” I’m not buying that, and neither did my ex-girlfriend. If the question is Moore or Hellickson, give me Matt Moore 101 times out of 100.

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8 Responses to Matt Moore vs. Jeremy Hellickson: Wait, what?

  1. Jason Hanselman says:

    Well said, I think Hellickson is at his ceiling while Moore still has so much that he can work on. It’s not that Moore’s stuff is better, which it is, it’s that all three of his pitches could and should be labeled as 70 offerings, right now. You can detract for command/control, but the guy has shown that he can make the necessary adjustments to refine these non-fatal flaws. As I showed, recently: https://dockoftherays.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/the-passing-of-the-dominating-lefty-torch/ Moore is walking only slightly more batters than David Price did over their first 32 starts. Did anyone have any qualms about David Price ever being able to harness his good fastball? He just went out and improved upon it anyway, and I think we’ll see something similar with Moore. And Price only had a fastball at that time. Moore already has a comparable fastball, but he mixes in a really good change to righties and a curve ball to both that could use the most work. He doesn’t spot it well, particularly to lefties, and ends up leaving it over the plate where it can get hammered if the batter isn’t utterly baffled.

    I’m with you, Kevin. I don’t see how anybody could give both of these guys similar grades (current or future) unless they’ve just never seen these guys pitch. It’s the old adage, if you ask enough scouts you’ll eventually find one that will back up your narrative.

  2. Jake says:

    Kevin, welcome to the crew!

  3. buddaley says:

    I definitely agree with your conclusion. I think, though, that the perception that Hellickson has better control (and command?) comes from their minor league careers. Hellickson’s walk rate/9 innings ranged from 1.9-2.8 while Moore’s was between 2.7-5.1. While in the minors, the perception of Hellickson was that he was almost Maddux-like in his control of the strike zone while that of Moore was that his talent was often sabotaged by poor control.

    Of course, Moore’s strikeout rate dramatically overshadowed Hellickson’s in the minors as it did even more dramatically in their respective rookie seasons. But in the minors, at least, Hellickson did K a good number of batters, ranging from 8.6-11.1 K/9.

    Hellickson’s control in the majors has not been close to that in the minors, but it did improve a bit from 2011-2012 as did his K rate. Moore’s control also took a step back from what he showed in his last season at AAA and was almost a full walk/9 worse than Hellickson’s in his rookie season.

    None of this justifies ranking Hellickson’s potential above that of Moore. In fact, Moore has a history of slow starts, often due to control problems, followed by significant improvement in his walk rates. Given his ace rated “stuff”, as well as his performance, he should be considered the #1 under 25 year old talent on the Rays.

    As an aside, and in no way intended to reflect any analytical thinking, I attended a game that Hellickson pitched against Clearwater a few years ago. He pitched 7 innings of one hit ball and threw strike one to 18 or 19 of the 22 batters he faced. I don’t think he ever went to 3 balls and only those few times plus perhaps one or two others did he fall behind a batter 2-1. I can’t be certain, but it seemed as if no pitch was over the heart of the plate. I think he struck out 7 and most batters hit soft grounders or pop-ups.

  4. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I pretty much agree. Hellickson certainly has the edge in control/command right now, but he’s not so good with it that he outranks Moore. Hellickson’s minor-league K numbers have a lot to do with his changeup. A guy with a good changeup and an advanced feel for pitching can do lots of damage in the minors, but the package becomes less effective in the majors. Obviously he’s still quite effective, but expecting him to maintain ERAs around 3.00 would be a mistake.

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  6. raysprof says:

    The single most interesting aspect of the discussion was when a reader suggested that Moore had been of greater value to the Rays in 2012 than Hellickson had been to Rays in 2011 and 2012 combined. Mr. Park’s response to this suggestion was to label it as “ridiculous”. However it was pointed out that using Baseball Prospectus’s (BP’s) own metric for the measure of value of the performance of a player, the claim was justifiable. Now Mr. Park’s view may be correct, but if this is so, then the metric WARP takes a hit. However, as a long time reader of BP, I am finding it move away from analysis more toward speculation without evidence, which is unfortunate.

    However, if Mr. Park’s opinion is similar to those who run other clubs, what I hope will happen is that when Hellickson becomes expensive through arbitration, that the Rays can pull a Shields/Myer trade where the other teams completely over values Hellickson. In the mean time, I wish well for all players. Except for those not on the Rays.

  7. Jason Hanselman says:

    Well stated, raysprof. I wonder how much these guys have been swayed by the PECOTA projections. Cole and Parks pride themselves on being eye-first scouts, but the PECOTA projections show a certain level of expectation of Moore walking 4.6 per nine and Hellickson walking 2.8 per nine. A smart analyst is going to latch on to any and all credible data that they can get their hands on and it would seem to affirm both men being considerably down on Moore’s control. Not command, but control.

    The other projectors come in (considerably) lower for Moore:

    Fans: 3.5/9
    Steamer: 3.9/9
    PECOTA: 4.6/9
    Oliver: 3.8/9
    Cairo: 4.4/9
    Zips: 3.7/9

    It makes me wonder how much their scouting eye has been biased by this piece of data that they may hold dear and almost like a secret as they would have had access to this nugget well before the masses. I have no doubt that Moore will walk less than their projection and I think there’s a really good chance that he improves on his 4.1/9 last year. I should have more on this stuff as I wrap up the pitching-side projection aggregator workbook.

  8. raysprof says:

    Frankly, I don’t put much weight into projections beyond “one standard deviation”. My point was that the author Park makes extreme statements without even looking at data. This is additional evidence that supports my view that these top 10 prospects lists are essentially pointless because they lack sufficient data behind them. Hellickson has performed well. But the evidence suggests the he, like one of my favorite pitchers, Andy Sonnanstine, has been fortunate in the past. To paraphrase Mr. Rickey, “It is better to trade a player a year early than a year late.”

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