The Rays won 91 games without Matt Moore in 2011. Yes, Moore started against the Yankees on September 22, giving up zero runs over five innings, but the offense behind him scored 15 that day -- even the collapsing Red Sox rotation could have won with that kind of support. That matters because Moore, who threw all of nine innings with the Rays this year, is their Game 1 starter against the Texas Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
Moore didn't start the year as the top pitching prospect in the system. That's no slight against Moore, as much as it's praise for teammate Jeremy Hellickson. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked Moore as the #2 prospect on the farm behind Hellickson (with Desmond Jennings, the team's starting left fielder, slotting in third). Installed in the big club's rotation last spring, Hellickson threw 189 innings for the Rays and posted a 2.95 ERA, partially because of the incredible defense behind him (the Rays converted 73.5 percent of balls in play into outs, more than an entire percentage point better than the next-best team) and partially because he's a talented and young hurler the Rays can lean on.
Prior to this season, Moore had led the minors in strikeouts two years running, but hadn't pitched above High-A. There was a lot more to love than not, as his fastball lived in the mid-90s, and his curve, as described by BP's Kevin Goldstein, was a "plus power curveball with heavy late break," but his command would occasionally vanish thanks to inconsistent mechanics. Still, it's hard to complain about a pitcher who'd struck out 384 batters in his last 267 innings.
Moore kept things going at Double-A, striking out 131 batters in 102 innings and 18 starts. That came against just 28 walks, too, giving Moore a 4.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, easily his best at any level, and helping to reassure those that were worried about his mechanics that he had this thing under control. ESPN's Keith Law bumped Moore from #16 to #2 in his mid-season prospect rankings, and Goldstein moved him from 10 to 2.
Moore proved that the analysts were on to something when he moved to Triple-A and kept on punching out hitters, whiffing 79 in 52 frames, giving him a career-best K/9 of 13.5 at the highest level of the minors. He kept his control, too, posting a 4.4 K/BB.
His stuff is undeniable, and if he can maintain consistent mechanics and thus his control and command, then he can be a front-line starter in the majors, yet another high-quality pitcher produced by the Rays' farm.
The Rays trust that enough to give him his second career start in the bigs in the postseason, against the Texas Rangers, who tied for the major league lead in True Average, and tied for second behind the Red Sox according to wRC+. Regardless of your offensive measurement of choice, the Rangers can flat-out hit, and the Rays expect that Moore can slow them down, even with his lack of experience.
That's a huge amount of trust to put in a 22-year-old who has a single full game's worth of experience in the majors, but again, we're talking about a pitcher with a career K/9 in the minors higher than Stephen Strasburg's -- would you start Strasburg in the playoffs? Would you have when the hype train was at full speed in 2010?
It's likely Moore will become a star pitcher in the majors (as likely as it is for any major pitching prospect, anyway). Failure to pitch well in the playoffs likely won't impact his career path, but pitching well on a national stage could vault him to early stardom in the eyes of fans everywhere. It might also impact the shape of the 2012 Rays rotation, a group that, like with Matt Garza leaving to make room for Hellickson, will need a face lift in order to squeeze him in. Tonight we'll get a look at how obvious that need might be.