No matter what happens in the remainder of this postseason, one of my favorite stories is going to be Joe Maddon turning to Matt Moore in Game 1 of the ALDS. Moore started the year out as Baseball America's 15th best prospect after dominating in the Florida State League in 2010 as a 21-year old, striking out 208 hitters in 144 2/3 innings. He opened up 2011 in Double-A and was even better, dropping his walk rate from 3.8 BB/9 in the FSL to 2.5 BB/9 in the Southern League. After 18 starts he was promoted to Durham to end the season and made nine dominating starts there, striking out 79 and walking walking 18 in 52 2/3 innings.
When Durham's season ended, he was promotoed to Tampa Bay and used sparingly from the 'pen until the Rays needed a starter after losing a double-header on September 21st. In a must-win game, Moore struck out 11 Yankees in five innings. He didn't pitch again in the regular season, but that performance earned him a spot in Tampa's post-season rotation over Wade Davis and Jeff Nieman and he started Game 1 against the Rangers, dominating in seven two-hit, shutout innings, striking out six and walking two. If the Rays win this afternoon, he will presumably start the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS.
You might expect this sort of thing out of a highly-touted high school prospect like Jameson Taillon, but Moore was an eighth round pick by the Rays in 2007. He signed for $115,0000 (above slot but not huge; the Pirates gave ninth rounder Clay Holmes $1.2 million this year, which is one of the bigger bonuses ever outside of the top five rounds, I think) early enough to make eight GCL appearances. If you're noting similarities between Moore and the types of pitchers the Pirates like to take in the early-middle rounds of the draft, you're not alone. When I was on 93.7's Late Shift with Chris Mueller last week, we talked a bit about the state of the minor league system and Chris asked me, "With all of the minor league arms the Pirates have drafted in the last few years, where's their Matt Moore?"
The a relatively straightforward answer, which is what I gave, is that the Pirates have tended to emphasize command (especially fastball command) a lot more than other teams in the low minors, which seemingly keeps their young pitchers from putting up dominant numbers in Short Season and Single-A. That's probably true to an extent, but the pitcher that's obviously the most talented in the system (Jameson Taillon) didn't go to State College the way most of the Pirates' high school pitching prospects do and still looked like he was a good bit more advanced than the other pitching prospects in West Virginia this year, despite being a year younger than them.
It's those West Virginia arms that tell us the most about the Neal Huntington/Kyle Stark approach. They were all drafted in 2009, which was the first year that the Pirates focused on high school arms in the draft, and so they've been in the system the most time. Let's look at the 20-year olds from that team:
Zack Von Rosenberg
|2011||20||3 Teams||3 Lgs||A-A--Rk||PIT||6||6||3.10||20||20||0||93.0||91||44||32||6||22||0||66||9||0||4||389||1.215||8.8||0.6||2.1||6.4||3.00|
|Rk (2 seasons)||Rk||0||1||3.72||4||3||0||9.2||8||5||4||1||3||0||8||0||0||0||40||1.138||7.4||0.9||2.8||7.4||2.67|
|A- (2 seasons)||A-||2||7||4.78||19||17||0||75.1||79||46||40||4||31||0||54||10||0||7||334||1.460||9.4||0.5||3.7||6.5||1.74|
|A (1 season)||A||6||4||2.56||13||13||0||66.2||61||27||19||3||15||0||46||4||0||3||270||1.140||8.2||0.4||2.0||6.2||3.07|
|2010||19||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A--Rk||PIT||1||2||4.66||15||13||1||48.1||35||25||25||3||19||0||47||3||0||0||204||1.117||6.5||0.6||3.5||8.8||2.47|
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
All of their walk rates are improving, though some more dramatically than others. Their strikeout rates vary quite a bit. Von Rosenberg and Pounders took big leaps forward in strikeouts this year, Fuesser's been constant, Cain and Dodson noticeably dipped but had arguably the best results. The pitcher who was best peripherally, Von Rosenberg, got absolutely pounded until the end of the season. I'm willing to take all of these results with a grain of salt, but certainly there's no one at this level (besides Taillon) that's separated themselves from the pack yet.
Now let's look at the minor league histories of two pitchers in the Rays' rotation, Moore and Jeremy Hellickson (a fourth round high school pick in 2005, which means he wasn't drafted by Friedman but entered the system when he was Director of player Development). Two upper-mid round high school picks that have made it.
|2011||22||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AA-AAA||TBR||12||3||1.92||27||27||0||155.0||101||39||33||11||46||0||210||6||1||7||604||0.948||5.9||0.6||2.7||12.2||4.57|
|2008||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A+-AA||TBR||11||5||2.96||27||27||0||152.0||148||55||50||22||20||1||162||6||1||4||604||1.105||8.8||1.3||1.2||9.6||8.10|
|2009||22||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AAA-AA||TBR||9||2||2.45||20||20||0||114.0||72||35||31||8||29||0||132||8||0||3||446||0.886||5.7||0.6||2.3||10.4||4.55|
|2010||23||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AAA-A+||TBR||12||3||2.72||22||21||0||119.1||107||39||36||5||37||0||127||7||0||0||494||1.207||8.1||0.4||2.8||9.6||3.43|
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Both Rays' pitchers followed relatively the same path as the Pirates are laying out for their non-Taillon high schoolers, Short Season at 19 (Hellickson did the New York Penn League, the same as the Pirates' pitchers, Moore did a full stint in the GCL), Single-A at 20, then they were allowed to rise as fast as their performance let them. I don't know what the Rays stress in their low minors for their pitchers, but I'll point out that neither Moore nor Hellickson (nor Alex Cobb, another high school draftee in 2006 who spent time in the Rays' rotation this year) throw a slider.
I point that out for the obvious reason: the Pirates don't necessarily come out and say it, but it seems to me that part of the reason they stress fastball command in the low minors is to give young arms a year off from throwing breaking pitches after high school careers when their arms were likely abused. Throwing sliders is generally thought to be bad for the arm and thus far (though it's early, of course), the Rays have had very good luck with the health of their young pitchers (I'll go on to add that David Price does through a slider, though he throws it much less in 2011 than he did early in his career, but he was also a college pick and came to the Rays much more advanced than guys like Moore and Hellickson, and that Wade Davis throws a slider, but he was drafted in 2004, which was Friedman's first year with the organization in any capacity). It's overly simplistic to think that by limiting sliders the Rays are avoiding pitching injuries from now until forever, but it's worth noting simply because it points pretty clearly to an organization-wide strategy that exists, similar to what the Pirates have, but that is obviously different judging by Moore's strikeout/walk numbers in Single-A in 2009.
I'm not really of the belief that a pitcher has to "dominate" at every level to become a good big league pitcher. Roy Halladay never had great numbers in the minors. At first that was because the Jays rushed him through the system (he started his 19-year old season in Advanced-A and spent most of his 20 year old season in Triple-A), but even when he more or less repeated Triple-A at 21 and even when he came back down at 23 after a disastrous season in Toronto, he didn't have great numbers. None of these Pirate pitchers are Roy Halladay, of course, but the lesson stands that the main lesson is about what a pitcher becomes, not what he is in the low minors.
That being said, the early careers of Moore and Hellickson are strikingly different than the early careers of the high school pitchers drafted by Neal Huntington and Greg Smith in the mid-early rounds of the draft. Is it because the Pirates are worse at identifying this sort of talent than the Rays, or is it because the Pirates' development system is masking what's there? If the answer is the latter, then the question transforms into why the Pirates are doing what they're doing. Is it making these kids better in the long run? Is it holding them back?
If I had to guess, I'd say that I suspect that the answer to these questions is that the Pirates simply aren't as good as identifying this sort of talent as the Rays are, but I really can't say for certain. I do think we're going to have a much better idea of what the answer to these sorts of questions are after the 2012 season. Fuesser, Cain, and Von Rosenberg (at least: there might be room for more depending on where Gerrit Cole goes/how long he stays in Bradenton if he starts in the FSL) should all be in Advanced-A and they should all be at the points in their careers where the Pirates allow them to open things up a little bit, which will tell us a lot more about them than the first two years of their careers have. The Pirates don't need every single pitcher they draft after the first round to turn into Moore or Hellickson, but seeing it happen to one or two would sure give me a lot more faith in more than one aspect of this front office.
Matt Moore's an 8th-round pick who went from high-A to starting in the postseason in one year; that's not a normal career path. I think you can exchange "Pirates" for pretty much any other organization in MLB as far as that goes. The real question is if the Pirates are doing the right thing with their young arms, and, as you point out, the answer is "We don't know yet." At least there hasn't been a rash of guys with arm troubles and/or being lost in the wilderness as far as their mechanics, so that's something.
Don't forget that stressing fastball command and control in the low minors may be something of a fool's errand given the quality of the minor league umpiring and catching.
My other immediate comment is that the off-field conditioning is a great unknown, but so far the sample set you selected has been more or less healthy. Other pitchers have fallen by the way side, but this group, while perhaps underwhelming, has been more healthy than not.
@schuleg RE: health -- I'm really, really interested to see what they do with Cole this year, because he strikes me as the kind of pitcher that's going to end up getting Tommy John surgery.
And yeah, of the high school arms the Pirates have drafted I know that Cain has had some back trouble, which is likely unrelated to the Pirates' program, and Dodson has had a little bit of arm trouble, but other than the they've been good. The notable exception is Quinton Miller ('08 draftee and the very first high-upside, over-slot high-school pitcher the Pirates picked), who I'm guessing they brought along a little differently since he jumped right to West Virginia (only Taillon's done that since) and has had arm trouble ever since. A pet theory of mine is that much of what they're doing is based on his injury, though it seems drastic to devise an entire program around what happened to one guy.
@whygavs Well, if it happened to one, it might happen to another...I do recall there being some chatter about the minor league pitching conditioning and that is was rather inflexible. I may be mis-remembering, but it has worked, for the most part (although there have been injuries, as there always will be with pitchers. Victor Black immediately springs to mind, as well as injuries at the MLB level).
Keeping them healthy is a crucial step and so far so good, although how much of that is based on the program versus the type of pitchers drafted is open to interpretation (and if the Pirates are shying away from high-stress mechanics, good for them).
@schuleg Black's been injured, but I tend to group college guys and high school guys seperately when it comes to things like this.
This link might also be of some interest in putting the offensive context in some perspective - http://www.baseballamerica.com/blog/prospects/2011/10/minor-league-averages-2011-recent-historical-context/