Moore or less?
The thing most people don’t understand is that pitching isn’t the same every time out.
– Tom Seaver
August 25, 2016 was a monumental day in Matt Moore’s career; sadly, for he and the Giants, it was also the summit of his time in the City by the Bay.
On that warm late summer night in Los Angeles, Moore threw a career-high 133 pitches; the last of them, with two outs in the 9th, was lofted into shallow right by Corey Seager. It was a clean single, and the only hit he’d allow.
He left to one of the more unique sights in baseball—a Dodgers home crowd giving a Giants pitcher a standing ovation.
It was his fifth start for San Francisco after being traded by Tampa Bay just before the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline. In 12 Giants starts, he’d put up an identical ERA to that in Tampa Bay (4.08), but pitch markedly better (his fielding-independent pitching [FIP] in Tampa Bay had been 4.51; it was 3.53 with the less defensively stellar Giants).
We’ve seen Moore in the clutch before, like Doug Fister, in 2011. In that LDS, he was lights out: 10IP, 8 strikeouts with 4 combined hits and walks, and a 0.90 ERA. Moore shut down Rangers bats over 7 innings in Tampa Bay’s Game 1 9-0 victory. He was more feared that Tampa Bay’s primary starter, an All-Star and future Cy Young winner himself (David Price), which gives you an idea of just how good Moore was.
Texas got Moore in a mid-December trade with San Francisco, although the Rangers had been looking at him since last year’s trade deadline.
“Part of what was attractive at the time was the contract as well as getting him in his prime years. It felt like circumstances, the situation allowed us to pick him up for a little bit less than we would have been looking at in the past.” – Jon Daniels, discussion the team’s interest in Moore since last July
A tale of two lefties
The 2017 season would see not a regression to pre-2016 levels—when Moore had put up quality numbers across the board through most of his Tampa Bay tenure, and been regarded as a future solid second starter—but instead a regression to his retracted 2015 post-Tommy John season with Tampa Bay.
In the latter, he struggled to a 5.43 ERA (with a 4.82 FIP), and was far from the Top 10 Cy Young finisher and All Star that had made him such a valuable pre-surgery hurler in 2013.
Unlike our last subject, Fister, who seems to have hit a wall after 30 and never gotten over it, Moore seems never to have truly recovered from Tommy John surgery.
Digging into the numbers
Here are his pre-surgery stats for the Rays (up through April 7, 2014, when he ruptured the elbow in a start against Kansas City; he opted for the procedure a week later, having the surgery April 22 and sacrificing 2014 for a chance at a more full 2015 season):
What do the numbers here tell us? Well, first, Moore’s most stellar season, 2014, was probably a result as much of the excellent defense behind him in Tampa Bay (thank you, Kevin Kiermaier in center, in particular) and less to a stellar improvement in the man’s pitching. His strikeouts per 9 dropped markedly, while his walks per 9 and hits and homers equaled his career highs.
But still, overall, this is a solid pitcher. For the Rangers, this would be a decent counter to the control and command of Cole Hamels, bringing in the heat of Moore. In his prime, Moore was a 94+ MPH fastball pitcher who worked off that fastball with a very good curve, both of which were consistently rated best in the Tampa Bay system—and a couple times in his league—from 2009-2011.
A nasty curveball, however, is almost always downgraded by Tommy John surgery; it puts such strain on the elbow that unless a pitcher REALLY wants to up the insurance premiums, he has to dial back the break.
My guess is that’s what we’ve seen with Moore. Since elbow surgery, he’s been a shadow of his former self:
Now, what separated 2016 and 2017? Well, some of it was simply the skew of a few bad games.
One thing that happened with Moore is more blowouts. In a few Giants starts, he simply took one for the team to save the bullpen, or had nothing to start with, from what I can tell. In looking at his game log, we find some rough outings. He had three starts where, combined, he put up 7.2 innings pitched but 24 earned runs.
Subtract that from his line and his ERA drops from 5.52 to 4.50.
That’s respectable, if not great. So maybe we should chalk up a bit of the ugliness in his numbers to these bad outings. Three starts taking a full run off the ERA says a lot about “taking one for the team”.
In those three outings, he wasn’t exactly yanked early; he threw an average of 66 pitches, which is a rough 70% of his season game average of 90. In the worst of those outings, he got to 54 ptiches to get just four outs; in the longest, he threw 76 pitches over 5.2 innings. He took his beating, across a wide stretch of the year as well (May 2, June 16, and September 22). It happens to the best of them.
So, moving away from ERA, and seeing it at least largely as a result of three bad outings, lets look at how hitters hit him in 2017. In them, I think we see a guy struggling with his curve—either in movement, location, or both—and the impact it has on his full repertoire of pitches:
He was a solid pitcher against righties—that is, most hitters. Lefties owned him, and had luck, to boot. A .412 batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is simply not sustainable. Most hitters, over a long season, revert to the norm. So, we have to look at some of those hits being luck.
But anytime hitters over 171 Abs put up an MVP-level slash line against you, it’s a problem.
How does that compare to 2016? Have a look:
That’s a huge change. In 2017, lefties simply teed off on him. This requires a deeper look.
A question of choice
Thus, we go back to our friendly StatCast data.
First, let’s look at pitch percentages. Here are his career percentages, by pitch:
(And recall, 2014 was basically less than two whole games, so don’t let that huge sinker percentage fool you. A guy with an aching elbow was trying to keep the ball down without his curveball. It’s likely as simple as that.)
Look just at 2016 vs. 2017: Moore threw 10% more cutters, almost at the complete sacrifice of two pitches—more four-seamers, and nary a sinker. He also cut back on his money pitch, that reduced curveball. Now remember, a cutter that doesn’t cut drifts sits readily hittable for a lefty to turn on, as it’s usually thrown on the inner corner and moves out of the zone. If that cutter didn’t move, it could surely explain how lefties hit so well against him, especially when they had to worry about the curve almost 5% less than in 2016.
Also, his speed across all pitches was down about 1.5MPH, from 93.7 to 92.3 for the fastball and 90.9 to 89.4 for the cutter. That’s not a big difference when you’re talking 95+, but a bit goes a long way in the low 90s. Again, that’s possibly a piece of the puzzle here.
Let’s look at pitch value and hard-hit ball numbers. Pitch value, as a primer, is basically the run expectancy, against league average, for a pitch. The further above 0, the better; the further into negative, the worse. Here’s Moore’s 2016 vs 2017, along with his career numbers:
|Total||– – –||-11.5||-10.5||7.6||11.7|
Wow. Now we’re starting to see a trend. Moore threw the pitches hitters did best with (fastballs are aggregated here, not split out for sinkers and two-seamers vs four-seamers) 60.4% of the time. He threw his best pitch, still the curve (although a markedly worse one than in 2016) 17% of the time. And the cutter, a pitch he increased by 10% in 2016, was 9% worse between seasons.
Because the fastball and cutter were less effective, it stands to reason more hitters could wait on the change and hit it, and the percentage drop in effectiveness there (3.2 in 2016, 0.6 in 2017) bears that out. I checked the velocity numbers in his changeup, and it had the same 1.5MPH drop, so the split (the difference in speed between change and fastball, which is what really matters) was the same. It was just a less effective pitch (the fastball) to set up the change, which lessened its effectiveness overall.
Now, let’s look at hard-hit balls, and location. First, here’s the 2016 vs 2017 comparison of balls hit off Moore:
The splits here tell us what you’d expect for a guy who was slugged at a +.600 clip by lefties. Roughly 35% of the time, the ball was hit hard off him. The soft contact numbers are better, so he basically replaced average contact for hard contact in 2017. That’s a bad switch, but one that can be countered with mechanical or pitch-selection adjustments
Where’d hitters hit him in 2017 vs 2016? Well, first, 2017:
He couldn’t win for losing here. If he missed high and away to lefties for a game, they would own him, although he’d fair well vs. righties drifting to the same spot. If he missed low and away to lefties/in to righties, either way, he was in trouble. And if he got low and in to lefties (a true sign of trouble with the curve spinning vs breaking, and the cutter not cutting) he was crushed.
What does 2016, by comparison, look like? Have a look:
Those are some hug differences.
In 2016, he got hit exactly where you’d expect of a curveball/spot-fastball pitcher: up in the zone in to lefties/away from righties, and middle to middle down by everyone. That’s sustainable, because a pitcher can, with command, work the corners. But if one must throw it down the middle (against EVERY instinct) and trust it to be hit LESS, well, that just doesn’t compute.
For his part, Moore took full ownership of getting hit, and hit hard, last year. He told the Mercury News in August:
“I’ve put two outfielders on the disabled list this year.” – Matt Moore, in August 2017
I want to make one thing clear in all this. Making adjustments in pro baseball, at any level, is the difference between winning and losing, sticking and failing. It’s REALLY hard, because the game is almost unbelievably fast; if you don’t believe me, you’ve never been at field level 20 feet from a big league home plate. This is not the 85-MPH cage at your local golfing range. Not even comparable.
It’s fast there and everywhere else, and that speed means that small adjustments make huge differences. All of what we suggest for Matt Moore—velocity, movement, or control, alike—could be the result of 1/8 of an inch off in his arm slot, or FAR less than 1/8 of a second on his release point. Or it could be a sound he hears on the mound that he can’t block out, for some reason, or a creeping doubt, either of which throws off perhaps the most delicate test of concentration in professional sports.
So if Moore doesn’t improve, don’t think it’s lack of effort or awareness. See, this is like a precision machine moving at 10x it’s designed speed, and trying to repair it in motion. It’s why Doug Brocail and Anthony Iopace are so critical to every player on this roster, and why almost everyone who THINKS they could do a better job, or knows someone who could, is probably wrong.
It’s because the TINY things make HUGE impacts, both mechanically and mentally.
Looking ahead to 2018
So, what does all this mean for 2018? Well, he has to work a lot this spring, I expect, on getting better movement on the cutter, command on the four-seamer—especially at the corners—and a better north-to-south movement on the curve. That’s how you control those lefties, I’d guess.
Whether he can do that is up to he and Doug Brocail.
Again, as I said before, do not look at spring numbers. Instead, look for movement to improve and command to be sharp by late in spring. If that’s the case, velocity is an afterthought with Moore. The days of 94 and 95 on the gun are likely fairly gone. We need to see location and movement.
Like Fister, Moore’s season will depend on winning with, first, command, and as importantly, movement. I’m ok with those walk numbers even going up a small bit, if it decreases the hard-hit balls against him. I suspect a lot of what we saw in 2017 was a guy trying to be too fine with his command and, as we’ve said before, being wild IN the zone. It’ll kill you every time.
So, what’s his plus-case season? Well, we could do a bit more digging for signs of hope, and certainly for ways he might revert to 2016, but what we can’t really do is expect a return to the pre-TJ Matt Moore. I don’t think all the stat analysis in the world will get us there, because that’s on-field stuff.
One thing the stats do tell us, both before and after TJ surgery, is that Moore has an ability to miss bats at a high rate, up to 8 or 9 K per 9. For this staff, that’s big.
The ceiling for what the Rangers should expect in 2018 is basically 2016: 200 innings, a 4.00 ERA/FIP combo, and a bit less than a hit per inning, with an equal rate of strikeouts and a 2.5 walk to whiff ratio.
If Texas gets that Matt Moore, he’s a solid 2/3 starter behind Hamels and somewhere in the Fister zone, if Doug’s on his game as well.
If you add Jake Arrieta to the mix, a 4.00 ERA from your #3 or #4 guys is something to really like, with this club’s lineage and in this era. One can only hope.
As for dreams of Arietta, we’ll be ready to cross that bridge if we get there.
Again, don’t forget that hope lies in things unseen. With Matt Moore, it may be a curve he’s not seen in a few years that makes all the difference.