Any Meaning to Matt Moore’s Early-Season Struggles?

Matt Moore was expected to play an important role for the Rays as the 4th starter in their rotation as they hope to make the playoffs for the 4th time in 5 years. Instead, the Rays have gone 0-3 in his first 3 starts of 2012 and a lot of that is his own fault as he has gone 0-1 with a 5.12 ERA, striking out just 11 while walking 12 and allowing 3 home runs in 19.1 IP. Is there legitimate reason to be concerned about Moore?

Moore can't be happy about the way his season has started. (Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE)

The first thing to note of here is that the sample size is too small. To give an example, can you name one pitcher minimum 14 innings pitched who is in the top five in the major leagues in ERA? You would name Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, and maybe even Stephen Strasburg but none of those would be right. The top five pitchers in baseball in terms of ERA are Brandon Beachy, Ross Detwiler, Jake Westbrook, Joe Saunders, and Matt Harrison. Would anyone like to argue that those are the five best pitchers in baseball? And if Moore is so bad, his ERA (5.12) is actually better than Sabathia (5.59)! Is Sabathia just that bad? Although the rest of the AL East and all of baseball wishes that was so, that is certainly not the case.

But I just used ERA for the example above. ERA has a lot of variability and luck involved, so it’s not always the best barometer of a pitcher’s true ability. Looking at baseball’s FIP leaderboard (FIP is a “true ERA” estimator based on the factors pitchers can supposedly control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed), we get much more recognizable names: Zach Greinke, Gio Gonzalez, Weaver, Veralnder, and Strasburg occupy the top five spots in baseball. Moore’s FIP is currently the 4th-worst among qualifiers, coming in at 5.64. Could Moore and the Rays have a real problem here?

As it turns out, Moore is a slow starter. Moore had a 6.75 ERA through his first three starts at Double-A in 2011. In his first three High-A starts in 2010, he had a 5.56 ERA. Apparently, it takes Moore a little while to get going. But wait a second! In his first three starts of those two years, Moore had a 3.65 FIP and a 2.94 FIP respectively! That’s not nearly as bad as his 5.64 FIP in 2012! But FIP does not account for how hard balls are hit. Maybe everything works out over larger sample sizes, but especially in small samples we see pitchers strikeout a lot of guys and not walk very many, but they still have bad outings. From watching Moore right now, we know that he’s been struggling with command. That could very well have been the case in 2010 and 2011. But the problem is that we don’t know for sure. So we have two possible proofs to why Moore is fine: sample size and that he’s been a slow starter the past couple of seasons. But both of those proofs have their problems. Is there some perfect proof to prove unequivocally that Moore will be fine in 2012? I’ll say yes: his Pitch F/X data from thus far this year. Even if Moore is struggling, his pitches should be moving as good as ever if he really is fine. Let’s compare Moore’s Pitch F/X data from 2011 to 2012, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, displayed on one of my Pitch Movement graphs. We’ll say this: if the movement on his pitches is close to or better than the movement on his pitches from 2011, he should be fine. If it’s worse, we may have a problem here. Let’s see what the data shows us.

(For a general explanation of the topic of Pitch F/X and specifically how to read this type of graph, please click here.)

 These graphs look awfully similar, and the movement on Moore’s pitches in 2012 is arguably better. Looking at the key, we see that Moore has used his pitched somewhat differently, and we also see a general downtick in velocity. It makes sense that his velocity is down because a good amount of his Pitch F/X in 2011 came out of the bullpen, and it makes sense that he’s used his secondary pitches more as a starter- but wait a second. We see in the key that the blue line in the graph is Moore’s fastball while the purple line is his sinker. Both of those are varieties of fastballs. So in 2011, Moore threw a fastball 72% of the time. But in 2012, that number has actually gone up to 74% despite the fact that he’s now starting games every time out. What could that mean?

Pitches are forced to throw more fastballs when they get behind in counts. That is what has been occurring for Moore in 2012. Just 58% of his pitches have been strikes compared to his 64% mark in 2012 and the 63% mark the last two seasons. Even though Moore has gotten better movement on his pitches, he has not yet been able to use that to his advantage. Instead of Moore’s pitches starting off the strike zone before hitting the corner or starting at the strike zone before disappearing out of zone, Moore’s pitches are either moving off the plate or moving right down the middle where they have become hittable. This also has to do with the lack of some velocity. We know that pitchers gain velocity as the year progresses and we should see Moore get his average fastball velocity up before the year is through. With less velocity, the ball tends to move more. That’s what is happening. Moore is expecting his pitches to move a certain amount, but instead they’re moving too far. Moore wants to hit the outside corner with his fastball, but instead the ball ends up right down the middle. He want to land his curveball at the hitter’s knees for a strike, but instead it’s going too far down. The additional movement is not a bad thing- but Moore has to get used to it.

We see that the past three years, Moore’s FIP in his first three starts has gone up, from 2.94 to 3.65 to 5.64. Why? Because hitters at higher levels punish mistake pitches more. The same thing is happening every season with Moore’s velocity being a tick lower to begin the year and his pitches moving a little bit more, but now major league hitters are able to expose it much more than High-A or Double-A pitchers could.

Matt Moore is having no problems with his pure stuff. He’s throwing plenty hard and getting tons of movement. He just has to acclimate to his current velocity and movement on his pitches and he’ll be fine. Moore has gotten off to a rocky start. But he has the potential to turn his season around and be the type of pitcher who the Rays will have a postseason start. We knew that there would be growing pains in Moore’s rookie year. However, his struggles thus far this season and nothing that won’t naturally be resolved. It may not be pretty to look at Matt Moore’s ERA up on the board right now, but don’t worry. He’ll give us plenty of reason to be excited the rest of the season.

Topics: Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Matt Moore, Pitch F/X, Roy Halladay, Stephen Strasburg, Zach Greinke

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