The Rays handed the ball to Matt Moore on Wednesday needing him to shut down to the Texas Rangers and lead them to victory. Moore was unable to give the Rays much length, but while he was in the game he did exactly what he was asked to do, tossing 5.1 innings allowing just 1 hit. However, he accomplished that in about the ugliest way possible, walking 6 in his 5.1 frames, giving out at least one free pass in each inning he pitched aside from the 4th. Moore did also strike out five in the game, but he was all over the place his entire outing, throwing just 54 of his 106 pitches for strikes and throwing more ball than strikes in just two of his innings. All of this begs an obvious question: how in the world did Moore throw so few strikes but still have such a good outing?
It wasn’t that only Moore’s fastball was off or that his breaking pitches didn’t have any bite- Moore couldn’t throw anything for strikes. Per Brooks Baseball, Moore threw his fastball for a strike just 40 out of 75 times (53.3%), his curveball 10 of 18 times (55.6%), and his changeup just 4 of 13 times (30.8%). If Moore was throwing so few strikes, why did hitters keep swinging? The answer: because Moore’s pitches was moving so well. As Moore described himself, he had more movement on his fastball that usual, and even as he couldn’t control it consistently, it looked so good at times that hitters often couldn’t resist. It moved so well at times that it didn’t look like a strike at all, and sure enough, all 6 of Moore’s walks came on his fastball. However, so did 4 of his strikeouts and hitters couldn’t put it in play at all- just 5.3% of them were put in play and over a quarter of them were fouled off as hitters simply could not square them up. Movement usually means nothing if a pitcher can’t control his pitches- but in Moore’s case, he was around the zone most of the time, and when he was, hitters couldn’t do anything with his pitches when they did swing.
Moore’s curveball was easily his most effective pitch on the day, and it wasn’t just he threw it for a strike the highest percentage of the time. On the day, Moore’s curve had a linear weights of -1.59 (zero is average, lower is better for a pitcher), more than double as good as his other two pitches. But even though that was the case, Moore actually generated just one swing-and-miss on his breaking ball the entire game. So how was it such a good pitch? Moore threw a few nasty curveballs, and one of them resulted in a whiff and a strikeout, but the rest of them were taken because hitters weren’t sold that Moore could throw a strike. What Moore did goe hitters on were the breaking balls he threw within the zone. Hitters did a decent job recognizing Moore’s breaking ball most of the time, expected a mistake, and swung hard, but Moore did a good job keeping the ball down in the zone and keeping the contact he allowed on the ground, getting 4 of his 5 groundballs in the game on his curveball alone. Moore’s curveball didn’t consistently have the sharp, dynamic break it needs to blow hitters away. Despite that, though, he was able to recognize that early in the game and adjust his approach, going from burying it in the dirt to throwing it for strikes down in the zone and getting hitters to swing and put the ball in play on the ground. Last season, Moore might have given up on his curveball seeing that it wasn’t working and he couldn’t get the good break on it. On Wednesday, though, he went with the curveball he did have and that was critical to his success.
And then there was Moore’s changeup, which was the victim of his inconsistency with his fastball. Moore threw just 4 of his 13 changeups for strikes, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as that sounds. Moore actually had a really good changeup, keeping it down 11 of the 13 times he threw it (per Texas Leaguers) including probably the best pitch he threw all day, a nasty 1-1 changeup with 2 outs in the 3rd than made Adrian Beltre look foolish as he swung and missed. The issue was that Moore threw his changeup mostly out of the zone and down, and while that’s normally fine, it wasn’t in this game. Hitters started assuming that Moore’s fastball wouldn’t be a strike, so if they were fooled by Moore’s changeup and thought it would be a fastball, they wouldn’t be any more likely to swing. Moore adjusted later in his outing, starting to throw his changeup for a strike at the bottom of the zone- but the home plate umpire wasn’t having any of it, calling his changeups that were borderline strikes all low. Moore couldn’t get a single called strike on his changeup the entire game! It had to be frustrating for Moore to have a day where his changeup was overbearing happen to be the day that it was completely useless. But it certainly bodes well for him moving forward that his changeup was as good as it was on Wednesday, and if he pairs that changeup with a fastball he can control, hitters will be in trouble.
The common thread for Moore on Wednesday was that everything was off- his fastball was moving too much, his curveball didn’t have its good break, and his changeup was rendered a persona non grata by his fastball issues- but he was able to persevere beyond that and simply work with what he had to find success. It wasn’t pretty and if Moore plays with fire like this too many more times, he’s going to get burned. Nonetheless, though, the Rays have been extremely impressed by the maturity they saw in Moore as he battled himself the entire game yet found a way to keep the Rangers off the scoreboard. Matt Moore showcased versus Texas that it’s not just his stuff but also his mentality on the mound that gives him a real chance to be an ace in the major leagues someday. And if this is what Moore can do with control problems, just wait until you see at his best.