When Chicken Little thought the world was crumbling down on her, she panicked and ran to tell all of her friends. The paranoid bird warned them that the sky was falling, and clearly the world was in great peril, when all that had happened was a small acorn had fallen upon her head. Depending on which version of the story you consult, the paranoia over the acorn falling from the sky would ultimately lead to the small fowl and her friends being led into the den of a wolf. If you know your food chain from elementary school, you know how this ends.
The same scenario seems to be unfolding before our eyes this April in the world of Major League Baseball. A few big-name pitchers aren’t throwing a baseball quite as quickly to home plate as they have before, so every national media outlet is reporting on lowered velocity and the impact is has had on pitching so far this season. Radio shows I listen to get call-ins daily asking if the decreased velocity of C.C. Sabathia should concern Yankees’ fans, and CBS Sports is reporting changes in pitch speed down to the one-hundredth. SO with pitchers like Halladay, Sabathia, and Haren struggling thanks to lowered velocity, it’s probably a good time to check the Rays’ pitching staff for signs of this obvious precursor to a pitchers’ downfall.
And after looking over the numbers, it appears one Rays’ starter is down 1.44 miles per hour on his fastball from this time last year, despite throwing it as often as he usually does. He’s not old (it’s not Jamey Wright or Roberto Hernandez), so it’s not age that’s causing the decline. So what’s the deal? Who is this Rays pitcher who is obviously struggling so mightily so far this season?
That pitcher is the now 4-0 Matt Moore, who has an ERA just above 1.00 and has looked very good, except for some control problems that have been more than made up for with excellent pitching from the slide-step as well as the windup. So what is it about Moore, a serially slow starter in his career, that is causing success despite decreased velocity?
According to Brooks Baseball, Matt Moore is showing a lot more horizontal movement on his fastball this April compared to last April. The ball is sweeping across the zone rather than dropping down it, meaning batters aren’t convinced the pitch he’s throwing is a strike. This has led to a very sharp increase in called strikes on his fastball, up almost 7% from last April. He’s not getting players to swing and miss on his fastball as often, but that’s okay, because he’s still only allowing a .200 batting average against on his fastball, which is .050 points better than last year at this point in the season.
So the fastball is moving more, and traveling slower. The lack of velocity has been more than made up for by nastier stuff that’s more deceiving to hitters. And of course, the almighty velocity number doesn’t matter quite as much with the curveball, which Moore has been using to devastating effect in 2013. Last year, in a very small sample size, Moore allowed a hit every other at-bat that featured a curveball, and struck out about one-tenth of those batters. This season, he has 11 strikeouts and a .087 batting average against on the curve. He’s slowing down the fastball, and setting up a nasty curve, and it’s working wonders for the young Rays’ hurler, who is off to arguably the best start for a pitcher in Rays’ history.
So before you worry too much about your favorite fantasy baseball pitchers’ velocity consider the case of Matt Moore first. Velocity is not the end-all, be-all for a MLB pitcher. Combine a crop in velocity with other warning signs and factors, and you may have reason for concern. But losing speed on a fastball doesn’t always mean a pitcher isn’t throwing it as well. Sometimes it just means he’s throwing it differently. And for Matt Moore, different is better so far in 2013.