So far in 2013, Matt Moore has been nothing short of incredible for the Rays. He has gone 8-0 with a 2.18 ERA, with hitters managing just a .178 batting average against him. The Rays are an astounding 10-1 in his starts, and in his last start, he didn’t allow a single baserunner (ignoring the fact that he only threw 1 inning because of a rain delay). Moore has really taken that next step, going from an enigmatic rookie to a polished ace. Or has he? Concern immediately arises when you look at Moore’s strikeout, walk, and home ratios per nine innings on the season.
Moore’s walk and home run rates have stayed basically the same while his strikeout rate has actually gone down a noticeable margin, yet despite that his ERA has gone down by almost two runs. The difference for Moore this season is that he has allowed many fewer hits, an AL-best 5.7 per 9 innings as opposed to 8.0 per 9 in 2012. But could that be caused by simply luck? Moore’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) against has been just .206, not just the lowest mark in the entire major leagues but .016 lower than any other qualified pitcher. The MLB average is .297. Moore’s great pitching has to be a major reason for such a low BAbip, but at the same time it can’t possibly be this low with quite a bit of luck going his way, right? That appears to be a valid argument. But let’s try to prove as much as possible that Moore’s breakthrough really has to do much more with command than simple luck.
How would Moore possibly improve so much as a pitcher without striking out anybody more, walking anyone less, or allowing less home runs? The answer is that he would force weaker contact. Moore can throw about the same amount of strikes, make about the same amount of mistakes that lead to home runs, and even throw a few less nasty pitches for strikeouts yet still get much better results if he reduces the quality of contact against him by throwing his strikes to the right side? Has that been happening? Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Moore’s Zone Profiles from Brooks Baseball between 2012 and 2013 showing how often he has thrown pitches to each zone of the plate, giving us a good idea of how good Moore has been able to locate his pitches. Note that red is more frequent and blue is less frequent.
Comparing the two charts side-by-side the first thing you have to notice is that there is much less red over the plate, especially right over the middle of the plate, where he has dropped from 5.75% of his pitches to 4.79%. Those pitches right down the middle are often the ones that get crushed, and Moore getting rid of say one of about every 100 pitches or one per game has helped him out a lot. But it’s not just that zone right down the middle. Moore has thrown more to the zone right to the left of the middle, but he has pitched noticeably less in the bottom two rows of the strike zone overall, dropping from 29.22% of his pitches to 26.58%. Moore has compensated for the difference by throwing a lot more in the bottom left corner zone (down-and-in to a righty) and in the upper row of the strike zone as well as the zones just above it (see top row, middle column and the two zones to the right). So at the end of the day, Moore is throwing less strikes and it’s actually helping him significantly? As it turns out, the answer to that is yes because he’s throwing his pitches to much better spots and forcing much weaker contact in the process.
Matt Moore still has plenty of things he needs to improve on. His swing-and-miss rate on the season is down from 11.8% last year to 8.2% this season, dropping on his fastball, changeup, and curveball. Moore has to find a way to fix that, whether by getting sharper movement on all of his pitches or utilizing them differently. At the end of the day, though, we can say that Moore hasn’t yet hit his stride this season yet is dominating major league hitters start after start by locating his pitches better within the zone. Yes, Moore has a 2.18 ERA but is only getting better. Moore may be getting lucky–you can say that it’s lucky that he’s making so many fewer mistakes than last year–but most of the regression will be canceled out by Moore getting a better feel for his arsenal. Moore is unlikely to finish this season with an ERA this low–but he’s quickly emerging as an excellent pitcher, and both his ERA and his peripheral statistics should agree on that by the end of the year. If this is Moore battling through sub-par stuff most of the time, we can only imagine how good he will be when everything is working.