It wasn’t too long ago that Matt Moore was considered to be not only the best pitching prospect in baseball, but one that comes by once only every few years. His fastball sat in the mid to high 90s (hitting 100 in the Futures Game); he had a nasty changeup and curve, and had found precision on the edge of the plate. His mechanics were compared to Cliff Lee, which is about as high a praise as one could have at the time, and the Rays organization had tremendous success developing pitchers into studs (James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir, Wade Davis). Combine all this with a lights out month of September as a late call-up and a dominant playoff showing in Texas against the soon to be American League champs, and it wasn’t easy to stay calm about what the future had in store for the young lefty.
But as these things so often happen, the fairy tale still had a long way to go to come to fruition. His lethal 37.5% strikeout rate was dulled to 23.1%, and his blistering fastball had cooled down to the low 90s in his full season debut in 2012. To say his 3.81 ERA was disappointing is an understatement, and his 3.93 FIP and 4.15 SIERA added little encouragement. And although his ERA decreased in 2013 to 3.29, Moore’s peripheral numbers didn’t change. Basically, he was the same pitcher we saw in 2012 except his defense just performed a little better.
He needed just a couple of starts in 2014 to realize something was wrong with his arm, and of course it resulted in Tommy John surgery. He had a rough go in 2015 coming back from it, but history tells us to expect this as well as some improvement the following year. Which leads us to 2016.
This year has been more of the same so far. Average strikeout rate, control issues that flare up, and he’s still sitting low 90s. But if you look a little deeper we see that his fastball, for the first time since 2012, has been worth positive value. Part of this is explained because he is getting the ball to the plate a little faster, average release speed of 92.8 compared to 91.8 last year. Part is also that he’s pounding it inside the zone more often, a zone rate of 53.3% which is a huge jump from 47.3% from 2012-14. We aren’t seeing this in the strikeout column because that isn’t the purpose of his heater, but by throwing it inside the zone so much he’s forcing hitters to have to swing more often at pitches they don’t want to swing at.
Something else we’re seeing this year from Moore is a difference in his release point. He’s shifted around the rubber in his career (as most pitchers do) between the first and third base sides, but he’s also had his vertical release point fluctuate as well. Look at his career chart of release point:
This data can be a little noisy and tough to understand. Remember he had his surgery in 2014, which is the singular data set between what looks like a ramp and then a flatline on the lowest of his career. Since his horizontal release point was the same, there’s some clear shifting from his mechanics. Essentially, Moore was climbing higher with his release point in 2013 to gain more velocity (higher release point typically = higher velocity), then we see him enter 2014 with what is a more compact motion, not allowing maximum trunk rotation, which is either because of, or the cause of, his injury.
What we can learn about this is how his body is reacting to the higher release point, and as we can now see he’s trying to stay lower through his pitching motion. While this won’t help his velocity much (although we did see a decent gain back, generally attributed to now having a healthy arm), what we can expect is better control, which has happened since surgery. His walk rate has been 8.1%, compared to the 11.5% we saw from 2012-2014.
Something else we see is a better curveball, which had started to look flattened the past few years before injury. Its vertical drop has increased from three 3.0 inches of vertical movement to 7.1 inches. This is helped by increased spin rate on the pitch, something imperative to a good bender:
What you see here is Moore’s spin rate compared with his horizontal movement, and it tells an intriguing story. Compared to league average, Moore also has high spin on his four seamer (which is good because the backspin adds to the rise or “pop” you see) and low spin on his change (which helps the pitch create the “fall off the table” look). The results right now wouldn’t have you thinking this, but Matt Moore has all of his pitches looking pretty nasty.
There is a lot of concern over Matt Moore’s hollow feel. His prospect shine at this point seems too big for his real life performance to ever match. But when we look inside, we still see someone who has the ability to be a front of the rotation starter (even perhaps in a stacked Giants rotation). He has all of his pitches moving well, and he’s commanding them all within the strike zone. He doesn’t have the sweltering heat he once did, but he’s still above average in terms of velocity for lefties. And he’s in an organization that has worked wonders for some cast aside pitchers with potential (I don’t want to knock the Rays though, sometimes a guy does just need a change of scenery). You put all this together and you still have someone who can tear through lineups like a lion through a steak.
Moore may not quite have the elite strikeout potential anymore, but his run suppression will still come back to being exceptional. He’s a buy low guy who is really reaching his lowest value, but everything underlying suggests that a resurgence is coming.
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