Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What's Up with Matt Moore?

A month ago, Matt Moore was 8-0 with a 2.21 ERA and looked like a good bet to start the All Star Game. He has arguably been the worst pitcher in the American League since then. It would be a shame if Matt Moore never becomes as good as we expected.

The young left-handed Rays starting pitcher has been one of our favorite prospects for the past 3+ years. When we did our "24 Under 24" column 18-months ago, we had Moore ranked third, just ahead of Mike Trout, behind Kershaw and Strasburg. Because Matt Moore has 10 Wins and a decent 3.95 ERA, the difficulties Matt Moore has been going through in June can be easily overlooked. His monthly splits are an eyesore...

Matt Moore by 2013 Month
April: .122 Opponents Batting Average / 1.13 ERA
May: .232 Opponents Batting Average / 3.30 ERA
June: .337 Opponents Batting Average / 8.39 ERA

Are Matt Moore's recent struggles a bump in the road, or regression towards a more realistic measure of his true talent?

Photo by Chris O'Meara / AP Photo

As expected by the April splits, this season Matt Moore came out gangbusters. He started out 8-0 after 9 starts, with the Rays winning all nine games. His eleventh start was limited to one perfect inning in Cleveland, before a lengthy rain delay ended his night. Coincidentally, it was his last start in May and ended the fantastic start to his season.

Matt Moore (Starts 1-11, April/May 2013)
Opponents' BA/OBP/SLG: .178/.274/.324

Matt Moore (Starts 12-16, June 2013)
Opponents' BA/OBP/SLG: .337/.438/.485

To put those dramatic numbers into perspective, opponents in Matt Moore's first 11 starts were similar to J.R. Towles, while opponents in June have been better than the career numbers of Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and Rod Carew - all three made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

What can we learn from Moore's (more) advanced peripheral stats? His average fastball velocity has dropped 2 mph since last year, from 94.4 to 92.4. A loss in velocity can be a harbinger of injuries, but is a 2 mph difference in this small of a sample size significant?

Matt Moore's walk and strikeout rates haven't deteriorated completely, but they're both moving in the wrong direction:

Matt Moore 2012: 10.7 BB%, 23.1 K%
Matt Moore 2013: 12.6 BB%, 21.8 K%

That 12.6 BB%, as well as his 4.98 BB/9 is the worst among American League qualified starting pitchers. Only Jason Marquis, in the NL, has worse numbers.

Other issues arise in Matt Moore's control, plate discipline, and contact numbers (stats per Fangraphs). Last season, Moore threw a first-pitch strike to 60.1% of the batters he faced. This year, it's been just 51.8%. The Fangraphs plate disciple numbers linked above say opponents are making contact with fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (60% last year, 67% this year). Fangraphs' Pitch F/X numbers say that opponents' outside contact percentage is about the same as last year, but both systems agree that opponents are making more contact inside of the strike zone (81% to 88%). League-average is about 87%. Overall, Matt Moore is getting fewer swinging strikes: 12% SwStr% last year, compared with a league-average 9% so far in 2013.

Photo by J. Meric / Getty Images
The aggregate of Matt Moore's 2013 Pitch F/X and Plate Discipline metrics are basically league average. MLB league average players are valuable. By definition, they are above replacement level. Non-prospects who become league average players are extremely valuable.

The problem is that Matt Moore was supposed to be much better than this. He was supposed to measure up with Stephen Strasburg, David Price, and other elite pitchers in the game. Let's take a quick digression to realize that "supposed to..." is a dangerous turn of phrase. In this game, nothing is promised.

Signs, unfortunately, point at Matt Moore being less productive in the second half of this season than he's been up to this point. Matt Moore's 4.57 xFIP ranks 91st out of 97 qualified starting pitchers.

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