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Bruce Chen: The Next Moyer?

Bruce Chen recently told Tyler Kepner that, health permitting, he could see himself having a very lengthy career similar to Jamie Moyer‘s. The man still loves everything about baseball and is fully aware of what defines his success.

Chen reasoned that, like Moyer, his success hinges on knowing how to pitch rather than velocity and pure stuff. Part of that knowledge calls for a hefty utilization of his offspeed pitches. Another part involves throwing his pitches from different arm angles at any given time, a lesson learned from Royals pitching coach Bob McClure. At 34 years old, Chen embodies the term ‘crafty lefty’ and embraces the classification. While Chen isn’t exactly putting the league on notice, he understands his limitations and has become quite the cost-effective starting pitcher.

While he’ll never achieve the potential many saw in his days as a prospect, Chen could certainly be a serviceable major league arm for years to come. But is he the next Jamie Moyer? Can he really keep batters off balance for another decade and a half?

First, let’s note their major differences. While Chen utilizes breaking balls and changeups from various arm angles, Moyer derives much of his success from a slightly deceptive windup and general pitching know-how. Moyer holds the ball for extended periods of time and sequences his deliveries to throw with a greater perceived velocity. Batters aren’t seeing 90+ mph when he toes the rubber, but his offspeed pitches are made more effective based on his sequencing and location.

However, Moyer doesn’t throw from multiple arm angles. In fact, many of his pitches come from the exact same arm angle, and appear to have the same initial movement, which further confuses the opposition.

By throwing from different arm angles, Chen prevents batters from settling in at the plate. The split second they have to spend picking up his non-traditional release point when a different angle is used can add a few perceived miles per hour to his fastball. Batters have less reaction time to get the sweet spot of the bat on the ball, which in turn makes the pitches appear faster. I’ve studied the topic in depth before, and while this isn’t the next chapter in that series, Moyer is definitely a pitcher who implements the tactic, whether or not he uses the same nomenclature.

A major similarity is that both lefties toiled in relative obscurity for the first ten years of their careers. From 1986-96, Moyer pitched for six different teams and posted the following numbers: 5.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.41 WHIP, .294 BABIP, 103 ERA-, 103 FIP-. From 1998-2007, Chen pitched for nine different teams and produced the following line: 7.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.39 WHIP, .276 BABIP, 105 ERA-, 118 FIP-.

Chen missed more bats with slightly less control, but held a substantial advantage in the BABIP department, giving them virtually identical baserunners allowed rates. His low batting average on balls in play also explains much of the disconnect between his adjusted ERA and FIP marks.

From 1997-onward, Moyer was a completely different pitcher. Over the last 14 seasons, Moyer has a 5.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 1.27 WHIP, .277 BABIP, 94 ERA-, 103 FIP-. Much like Chen, Moyer showed some control over his BABIP, keeping it well south of the league average, therefore making up much of the difference between his ERA and estimators.

One year with a .280 BABIP puts a pitcher in line for regression. A decade and a half is an entirely different story. Moyer clearly exhibits some control over his balls in play, meaning his lower strikeout rate can’t be judged the same as a pitcher in the .295-.300 range.

It’s obviously unclear if Chen can sustain some of his new found success for as long as Moyer has, but he already has the BABIP advantage working in his favor. The odds are against Chen becoming the next Moyer, as Moyer is a unique pitcher. However, if Chen continues to prevent balls in play from becoming hits more often than the league and sustains some semblance of his average-ish strikeout rate, there is no reason he couldn’t be a viable back-end candidate for years to come.