Matt Moore Needs a Better Breaking Ball

Coming into the season, big things were expected of Matt Moore. He was ridiculous down the stretch and in the playoffs last year — striking out 23 batters in 19 innings pitched between the regular season and the playoffs — and was considered to be on par with prospects like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout heading into the year. However, while Harper and Trout are posting historically great seasons for their ages, Moore is struggling to live up to expectations, and has been a below average big league pitcher in the first third of the season.

The strikeouts are still there, but a cursory glance at his stat line reveals problems with walks (10.9% BB%) and home runs (1.44 HR/9), which are not a great combination. But, in reality, a cursory glance doesn’t really tell the whole story. The root of Matt Moore’s underlying problems are found on his splits pages.

There have been 288 pitchers who have recorded at least 30 outs from left-handed batters this year, and the eight who have fared the worst against LHBs are basically what you’d expect – sinker/slider right-handers like Jhoulyis Chacin, Tyson Ross, and Chad Qualls. The two-seam fastball and the slider have the largest platoon splits of any pitch in baseball, and right-handed pitchers who rely primarly on this repertoire usually function as right-on-right match-up guys. That we have a bunch of RHPs who fit this mold getting lit up by lefties isn’t a big surprise.

But, look at the guy with the ninth worst wOBA allowed to LHBs this year – it’s Matt Moore. Matt Moore is left-handed. Matt Moore should not be getting torched by lefties in the same way that Jeff Suppan is getting torched by lefties. Jeff Suppan is old, bad, and right-handed. Matt Moore is none of those things, and yet, he’s been about as effective against LHBs this year.

The ugly totals: 66 LHBs faced, 18 H, 2 HR, 8 BB, 9 K, 3 HBP. That translates into a .327/.446/.519 slash line, or a .425 wOBA. For perspective, Josh Hamilton has a .438 wOBA. The average left-handed batter has hit against Moore at a level just slightly lower than what Josh Hamilton has done this year.

Against righties, Moore’s been mostly just fine. Not as great as last year, but he’s holding them to a .231/.314/.393 line. In terms of xFIP, he’s at 3.89 vs RHBs and 6.30 vs LHBs. His platoon split is one of the largest in all of baseball, but it’s a reverse platoon split. This isn’t something you see everyday.

So, what’s the deal? Why is Moore handling right-handed batters but struggling against left-handers?

It basically comes down to the quality of his two secondary pitches. Moore’s change-up is his best pitch by far, and one of the better change-ups in baseball. Here’s a GIF of his change-up from last September, which was lovingly chronicled by Carson Cistulli.

Cistulli calls that pitch “not fair”, and Brandon Laird probably agrees with him. Most right-handers probably agree with him, in fact. This year, Moore has thrown 222 change-ups, and batters have swung and missed at 41 of them – an 18.5% whiff rate (hat tip to for the data). But, the change-up isn’t an equal opportunity out-pitch — Moore uses it almost exclusively against right-handed batters, and for good reason.

Vs RHBs: 21.2% change-ups, 54.2% swings, 19.3% whiffs
Vs LHBs: 4.6% change-ups, 40.0% swings, 0.0% whiffs

Moore has thrown his change-up to a left-hander 10 times in 2012, and not one of them has resulted in a swinging strike. The change-up is a great pitch against right-handers, but it’s basically a nothing pitch for him against lefties, which leaves him with just his fastball and breaking ball (PITCHF/x calls it a slider, BIS calls it a curve. We’ll just go with the generic breaking ball.)

For most pitchers, their breaking ball is a strong out-pitch against same-handed hitters. Moore’s, though, is not very good, and nowhere near as good as his change-up. He’s used it as his primary second pitch against LHBs, throwing it on 18.8% of his offerings to lefties, but they have have only chased it 22% of the time and swung and missed at just 4.9% of them. If you want to see why they’re not swinging much and making contact when they do, the trusty heat map will explain all.

There are basically two clusters there – down in the dirt (where no one needs to chase) and dead center down the middle (where no one is going to miss). Moore simply hasn’t been able to consistently locate in his breaking ball, and it doesn’t have the kind of movement that his change-up does, so opposing hitters aren’t really fooled by it.

If you’re a left-handed batter facing Matt Moore, you can sit on his fastball, because his only other weapon against you is a mediocre breaking ball that he struggles to locate. If you’re a right-handed batter, you can look fastball, but you very well may get a devastating change-up instead, and that’s a much harder adjustment to make.

If Moore’s going to live up to his potential, he’s going to have to improve his breaking ball, and specifically get better at throwing it somewhere besides in the dirt or down the middle. He needs that pitch to be something that hitters will chase on the corners, because otherwise, they’re just going to sit on his fastball and pound hanging breaking balls when he tries to sneak one by them.

Moore’s still young and his fastball/change-up combination give him a big leg up in developing into a top shelf starting pitcher, but until his breaking ball (and command) improve, opposing managers should probably think about stuffing the line-up with left-handed hitters and taking away his change-up. He faces the right-handed heavy Marlins tonight, so this is a good match-up for him, but unless things change, opposing managers will adjust and make Moore prove he can get lefties out consistently. He’ll need a better breaking ball in order to do that.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

33 Responses to “Matt Moore Needs a Better Breaking Ball”

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  1. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but I called this a month ago:

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  2. Herbstr8t says:

    Fantastic analysis. Gives me even more confidence starting Moore tonight against the Marlins since they are a heavily RHB lineup. It will be interesting to see if Ozzie starts GDobbs to get another LHB in the lineup. Will also be interesting to see if Moore can throw some good sliders to Reyes and LoMo tonight.

    Based on Moore’s game log PITCHf/x data (value/100), his slider has actually been very effective in 3 of his last 4 starts. We’ll see if he’s found something or if it’s simply SSS.

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    • brendan says:

      yeah, would be funny if opponents start reverse-stacking the lineup with extra LHBs. That could get around the league fast if he continues with such a reverse split.

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      • Jody says:

        Yeah, but that would go against The Book. Not happening.

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      • Misfit says:

        Fortunately for Moore, the only manager likely willing to try such a tactic happens to be his manager. I believe it was Maddon who once filled out a lineup full of righties to face Shaun Marcum in an attempt to neutralize his change-up.

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  3. Leighton says:

    “Moore has thrown his change-up to a right-hander 10 times in 2012, and not one of them has resulted in a swinging strike.”

    The preceding paragraph and data snippet would seem to indicate that “right-hander” should in fact say “left-hander”

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  4. Joe says:

    What happened to all the hoopla about Moore having a devastating plus curve and slider? Everything I read about Moore said his breaking balls were top notch and the change up had good potential. Was his curve this bad last year?

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    • ecp says:

      Yeah, what has happened to the pitches that scouts termed “a plus-plus curveball” and “a nasty slider?”

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      • Sandy Kazmir says:

        It’s one pitch that he throws two different ways. He has a looping 12-6 curve that he used to drop up in the zone for called strikes and then the tilted curve ball that resembles a slider and is usually thrown in the dirt of off the plate from lefties. We haven’t seen any of the former and only the latter this year so far. He gets a ton of lateral movement and it seems like he’s having difficulty finding where exactly he start the pitch.

        Moore missed a couple of weeks in spring training that I feel like he is just beginning to get caught up from. That missed time meant that he had to use the season to refine his release points, grips, and other mechanics that have looked better over the past few weeks. Hopefully he continues to refine that curveball, because his last few starts he’s been erratic in one inning instead of the entire performance, and when he whittles that down even more he’s going to be an absolute monster.

        As to the guy that says he resembles Hamels, Hamels never sat 94 and reached 97 to my knowledge, though his change is even better. Moore’s works because it’s a good pitch, but also because his fastball allows it to play up even more.

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  5. Seideberg says:

    He should ask Gio Gonzalez’s father to teach him the blessed curveball.

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  6. DD says:

    With a repitoire similar to that of Cole Hamels of a few years back (his changeup was a killer to righties, would get hit by LH, and his curve was a “show me” pitch), perhaps he needs to learn the en vogue cutter.

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  7. Morgan Browne says:

    What’s the chance that he should just start throwing his change to everyone until he can develop a better hook? I mean, we’re talking about FOUR swings not resulting in any swinging strikes. As I remember, changeups usually have nearly neutral platoon splits, and even if his ridiculous change was somehow worse in that respect at least it would help keep another option in the mix. It can’t be any worse than that breaking ball.

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    • philosofool says:

      This is my thinking too. With just 10 change ups thrown to lefties this year, I would expect it to regress in the direction of his results versus righties.

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  8. Max says:

    Sweet analysis. Thanks, Dave. I hope he can put it together, he is a special talent.

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  9. James K says:

    I wonder, when we look at starting pitcher splits, if numbers like L on L aren’t inflated, because the left-handed hitters who are started against lefties tend to be more elite hitters. I’d love to see a stat that normalizes for the quality of hitters faced, especially when looking into smaller sample splits.

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  10. Henry says:

    I seem to remember it being the other way around. People were comparing him to kershaw, with a plus curve and developing slider. Has it gotten worse, or were the scouts just wrong? OR is it not about movement, but more about location? His curve could still have plus break, but awful control at the same time. I’d like to know how much his curve is breaking.

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    • philosofool says:

      I was looking at the very facts Dave is talking about the other day, trying to determine if the curve is really a good pitch. It certainly doesn’t break as much as Bedard’s or Kershaw’s.

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    • Disco Hero says:

      Baseball America had him with a 70 curveball pre-season. It was supposed to be a better pitch than his change. Obviously it hasn’t panned out so far, but his curve has great potential if you look at some of his curves last year.

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      • Henry says:

        that’s what i remembered. And even tonight, with 7 shutout innings and 8 k’s, his breaking ball wasn’t a 70. He has some serious potential.

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  11. Baldacci says:

    I noticed similarly unusual lefty lefty splits for C Freidrich. Can anyone elaborate on whether that is a similar situation of change-up?

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  12. Baldacci says:

    …of change up greatness to RHB and poor breaking pitch effectiveness to LHB?

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  13. Paul says:

    Actually, if you look at all his pitches, they tend to be more elevated against lefthanders. Some lefthanded pitchers learn to eat up lefties with the two seamer, but he doesn’t even command that pitch down in the zone to righthanders yet. It’s true he lives off an elite CH and the SL is poor against lefties. But he needs to improve FB command just as much as he needs a better breaking ball.

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  14. Joe says:

    While the pitch mix and effectiveness of the curve/slider is a key issue, I think it’s really not as simple as that.

    He has a >10% walk rate to both lefties and righties so it’s not simply about the breaking ball – his control/command (on all pitches) has not been as sharp as advertised or expected. He’s walking righties at a pretty high rate – given what appears to be a highly effective secondary swing and miss pitch (changeup), why is that? (fastball command?)

    Also the run value on his fastball is negative… while that # has some noise (small sample, BABIP, defense can play an impact, etc), below average at this point seems to indicate more than just a breaking pitch issue. While not having an effective breaking ball probably impacts the effectiveness of the fastball to lefties that is probably not the whole story. (not sure if there is anywhere to look at run value splits on a specific pitch based on batter handedness)

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    • Paul says:

      I agree with this. I’ll just add that there really should not be SSS issues with the FB pitch values since he throws them 70% of the time. As with any pitcher, clearly he can improve, but I think your diagnosis for his woes to this point is more correct than Dave’s take, which I do agree has some merit.

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  15. Ben says:

    Great analysis. Moore goes out and does exactly what you predicted, he dominated the fish. Learned a lot from this article.

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  16. Hanley Ramirez says:

    I have a bet with LoMo that more viewers of Fangraphs thinks I’m less of a drama queen than BJ Upton. +1 if you agree. -1 if you disagree.

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  17. Paul says:

    Dominant start against the Marlins indicates TB understands the adjustments he needs to make very well.

    Logan Morrison was the only LH batter in the lineup. Moore threw nothing but FBs to Morrison all three ABs. Second AB walked him on four straight four seamers.

    His pitch values for the FBs were second best on the season for the four seamer, and season best for the two seamer.

    Keep in mind that just two seasons ago at this time the talk around scouting circles was that Matt Moore might not be such a great prospect because he’d had a terrible first half – in A Ball. The culprit was FB command.

    The Rays have done a great job bringing him along slowly, but he’s still awfully young and we can’t expect for long-term command issues to suddenly resolve just because he had a great year in AA. AL East lineups are going to be more challenging than Miami’s but this start shows that if he can command the FB, the sky is the limit. There is no doubt that a lefty-specific offspeed pitch will be needed to neutralize the best LH hitters. But if he commands the fastballs he’ll dominate 80% of lineups in the short term. He should be fun to watch for years.

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  18. Greg says:

    There’s nothing wrong with the quality of Moore’s curve. Every scouting report I’ve read had it graded as a plus to plus-plus pitch, and from watching him this year It dosen’t seem to have gotten any worse. He just hasn’t been able to command it well this year.

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  19. Dave I says:

    Not for nothing, but in his last 7 starts, he has an ERA of 2.85, a WHIP of 1.15, 3.95 BB/9 and 11.19 K/9.

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