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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 TexasLeaguers.com 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.