Other Signs Of Decline

Matt Moore‘s injury afforded an opportunity for his naysayers to point back to their predictions for him in 2014. Bradley Woodrum did a great job in pointing out Moore’s flaws in his Fangraphs+ player profile:

But Moore needs to improve his control and his swinging strike rate if he wants to develop into anything more than an innings eater who doesn’t eat innings. Add to the warning flags: He missed a month in elbow inflammation and his fastball slowed almost two miles per hour from 2012. On the merit of his tools alone, Moore is still worth keeping on a roster, but he has too many shortcomings at his point to expect much more than 175 innings and a league-average FIP. Whether he’ll beat his FIP or not depends on how you see his career-best .259 batting average on balls in play.

There were those issues, and there was no overlooking the fact that Moore’s velocity was in decline. However, that was not the only indicator in decline for Moore and it did not take this most recent injury to find a problem with him.

Velocity was just one of the many areas where Matt Moore was showing decline heading into the 2014 season. Moore’s rates were in a two-year decline in each of the following areas:

  • F-Strike%
  • O-Swing%
  • O-Contact%
  • Z-Contact%
  • Contact%
  • Swing%
  • Zone%
  • SwStr%

It all starts with strike one. As our own Eno Sarris told MLB.com last year, first strike percentage is important enough to explain almost half the variance in walk rate. He wrote a piece in January of 2013 that pitchers were throwing first pitch strikes at a higher rate than they previously had.  Getting that first strike gives the pitcher a distinct advantage in the count.

Since 2009, if a pitcher gets into an 0-1 count, the league has hit .226/.267/.345 after that point. In that same stretch, the league has hit .256/.323/.404 after 1-0 counts. That first strike is worth 30 points in batting average, 56 points in on base percentage, and 59 points of slugging percentage.

Once a pitcher gets behind in the count at 1-0, he has to come into the strike zone to get back even in the count. This is something Moore had to do quite a bit in 2013 as his first pitch strike percentage fell from 60.1% in 2012 to just 50.9% in 2013. Compounding his early command struggles was the fact batters made more contact against him both in and out of the strike zone, as well as cut down on their swinging strike rates. In fact, Moore’s numbers declined in each of the eight bulleted categories listed above. The declining velocity was one issue, but that much scaffolding falling down around him was going to make it tough for him to remain productive even before the injury crept up.

Moore is the only pitcher who declined in each category over 2012 to 2013, but he is not the only pitcher to decline in a majority of them.  This is the list of the pitchers who have declined over the past two seasons in at least five of the eight categories:

Pitcher O-Swing% Swing% O-Contact Z-Contact Contact% Zone% SwStr% F-Strike%
Matt Moore X X X X X X X X
CC Sabathia X X X X X X
Jon Niese X X X X X X
Ian Kennedy X X X X X
Mike Leake X X X X X
Paul Maholm X X X X X
Ryan Vogelsong X X X X X
Trevor Cahill X X X X X
Wei-Yin Chen X X X X X
Yovani Gallardo X X X X X

That list has a few candidates with some of the same issues that Moore struggled with physically. Sabathia and Niese have both fought through injury issues. Sabathia, Vogelsong, and Gallardo have had notable struggles with velocity over the past two seasons. Cahill was recently demoted to the bullpen after getting off to a poor start to the season, and then there is Kennedy. He is an odd name on this list as he has maintained an above-league average strikeout rate despite the fact the league has made more contact against him than it did in 2010 and 2011.

The decrease in velocity is certainly a factor in the struggles some of these pitchers have had. Struggles in the other area also speaks to a decline in life on the pitches as batters have an easier time making contact with the pitches. While we worry about what went wrong with Moore, let’s not overlook the fact that others are heading down very similar paths.

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