Being Jamie Moyer

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Catcher Carlos Ruiz asking Jamie Moyer for his secrets of pitching. (Icon/SMI)

Jamie Moyer has been plying his craft in the big leagues for more than 20 years. He appears to be the prototypical soft-tossing lefty and because of that many young prospects have been compared to him. It seems like such a natural comparison for lefties who can’t dent bread.

So why is it that almost none of these prospects have panned out? How come we don’t have at least a few more Jamie Moyer clones throwing in the big leagues? What is his secret? Today I want to take a close look at Jamie Moyer using PITCHf/x to try to unlock why more pitchers can’t do what Moyer is doing.

Moyer’s stuff: slow, slower and slowest

When you think of Moyer, what comes to mind first is his velocity, or lack thereof. Indeed, Moyer’s fastball averages 82.5 mph, but don’t let that fool you. Moyer is a lot more than just a slow fastball. Don’t believe me? Here is his movement chart.

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Moyer’s fastball, which is actually a sinker, is but a small part of his repertoire. He also throws a straight change-up, cutter, slider and curveball. In fact, not only is his sinker not very fast, it also doesn’t have the classic sink that pitchers like Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb have. Moyer’s sinker actually has six inches of vertical rise to it on average, putting it lower than average for a major league sinker in that category. What it does have is incredibly high horizontal movement of 9.5 inches in to a left-handed batter. That movement is what Moyer relies on when he throws his sinker, which he does only 40 percent of the time, very low for a starter.

Moyer’s best pitch is definitely his straight change-up. You can tell it is a straight change-up and not a circle change-up because the movement of the pitch is almost identical to the movement of his sinker. If it were a circle change, it would move down and in to a left-handed batter in comparison to his fastball. Moyer’s change-up clocks in at about 76 mph, which is only 6 mph (about 8 percent) slower than his fastball. This is a very low differential for change-ups and again puts Moyer in poor company.

In addition, Moyer’s change-up actually has more vertical “rise” due to spin than his sinker. The combination of the small speed differential and the movement due to spin makes it impossible for Moyer’s change-up to drop in comparison to his fastball. So why is this pitch so effective? The trajectory of Moyer’s change-up is virtually identical to his fastball. Here is a side view of the pitch.

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There is no way for the hitter to identify the change-up here. The release point is the same, the launch angle is the same, the spin is almost the same, the velocity is not very different. Moyer does need some speed difference though, and to show that on this plot I have placed tick marks every .08 seconds so you can see the difference between the two pitches grow as the ball gets closer to home plate. The hitter doesn’t have that luxury, however; he needs to identify the pitch in the first .08 seconds at most.

Moyer also locates this pitch extremely well keeping the ball down and away from right-handed hitters. Because this pitch doesn’t dive down and in to left-handed hitters like other change-ups I have talked about, Moyer is free to throw this pitch to lefties, providing them one of the few change-ups they will see all season from a left-handed pitcher.

But wait! There’s more! Moyer also has a cutter that looks very much like his fastball but darts slightly away from a left-handed batter in comparison. He throws that pitch at 82 mph. It has just a little bit more vertical movement than his fastball, but the result often is the ball being hit off the end of the bat. He also can use this pitch to bust a right-handed batter inside if he is hanging over the plate. Moyer’s slider is a hard slider (I know the irony) that he throws at 79 mph. Again, the small speed differential makes the pitch hard to detect and while he doesn’t have CC Sabathia movement with it, he can add and subtract spin, creating a wide band of possible horizontal movements. This too keeps the ball off the sweet spot of the bat, because even if the hitter sees slider he might be getting a slider that moves four inches more than average in either direction.

Lastly, Moyer throws a very good curveball that has more than six inches of vertical drop. While Moyer doesn’t use this pitch often (about 6 percent of the time) he is most likely to throw it at the start of the at bat. This has to drive hitters mad: They are gearing up for the juicy fastball, the curveball drops in and they find themselves down in the count. Moyer also has great control with his pitches and while that is hard to measure with PITCHf/x John Walsh has put together an excellent first step which shows that Moyer has some of the best control in the business.

Not at all the prototypical lefty

Moyer isn’t surviving because he is like other pitchers; he is surviving because he is different. When comparing other pitchers to Moyer ask yourself these questions:

(1) Does he throw a wide array of pitches? Moyer throws five, and each one has a use. Without any one of them he would be a far less effective pitcher. The old saying of hard stuff in, soft stuff away applies to Moyer. He has the weapons to throw his faster pitches inside to both left- (sinker) and right (cutter/slider) handed batters. He also can throw off-speed pitches that move away to both left (curve) and right- (change-up) handed batters. This means he has a very small platoon split and he has enough weapons to go through the order several times and still be effective.

(2) Does he still have a decent strikeout to walk and strikeout to innings pitched ratios? Moyer’s K/BB ratio for his career is better than 2/1 and it was almost exactly 2/1 last year. His K/G isn’t great, but it was 5.7 last year which is pretty remarkable for how hard he throws. These are still very important metrics to pitchers and Moyer is no exception. If you are examining a prospect who has a strong ERA but bad peripherals, Moyer isn’t a good comparison. In fact, when Moyer was a prospect himself he had some very good peripherals.

(3) What is his groundball percentage? Contrary to what you might think, Moyer doesn’t induce a ton of ground balls and he hasn’t throughout his career. Many sinkerballers rely on ground ball after ground ball to help get them out of trouble, and while Moyer does get some grounders, that isn’t what separates him from other pitchers. The thing that Moyer does exceptionally well, however, is produce weak contact. Check out his very high infield fly rate as an example. Again, this weak contact is from fooling the hitters just enough so that they are hitting the ball way too early or off the end of the bat.

Going forward

Next year, Moyer will turn 46 and it appears he has every intention to keep on pitching, possibly looking for a multi-year deal. How long can he keep the magic going? I suspect that Moyer will tire of pitching before pitching will tire of him.

Looking at his stuff, it is clear that movement and deception are what keeps Moyer afloat. I don’t see that changing even if he loses a few more mph on his fastball. I suspect that Moyer’s control might be the first thing to give out. Moyer has kept his walk rate very low and he isn’t showing any signs of that changing, but if his control starts to falter it will likely show up in more balls finding the middle of the plate. Keep an eye on his line drive percentage and his infield fly rate. A little slippage there might be the first sign of trouble. I don’t expect that to happen next year, but maybe in a few seasons if Jamie Moyer hasn’t left on his own terms first.

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