Matt Moore’s road to the 2021 Phillies did not hew to the track the prospect prognosticators presaged. In a nearby possible world Moore has become a world-beater. The Phillies would have signed an about-to-leave his prime perennial all-star whom the Rays decided they simply could not pay anymore. Another lance honed keen, he would have added a baffling lefty to the Phillies dominant righties at the top of the rotation. The Phillies would have the consensus best rotation in the NL East.
In the actual world, however, Matt Moore’s rise to acedom derailed more than half a decade ago when his ulnar collateral ligament snapped. Since then he’s been a blunted cudgel in his best season and a soggy scabbard in his worst. In 2019 he got off to a good start only to have his knee implode and cost him his last MLB season. But for a diversion to Japan his career would be terminal.
Consequently, Matt Moore comes to Philadelphia not as a weapon but a shield. No longer expected to anchor a rotation, Moore has reforged himself into the depth that competitive teams need to master the gauntlet of 162. He protects them, we hope, against the vagaries of luck and swings in athletic performance.
What that protection will look like, however, is hard to discern. We haven’t seen Moore pitch significant innings against MLB quality hitters in almost 3 years. If I were making a back-of-the-envelope projection for Moore, I’d have just one year of data to work with.
In that year Moore pitched poorly. As a starter, he flunked out and was moved to the bullpen on a bad Rangers team. His already not stellar K-rate sagged, and he walked too many relative to his middling K-rate. That year he also surrendered much more hard contact. The combination sunk him.
That was 3 years ago. If that were the last we’d heard from Moore, he wouldn’t be on the Phillies roster. But when he went to Japan in 2020 he remade himself. In NPB, his K-rate jumped to 28%, 10 points higher than his 2018 rate. He brought his walk-rate down to 7.5%, a career low that would finally bring him below league-average in MLB. His FIP was 2.76, about 30% better than the NPB average. Relative to his league, Moore was as good in 2020 as Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler.
Of course, NPB does not have the talent-level that MLB does. According to Matt Gelb, Moore’s fastball sat around 92 mph, which is about average for NPB. In 2020, the average MLB four-seamer came in around 94 mph. Moore will probably lose some whiffs and add some walks just because MLB hitters will be quicker to see and react to his heater.
And here our epistemic sailboat runs aground. How do we translate Moore’s success in NPB into an MLB projection? Top-end talent in NPB can transfer without sacrificing much success. But no one thinks Matt Moore is Yu Darvish. If we don’t know how Moore succeeded in NPB it is hard to say whether that success translates.
I can’t responsibly predict how Moore’s season will go. Instead, let me speculate by offering two reasonable extremes.
MOORE IS MORE
On the one hand, Moore might regain his form from 2016, when he was a league-average starter, which would count as a very good number four for the Phillies (or any team). Even if Moore loses 6 points on his K-rate from NPB, he would still have a K-rate about as good, relative to the league, as his 2016 rate. And even in his most recent bad years, his walk-rate has remained consistently around 8.5%. If he can get his K-BB% back to 13% or 14% and bring his HR/FB% down to around 10%, then he will be on target for a repeat of 2016.
How might he accomplish that? In 2017, Moore’s downturn coincided with a fundamental and fadish change to his arsenal. He abandoned his sinker. We all know that the launch angle revolution ushered in a backlash against the sinker. Many worried, with reason, that the pitch’s slight dive takes the pitch into the barrel of the bat and makes it especially vulnerable to becoming a go-fer ball. Moore had always used the sinker sparingly (8% in 2016) and, given the prevailing mindset, he most likely scrapped it at the behest of a pitching coach wanting to jack up his whiffs.
The problem is Moore’s four-seamer isn’t special. While it has a lot of arm-side tail, it doesn’t have much rise. As we saw first-hand with Zach Eflin in 2019, a pitcher whose four-seamer doesn’t have a lot of rise should not demote a pitch that resembles, but moves counter to, the four-seamer. Eflin re-emphasized the sinker in 2020 and had an excellent season. Perhaps, the Phillies staff can do the same for Moore. Or, perhaps, Moore did it for himself when he went to Japan. Perhaps that’s why he was so successful in 2020. It is not a coincidence that in 2016 Moore generated a career high in whiffs and, in particular, the most whiffs on pitches in the strike zone. The sinker allows his four-seamer to play up. It gives the illusion of rise where there is none, even when he isn’t throwing it often, because hitters have to be prepared for it. The difference is not large: about one K per game. But the cumulative effect is huge: from league-average starter to replacement level fodder.
That’s the best-case scenario. We can imagine Matt Moore settling in as the Phillies fourth starter and making every game he pitches winnable even against the toughest competition. Granted, it requires the imagination to stretch a bit to cover over some wrinkles, such as, that Moore has lost a tick or two on his fastball since 2016. But it’s not far-fetched.
MOORE IS LESS
The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, is not hard to imagine. It would simply be a repeat of 2018. That year, as a starter, his K-rate plummeted, his walk-rate crept up again, and when hitters made contact they hit the ball hard nearly half the time. When he moved to the bullpen, his K-rate spiked and his walk-rate crashed down to a career low. But the hitters hit the ball even harder. It was a disaster.
That disaster was most likely caused by Moore’s four-seamer. Moore has always relied on it more heavily than most. But in 2018 he went to an extreme. He threw his four-seamer 58% of the time. No starter threw a four-seamer that often in 2020. Gerrit Cole, he of the indomitable heater, threw his 52% of the time. Add to Moore’s overuse that the pitch’s movement degraded further and we have a recipe for getting battered around the ballpark. If Moore hasn’t found a way to make his fastball play up and he continues to rely on it, he will find himself having chin wags in the pen with the rowdies.
Not that a stint in the pen will be much of a fallback. Moore is not the sort of lefty that you can bank on to get lefties out. For his career he has slight reverse splits. The reason for that is simple. He pockets his changeup against lefties. That is not so unusual. But Moore’s changeup is very effective, and he has no substitute for it against lefties. His cutter just isn’t good enough to keep lefties off-balance against his fastball and curve.
Moore also doesn’t benefit from much of a velocity boost while in the pen. He won’t overpower hitters as a reliever and he hasn’t shown the confidence to rely on his curveball enough to keep hitters off his fastball. For Moore, it is likely rotation or bust. That’s not to say he couldn’t be a good reliever. Rather, if he’s not pitching well enough to be a starter, a move to the pen won’t improve matters.
So that’s my best sketch of Matt Moore, an unusual enigma given he’s a veteran of almost a decade in the league. If I had to predict how his year will go, I’d say he’ll be a good number five. A bit below league average in defense independent performance and a bit worse than that in runs against because of the defense behind him. He’ll almost certainly miss some starts due to injury or dead arm since he hasn’t started for a full season in four years. Nevertheless, he’ll give the Phillies a more stable back of the rotation than most teams enjoy. And that would be a perfectly fine year.