One of the more surprising developments of this year’s off-season is how many left-handed relievers still remain on the market. Andrew Chafin, Will Smith, and Matt Moore are still out there, and there are a number of teams across MLB that could use their services. The Milwaukee Brewers are seemingly one such team.
Since losing the services of all-world bullpen ace, Josh Hader, to trade last season and losing Brent Suter to free agency, Milwaukee is devoid of a real left-handed threat in the bullpen outside of Hoby Milner. Recent re-addition, Alex Claudio might provide a serviceable answer, but has proved more proficient as a lefty specialist. Since the rule changes requiring a pitcher to face at least three batters, Claudio’s value has diminished. (.210/.255/.355 vs. LHB as opposed to >302/.357/.440 vs RHB over his career). The Brewers could use Aaron Ashby, Ethan Small, or even Eric Lauer in the bullpen as well. However someone like Matt Moore would look really good in a Brewers uniform coming into late game action.
Matt Moore’s Conversion to Relief
Matt Moore is a really interesting case since he spent most of his career as a starter. Once one of the top prospects in baseball, Moore struggled with inconsistency and injury throughout his career. More of a journeyman by the time the Texas Rangers signed him to a minor league deal last season, he was seemingly hanging on by a thread to his major league career.
From there, Moore went on to reinvent himself as a reliever. In shorter stints, Moore was able to add velocity to his fastball. The result was 74 innings pitched and a stellar 1.95 ERA. He also struck out better than 10 per 9.
Will Moore Regress?
The question is whether Moore can replicate that level of performance again. Underlying pitching statistics say that he is not likely to do so, at least not the 1.95 ERA. Moore’s xERA in 2022 was 2.83. His xFIP was 3.87, and his SIERA was 3.69. All suggest a regression is order for the lefty.
Why Moore will be Good in 2023
Moore was certainly helped by his increased ability to strike hitters out. He was also helped by having a fantastic stand rate of 81%. That might be less fluke than what might be implied. In 2022, hitters failed to square Moore up like they had in previous seasons when he was a starter. From 2014-2021, Moore’s hard hit percentage ranged from 31-47.5% (exception being 2019 where he appeared in just 2 games with Detroit). Hard hit percentage against him in 2022 was just 22.5%. Hitters also hit the ball on the ground by about 4-5% more than in previous seasons.
This ultimately led to less home runs being hit off him than in previous seasons. One of the issues with Moore in the past was his inability to keep the ball in the yard. That changed in 2022, and that is because batters could no longer barrel the ball as effectively has they had done in the past. Check out the marked differences in percentile stats from 2021 to 2022 for reference below.
Moore’s increased fastball velocity is the answer, obviously, right? Well the answer is yes and no. Moore’s strike out rate in 2022 increased significantly, and the little extra “getty-up” on the heater is certainly part of it. Yet he actually threw the fastball less than he did as a starter. In 2022, Matt Moore threw his fastball 45% of the time. As a starter, he threw the fastball more in the neighborhood of 55-60% of the time.
The curveball is where things seemed to change the most dramatically. In 2022, Moore threw his curveball more than 38% of the time. And he evidently found that he could spin the curveball better than he had in previous seasons as well as evidenced by the charts above. As a starter, he threw the curve between 13-23% of the time. The result of increased fastball velocity and increased curveball usage with better spin seems to have resulted in a truly significant reduction in contact rate by MLB hitters (70.6% contact percentage in 2022 as opposed to something closer to 80% in most other seasons). By the way, his fastball spin increased too. Matt Moore is truly playing up as a bullpen arm.
Matt Moore might be a pitcher in line to regress in 2023, so one might think, “buyer beware.” Yet even if he does regress from his 2022 numbers, and some of his underlying statistics say he is likely to do just that, he is still likely to be really good out of the bullpen. Moore’s change in pitch mix, increased velocity, enhanced spin rates, and significant reductions in opponents’ ability to hit him hard and inability to make contact lead this writer to think Matt Moore would be a good bet for any team looking for a quality left-handed reliever. Aren’t the Brewers one of those teams?
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant