May 30, 2012
Prospectus Game of the Week
Memorial Day Sale
Memorial Day means many things to many people. For Major League Baseball, the holiday means a full slate of games, stretching from midday to midnight. Some games with no business being entertaining became just that (like the Cubs-Padres and Astros-Rockies games), but the day’s best pitching matchup happened at Tropicana Field. The White Sox and Chris Sale were in town to take on the Rays and Matt Moore. There’s nothing quite like two young, power-armed southpaws going at it, and Sale and Moore made it worth everyone’s while. Here were the lineups for both teams:
Robin Ventura ran the better lineup out there. Not only did the White Sox enter the day with more runs scored than the Rays, but Joe Maddon chose to rest arguably his three best hitters in an already injury-depleted lineup. Under normal circumstances, the final score would not be revealed in this column until the conclusion. This game, however, garnered as much publicity as any on Monday’s schedule. Almost everyone knows that the White Sox won (by a 2-1 score) and that Sale and Moore combined for 25 strikeouts (with Sale contributing 15). The pitchers made this game, and the pitchers will make this article.
Entering Monday afternoon, Moore had not been his usual self; or, at least, the self that everyone expected him to be. He took the mound with a 5.07 ERA, fewer than two strikeouts per walk, and an opponent line against of .264/.360/.435. What’s wrong with Moore? His woes seem borne from mechanical and philosophical flaws. Earlier in the season, Moore scrapped a hitch that served as a timing mechanism. At the top of his windup, Moore would tap the baseball to his glove before starting his load. The Rays were concerned about him tipping pitches and had him remove it. Whether that alteration has had a negative effect is difficult to say, but Moore’s release point and fastball command have been inconsistent.
The other issue is philosophical. Moore can get into two-strike counts, but has had problems putting batters away. Part of Moore’s problems could stem from an overreliance on his fastball. As hard as it is to square up a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, batters can get Moore into prolonged battles by fouling his fastball off. Stay alive long enough and Moore might miss with a fastball. Five of Moore’s nine home runs allowed have come on two-strike counts, with four of those coming on the fifth pitch or later.
Monday’s start happened to be Moore’s finest of the season. He completed seven innings, allowed five baserunners and two runs, and struck 10 batters out. Moore also induced a season-high amount of swinging strikes. Below are the pitches on which Moore recorded strikeouts. There are three positives to take from the table, the first being the shallow counts and the second being the pitch-type variety. Moore has pitched up the zone about as much as any starter in the league, so his ability to pitch down in the zone while inducing whiffs in chase counts is a the third encouraging development.
As for the more impressive performer on display Monday afternoon, Sale is the poster child for supposedly poor mechanics. Sale has already had a MRI this season and had to talk his way back into the rotation thereafter. Add in that Joe Hamrahi is a fan—remember poor Salvador Perez?—and Sale is all but destined for a DL trip sooner than later. Sale’s weird mechanics and long, thin limbs make him resemble a spider, and the ragtag Rays lineup made him look like the giant mechanical spider from Wild Wild West.
Of Sale’s 15 strikeouts, 12 came against right-handed batters. Nine of those were on sliders, and six of those were down and in on the batter. Conventional wisdom says that the best location for a slider from a left-handed pitcher to a right-handed batter is down and over the plate, so the pitch’s break takes it to the back foot of the batter. Sale seems able and all too willing to throw the back-foot slider. Take this first-inning strikeout against Upton:
Here is the full strikeout pitch breakdown:
Sale exited Monday start with 57 2/3 innings, 61 strikeouts, 16 walks, and a 2.34 ERA. Besides asking whether Sale can stay healthy to endure a big-league starter’s workload, the next most pressing question is whether the White Sox will attempt to curb his innings. Sale is about 14 innings shy of his 2011 total (71) and a little less than halfway to his 2010 total (136 2/3, if his collegiate workload is included). With Chicago in the playoff discussion, Sale’s ability to stay on the mound and stay sharp could make the difference—it sure did on Monday afternoon.