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July 8, 2003

Breaking Balls

Ode to Jamie Moyer

by Derek Zumsteg

"Moyer throws an average fastball between 82-84, touching 86. He has a plus curve and plus change-up. He relies on changing speeds and hitting his spots. Is unlikely to survive against advanced competition. He is still left-handed." --Possible scouting report on a young Jamie Moyer

Jamie Moyer is an acquired taste. His fastball couldn't catch a Ford Festiva at top speed; his curve is good, but it doesn't have jaw-droppingly sharp movement; he has a unremarkable mound presence, generally stoic and composed; and is listed--ever-so-generously--at six feet, 175 pounds. Watching Moyer face one batter, you're probably not going to be impressed at all. After two, though, you start to notice exactly how slow he's throwing, how the change-up hangs up for what seems like entire seconds. Through a game, you'll see him work location and speeds and most likely come out of the game having pitched well, and probably not notice that he racked up five, six, or maybe even eight strikeouts--each of them on a pitch that you'd expect to see hit in the minors.

Jamie Moyer is one of the weirdest ace pitchers in all of baseball, and at age 40 he's finally heading to an All-Star Game. Before this year, he's been slighted every time he's deserved it. This is because Moyer doesn't really seem like an All Star pitcher: he's not a big gun like Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez, flame-throwing power pitchers with equal measures intimidation and harnessed talent. No one promotes a Mariners series by saying "Sunday, Jamie Moyer brings his 50 mph changeup to baffle Eric Chavez and the Oakland A's in a battle of AL West contenders."

It's strange that Moyer doesn't get more recognition, even just as a novelty, considering how good he's been. Among starters with significant playing time:


Year    Wins    Rank        ERA   Rank  SNVA    Rank
----------------------------------------------------
2001    20      2          3.43      6   2.2      18
2002    13      --         3.32      9   2.9      14
2003    11      2 (tie)    2.99      4   1.7      12
Where Wins and ERA are the two that seem to get the most All-Star consideration, SNVA (Support-Neutral Value Added) provides a measure of how good Moyer minus park effects. The number of pitchers who rank in the top-20 three years in a row is a lot lower than you'd think.

Moyer's 2000 was rough, but as you can see, he had good years before that. There are some other weird stats you can pull out (winningest pitcher 1996-2001, oldest pitcher to win 20 games for the first time), but I'll spare you that essay.

Here's what's really cool about Moyer:


Year    Age     Team               IP    ERA
--------------------------------------------
1986    23      Cubs             87.1   5.05
1987    24      Cubs            201.0   5.10
1988    25      Cubs            202.0   3.48
1989    26      Rangers          76.0   4.86
1990    27      Rangers         102.1   4.66
1991    28      Cardinals        31.1   5.74
1993    30      Orioles         152.0   3.43
1994    31      Orioles         149.0   4.77
1995    32      Orioles         115.2   5.21
1996    33      Red Sox/M's     160.2   3.98
1997    34      Mariners        188.2   3.86
1998    35      Mariners        234.1   3.53
1999    36      Mariners        228.0   3.87
2000    37      Mariners        154.0   5.49
2001    38      Mariners        209.2   3.43
2002    39      Mariners        230.2   3.32
I want to read this chart backwards: debuts at 23, two good seasons, a rough one, then a string of good ones, followed by a decline with two good season at 32 and 36. Instead, here's a guy who through his prime years was in and out of the big leagues, spending time in different organizations, sometimes (in Texas and Boston) out of the bullpen, and never put together a full good season until he got a fair shot in his mid-30s.

Here's an even cooler way to look at it: how often did events occur as a percent of the batters he faced?


Age      HR%      BB%     SO%
-----------------------------
23      2.4%    10.2%   10.9%
24      3.1%    10.7%   16.2%
25      2.3%     6.3%   13.9%
26      2.9%     9.6%   12.8%
27      1.3%     8.5%   12.6%
28      3.4%    10.8%   13.5%
30      1.7%     5.9%   13.9%
31      3.6%     5.9%   13.5%
32      3.6%     6.1%   13.2%
33      3.3%     6.5%   11.2%
34      2.6%     5.4%   14.2%
35      2.3%     4.3%   16.1%
36      2.4%     5.0%   14.2%
37      3.2%     7.7%   14.2%
38      2.8%     5.1%   13.8%
39      3.0%     5.3%   15.6%
This is thrown a little off by some of the small-sample size years, but something cool is here: as Moyer ages, he gets better. His strikeout rate rises, his walks go down.

How has he done it? Jamie Moyer's more of a nerd than Welsey Crusher. Moyer does as much preparation as anyone in the business. He's got his own records, he watches video, he probably does pre-game visualization where he imagines throwing so slowly he has time to walk to the dugout, drink some Gatorade, and get back in fielding position before the ball arrives at the batter, who'll have already swung at it three times for the K. He's all about pitch selection and location: instead of the popular "fast in, slow away" school, Moyer might go slow in, slower in, and then throw his big curve for a third strike down.

The best part about watching Moyer pitch is seeing the expressions on the other team's faces as they walk back to the dugout, shaking their head in disbelief, or mad at themselves for having swung at a 12 mph changeup low and outside, or laughing at how crazy it is they can't get a hit off this guy.

Moyer is so fine, so reliant on control and his ability to change speeds, that it seems like he should fall apart...any year now. His fastball will lose enough to be effective at all, or he'll start leaving one pitch an inning up and in the middle. He doesn't though, and it's equally valid to point at his continuous improvement and say that if anyone can continue to get better as they age, it's Moyer.

I won't argue that Jamie Moyer's the best pitcher in baseball. He's benefited a lot from Seattle's park and generally had good defensive units behind him. Moyer's a unique and effective pitcher, and well worth watching just for the contrast. He's learned that crazy preparation and thoughtfulness can make up for speed, and has continuously pushed to see how far hard work can get him. In doing so, he gives hope to all the guys in the minors with more brains than arms, and to every baseball fan who loves wide variety in their excellence.

Related Content:  Jamie Moyer,  Preparation Time

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