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May 14, 2009

Prospectus Today

Moyer at 46

by Joe Sheehan

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Last night, Jamie Moyer threw his sixth non-quality start in seven outings, giving up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings on eight hits, four going for extra bases, while striking out just one man. The outing pushed his ERA up to 8.15, which in a year that's seen some ugly numbers is the highest in baseball among the 96 pitchers qualified for the ERA title (one inning per team game). Moyer does have three wins, largely because the Phillies like to score a boatload of runs when he's on the mound. In his wins, the team has put up nine, 11, and 13 runs, and they've scored an average of 6.6 runs per nine innings while he's in the game. That's fantastic run support, and he's needed every inch of it just to be 3-3.

It's not just the runs allowed that are scary. Moyer has yet to look effective for extended stretches of pitching. In seven outings, he has just eight 1-2-3 innings. His longest stretch of consecutive batters retired is eight, oddly enough last night against the Dodgers before things fell apart. He's had two other stretches of six in a row. While his last three starts have been shockingly bad-19 runs in 12 1/3 innings-his first three weren't anything to get excited about: 12 runs in 17 innings. He's struck out 19 men and walked 13, while allowing a whopping 11 homers. Even his one good start, in which he allowed a single run in six innings to the Marlins on April 26, wasn't that impressive; he pitched out of a number of jams, and since I watched that game I'll offer subjectively that home-plate umpire Jerry Layne helped him out a lot that day.

The places where we might look to find bad luck are not particularly out of whack. Moyer has allowed a .333 batting average on balls in play, which is a little inflated, but not enough to drive his ERA into the eights. He is getting a bit unlucky on fly balls, which have gone out of the park 18.6 percent of the time against a career mark of 10.5 percent. His HR rate is more or less double what it "should" be, which is affecting his ERA. That he's allowing more fly balls isn't helping; Moyer isn't the kind of pitcher who can make mistakes up in the zone and stay in the league.

Now, writing off Jamie Moyer is a risky thing, given that he probably could have been a high school teacher by age-30 based on where his career was at 28. Still, the limited track record for pitchers of his advanced age shows that rapid declines aren't uncommon. Tommy John, as close a comp for Moyer as you'll find in MLB history, wiped out at 46, posting a 5.80 ERA and 18:22 K/BB in 10 starts. Charlie Hough, who like Moyer had been effective in his forties, saw his ERA jump to 5.15 in the strike-shortened 1994 season and never came back. Nolan Ryan's last effective season was at 45, and at 46 he made just 13 starts with a 46:40 K/BB in 66 1/3 innings, a massive loss of effectiveness. Jack Quinn basically became a reliever at 46. Knuckleballer Phil Niekro is the only effective 46-year-old starter in major league history.

I'd like to be wrong about this. Jamie Moyer's storyline last October was one of the highlights of the World Series for me, and I'll never forget the sight of him on the field after the Phillies won the Series, family in tow, a Pennsylvania native celebrating a championship not far from where he grew up, in the city where he went to college. He had a look on his face that night, joy to be sure, but also peace, contentment, a look that made me think he was going to walk away from the game a World Series hero.

I would never say that he shouldn't have come back. I'm 38 years old, never played past Bronx Federation ball save for a year in the MABL, and I miss it every day. If I could play baseball well enough to get paid for doing so in the major leagues, you'd have to bring in light infantry to tear the uniform off me. So I understand and respect Moyer's decision to play at 46. It does look, however, like batters are stating their case on the matter, just as they did with John, just as they did with Ryan. Even if 8.15 is an inflated number, there's little in Moyer's first seven starts to indicate that he has enough left to be in the rotation for a team trying to win a championship.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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