March 18, 2009
Checking the Numbers
The Man Who Broke PECOTA?
Every offseason, when baseball news hits a lull and even an Esteban German signing seems interesting, the release of the PECOTA projections comes to the rescue and rejuvenates fans. Hordes of readers flock to the pages of their respective teams in order to assess the forecasts, seeing how their current talent stacks up with the competition. This year, the most controversial projection belongs to Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, but up until a week ago, an even more surprising "forecast" existed for Jamie Moyer. It turns out that he didn't have a PECOTA card, and the space usually reserved for it delivered a message that the web address in question could not be found. His projection is now available following an update, but until recently his unique career path made it difficult to come up with an accurate forecast.
Since 1936, there have been just 22 pitcher seasons in which a hurler over 45 years old had made at least ten appearances. Half of those seasons belonged to starting pitchers: Phil Niekro (four), Charlie Hough (two), Nolan Ryan (two), Tommy John (two), and Jamie Moyer (one). Niekro and Hough were both knuckleballers, so their ability to pitch while creeping up on AARP eligibility isn't really that impressive. Of the remaining four pitchers, Moyer's 2008 campaign featured the most starts, the highest innings total, and the lowest ERA. By now you've probably noticed the constant filtering taking place in this paragraph, which goes a long way toward explaining the difficulty level in forecasting the Phillies left-hander: there just aren't many seasons in which someone 45-years-old or older who is a non-knuckleballing starter, not to mention someone who didn't really begin to pitch effectively until the age of 34, has made a decent number of starts and then continued to pitch for at least another season. Jamie Moyer is literally in a league of his own, a fact which is evident in the very low similarity scores on the comparable pitchers section of his forecast.
Moyer's career is not over yet either, as he recently inked a two-year, $10 million contract to remain with the defending champion Phillies. They'll rely on the Jim Varney look-alike not just to plug the middle of their rotation, but to also serve as a mentor and teacher to the young players on their roster. The image of him perched alongside Cole Hamels on the bench has already become a fixture in the minds of the phan-base, and Hamels has admitted to benefiting greatly from the tutelage. Moyer has helped fifth-starter candidate J.A. Happ harness his changeup this spring, aiding the youngster's chances against Chan Ho Park. He reportedly even threw a poorly called pitch on purpose in a game against the Tigers, serving up a gopher ball in the process, in order to show young catcher Lou Marson why the call was incorrect. He has already lived up to the mentoring end of the bargain, and he still looks very capable of pitching as well. Take a gander at his plate-discipline statistics over the past four years:
Year O-Sw O-Cont Z-Sw Z-Cont 2005 20.5 64.4 65.3 90.5 2006 24.9 64.9 63.3 90.8 2007 24.3 70.9 62.0 85.8 2008 26.4 75.9 60.6 87.6
According to the numbers, which measure the percentages of swings and contact made on pitches both in and out of the zone, Moyer appears to be the anti-Pedro, in the sense that his ability to fool hitters has increased. The lower rates of both swings and contact in the strike zone definitely suggest that hitters are finding it difficult to identify his offerings. He throws a slew of slop, alternating between fastballs, cutters, changeups, and a curveball that probably does not even register on most radar guns, relying instead on their movement, their relative velocities, and his acumen. Another major contributor to his success is the indistinguishable appearance of the paths of both his changeup and fastball. The chart below shows the flight patterns of his chief deliveries from the view of first base:
Despite subtle differences in horizontal movement and a 6-7 mph drop-off in velocity, Moyer's fastball and changeup look identical from this view, meaning that hitters have very little time to determine which pitch is coming their way. Additional proof that his ability to fool hitters has improved is found in his increased ground-ball rate. Since 2002, Moyer's ratio of grounders to fly balls has steadily risen from 0.85 to 1.25, limiting the balls put in the air that could potentially turn into home runs and replacing them with grounders, which has worked well in front of the solid defenders that the Mariners and Phillies have trotted out for him during this decade.
Moyer did not always pitch this effectively. From 1986-96, he fought for bullpen or back-of-the-rotation duty each season, never really finding his place. For the first ten years of his career-he missed the 1992 season-he averaged 25 GS, 127 IP, 5.3 K/9, and 3.1 BB/9, with a 4.44 ERA and 4.41 FIP. From 1997 on, the averages improve to 32 GS, 206 IP, 5.4 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9, with a 4.06 ERA and 4.43 FIP. Essentially, the aspects of his success determined by controllable skills has not changed in either of his career segments, but his abilities to fool the opposition, miss bats when needed, limit free passes, and get out of jams has led to a vastly reduced runs-per-nine mark.
PECOTA is not too optimistic about Moyer this season, suggesting that not only will his peripheral statistics take significant hits, but so too will his playing time. Even his 90th-percentile projection calls for only 24 starts, a number that seems very low given his proven durability in recent years; toeing the rubber every fifth day has not been an issue for Moyer since turning his career around in 1997. Even when his numbers were far from extravagant, he still logged innings and remained on the active roster. Then again, the projections are partially derived from comparable pitchers, and though four players have been determined to be somewhat similar, he is actually incredibly unique and largely incomparable. To compare him to other pitchers based solely on age, without taking into account their status as knuckleballers or starters, would be akin to comparing Julio Franco to Minnie Minoso.
Moyer is far from likely to achieve either his 10th- or 90th-percentile projection, which call for -1.7 and 4.0 WARP respectively, but take a look at the remaining percentiles:
Pct GS IP GB% BABIP WHIP ERA BB9 K9 WARP 75% 22 128.2 44% .283 1.46 4.87 3.2 5.1 2.3 60% 22 128.2 44% .283 1.46 4.87 3.2 5.1 2.3 50% 22 128.2 44% .283 1.46 4.87 3.2 5.1 2.3 40% 22 128.2 44% .283 1.46 4.87 3.2 5.1 2.3 25% 20 111.1 46% .284 1.59 6.11 3.2 2.9 0.4 Mean 18 98.1 44% .283 1.50 5.28 3.2 4.4 1.4
The system sees Moyer's 40th- through 75th-percentile projections as identical, but his lower percentiles are so poor that his weighted mean gets dragged down. Barring injuries, he is definitely going to make closer to 30 starts and amass somewhere in the 180-190 IP range. If the past three years are any indication, a more crude projection based on nothing but the numbers and a bit of regression and aging sees him capable of 31 GS, 185 IP, a 4.39 NRA, and 4.60 ERA. Numbers like that should push the WARP total closer to 2.0, pegging Moyer as about a league-average pitcher. I'm confident that a crude projection like that more accurately describes the situation at hand, simply because he has yet to fall off of a cliff, and nothing he's accomplished over the last several seasons would indicate a diminishing durability. He could end up repeating his very solid 2008, but he could just as easily replicate his forgettable 2007 season. He'll continue to rely on the team's defense, and luckily the Phillies project quite nicely in that area once again.
Moyer will also rely on the umpires, as there have been several starts over the past few seasons in which his effectiveness has suffered when not receiving borderline calls. If the umps are stingy and not calling as high a percentage of strikes on the corners, Moyer has little chance of success; he'll be forced to come closer to the plate with his far from "plus" repertoire. If the defense stays true, Moyer continues to receive aid from the men in blue, and he does not fall prey to the injury bugaboo, there is absolutely no reason to think that he won't easily surpass the playing time and production components suggested by PECOTA. Those are three very important "ifs" that he hasn't had much trouble with in the recent past, but the Phillies should keep a close eye on his outings; should one of them go by the wayside, they will not profit by keeping him on the mound.
What Moyer will produce this season is yet to be determined, and we have no idea whether or not he'll continue to pitch beyond the terms of his current contract, but he is a definitive example of a player whose projection should in no way be treated as gospel. Players like Jamie Moyer, no matter how few and far between, deserve to be looked at as if they're court cases that are setting precedents, as opposed to those whose outcomes are considered determinable based on loose comparisons to rare and not very similar cases.