Matt Moore changing things up to dominate

The Tampa Bay Rays have won 21 of their past 25 outings with a mixture of timely hitting and dominating pitching. The 2.18 team ERA during this run of success is nearly a full run better than any other team in the American League in the same time frame. Many critics are quick to point at the relatively easy schedule the Rays have had over the past month, one that included many home games as well as seven matchups against the Houston Astros, with another 10 games against the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.

But as the Rays started their critical four-game series against Boston on Monday night, it would be their first game of the month against a team over .500 and not in fourth or fifth place in its division. Boston had also owned the season series up to that point, winning nine of 12 contests. Despite being outhit by Tampa Bay, Boston pitching had done incredible work stranding Rays on the basepaths: In those 12 games, Rays hitters had managed just 15 hits in 104 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Tampa Bay was able to drive in just 20 runners in those 12 games while posting a slash line of .144/.250/.173.

Just 1.5 games separated the two teams as they started play, and Boston’s 25-16 record within the American League East was a big reason why the Red Sox were in first place. Tampa Bay was looking to Matt Moore to both even the team’s record within the division, as well as get within a half-game of a team they trailed by a full seven games back on June 28.

Consider this a case of mission accomplished. While Boston entered the series with the highest team batting average in baseball over the past month at .298, and the second highest team OPS at .805, Moore limited the Red Sox to just three hits while throwing his first career complete-game shutout. Moore was so dominant that the only runner to reach second base did so as a result of a wild pitch in the seventh inning. Moore threw 74 of 109 pitches for strikes, including using 21 changeups according to ESPN Stats & Info. The increased usage of his changeup has been one of the key factors in his recent success.

Early in the season, Moore did not utilize his changeup that frequently. Through his first 10 starts of 2013, Moore threw as many as 20 changeups just one time and totaled 156 changeups through the first two months of the season. Since the beginning of June, despite one less outing, Moore has already thrown 205 changeups and has thrown at least 20 in all but two of those outings. Not only is Moore using the pitch more frequently, he is using it in different patterns.

In late June, Moore was interviewed by Ben Lindbergh of BaseballProspectus.com about the use of changeups to same-handed hitters. In the interview, Moore stated his primary reason for limiting the use of his changeup against left-handed hitters was due to the fact that, “the bottom of the zone, for lefties, is such a sweet spot.” In fact, of the 1,004 pitches Moore threw to left-handed hitters from his rookie debut until the end of May 2013, just three percent were changeups. But since then, of the 276 pitches Moore has thrown to left-handed hitters, that percentage has nearly quadrupled to 11 percent.

This process began in earnest this month in Moore’s first start of July against the Chicago White Sox. After watching the success Jeremy Hellickson had with his changeup in the first game of the series, Moore threw a season-high 33 of them against the White Sox, nine of which were thrown to left-handed hitters. Tommy Rancel of The Process Report quoted Adam Dunn after the game on Moore’s approach saying, “For the most part, he pitched us a lot different than he had pretty much all year. He’s throwing lefties a lot more changeups than normal. He had a really good changeup.” However, against the Red Sox, Moore threw just three changeups to Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz while needing only 23 pitches to limit the dynamic duo to a single trip on the bases on the evening.

Moore’s 2013 season has essentially been a tale of two stanzas with one dreadful intermission. In the first 10 games of the season, Moore had an unblemished 8-0 record with a 2.21 ERA. Over 61 innings, he limited batters to a .181 batting average and a .606 OPS while striking out 56. Then, Mother Nature interfered. On May 31, Moore took the mound in Cleveland on a very wet Friday evening and pitched a scoreless inning before the rain delayed the game over two hours. Moore’s next start came on June 4 in Detroit; he had no command of his pitches and allowed 13 runners to reach base before being pulled from the game in the third inning, starting a three-game stretch that ended with Moore losing all three decisions while allowing 39 baserunners in just 12 1/3 innings with 19 earned runs allowed.

Moore has now put that rough stretch behind him with authority. After last night’s win, Moore has won each of his past six starts and has a 1.50 ERA during that time while limiting opposing batters to a .143 batting average and a .403 OPS. Moore is now 14-3 on the season with a 3.17 ERA and is coming out of the break as red-hot as he and his teammates went into it.