By first pitch on September 22, 2003, in Anaheim, CA the Seattle Mariners were two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL Wild Card race and four back from AL West leaders, the Oakland Athletics, with six to play. The 19-win, tall and frail looking pitcher who made a career of defying time and baseball logic, Jamie Moyer was on the mound—his compact stance just one feature of his technical gambit. It was a must-win game. Never mind that it would be his 20th win; the M’s were in a must-win position to stay relevant in the 2003 postseason chase.
Since 1996, the year he became a Mariner, Moyer’s career clicked into place. Beforehand, he had struggled. He was drafted in the 6th round by the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and was traded to Texas in 1989. After a year, he was bounced to St. Louis where again, he failed to make an impression. From his original scouting report (which he supposedly kept a copy of in his toiletry bag) and from the lips of his coaches his velocity just wasn’t fast enough to be an effective Major League pitcher. In 1992, Cardinals manager, Joe Torre said to Moyer, “We don’t win when you pitch,” and sent him to the Minors. To add insult to injury, he was also released from the Cubs that year. Cubs Minor League director, Bill Harford told him upon his release, “We think you’d make a good pitching coach.”
Moyer refused the offer and battled on.
In 1993, at 31-years-old Moyer was traded to the Baltimore Orioles where he went 12-9 and managed The lowest WHIP of his career so far at 1.263. Though 2013 was a leap for Jamie, the next two years saw his numbers decline and he was traded to Boston. In 1996, Moyer pitched 23 games for Boston, recording a 4.50 ERA in 90 innings and a WHIP of 1.533. Without context, these numbers aren’t impactful, but understanding that he went 7-1 with a win-to-loss percentage of .875 makes one’s eyes pop. This was the beginning of Moyer’s defiance to those that measure a pitcher’s worth based on ERA and velocity. Seattle took a chance on the slow-throwing lefty and acquired him from the Red Sox. He threw 11 games for the M’s and finished out the ’96 season 13-3 (7-2 with Seattle) and dropped his WHIP to 1.388.
Moyer’s trade to the Emerald City began a 10-year run of productivity that contradicted the old baseball logic that when a pitcher progresses through his 30s his numbers decline. Quite the opposite, they improved—he got better and better the closer he approached 40.
In his 10-year career with the Mariners Moyer recorded a 157-90 record (W-L% of .636) in 355 games. An ERA of 4.00 with 1070 runs allowed. His career WHIP with Seattle was 1.261, a decade average lower than any season previous to his Mariners tenure. Despite ever posting an ERA below 3.27 (in 2003) or pitching faster than 83 mph, he made the Cy Young list three times, finishing fourth in 2001 and an All-Star in 2003.
How did he achieve this kind of success? I’ll borrow David Mamet’s quote to summarize, “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”
In baseball, maybe not always, but Jamie Moyer found success when he mastered the art of deception, subdued the fickle twins of accuracy and consistency, and inculcated through his years of tribulations a sturdy belief in himself and his abilities.
The strength, or lack thereof, to his pitches, had to do with how similar they looked out of his hand and how well he was able to pitch both right and left-handed batters. Courtesy of Josh Kalk’s 2008 article in Fangraph’s Hardball Times, Being Jamie, here’s a quick look at Jamie’s stuff in 2008 via PITCHf/x.
Jamie’s fastball, identified by PITCHf/x as a sinker, averaged 82.5 mph. It’s vertical rise—which measures how much the ball differs in vertical movement from a ball traveling with no spin—was 6”, well lower than the league average of 8.8 inches. However, his sinker had higher than average horizontal movement, 9.5 inches into a left-handed batter. He threw the sinker 40% of the time, which is a low percentage for a starting pitcher to throw a fastball.
His straight changeup (76 mph) had a low-speed differential to his fastball (8%). The trajectory between the two was nearly identical—same release point, similar spin, slightly slower—but the change had a greater vertical rise meaning it dropped slightly lower on average. The pitch arrived at the plate down and away to right-hand batters but not as much as other changeups, so Moyer could also deliver the pitch to left-handed batters.
Jamie’s cutter (82 mph) looked a lot like his sinker (therefore also his changeup) but tended to dart slightly away from the left-handed batter, or inside to the righty. The pitch had more vertical drop than his fastball and so got a lot of contact off the end of the bat.
He had an absurd amount of control with his hard slider (79 mph) and could control the spin rate which greatly varied the amount of horizontal movement of the pitch on either side of the plate. The horizontal movement of his slider was well above the league average.
Lastly, Moyer used his curveball only 6% of the time, usually at the beginning of an at-bat. His curve had 6” of vertical movement. Depending, the pitch often looked like a sinker or changeup until the bottom gave out on it. In sum, Jamie’s faster pitches arrived inside to both left- (sinker) and right (cutter/slider) handed batters. His off-speed pitches moved away to both left (curve) and right- (change-up) handed batters. Therefore, his sinker and changeup looked similar to a batter and his curve, cutter, and slider came off the hand looking similar, but with varying vertical and horizontal movement.
Confused? Try standing in the batter’s box. Given that a batter has at most .08 seconds based off what they see to make a decision to swing or not, Moyer effectively made pitch recognition off the hand nearly impossible.
In his book, Just Tell Me I Can’t: How Jamie Moyer Defied the Radar Gun and Defeated Time he talked about pitching to the Xs. He picked up the visual tool from legendary Atlanta Braves pitcher, Greg Maddox, who envisioned a large X on both lower corners of the strike zone and just outside. An example of pitching to the X’s for Moyer would be to visualize the trajectory of his cutter and sinker. The two pitches form a cross midair. Moyer would often jam a right-handed batter with a cutter inside and then throw a sinker that would look inside, but backdoor into the strike zone at the last moment.
“Now go to the opposite side, the left-handed side of the plate,” Moyer explains in the book. “I can sink the ball in on the lefty, or throw a two-seamer below the hitting zone, or back-door the hitter with a cutter so the ball is breaking from off the plate onto the plate. So now he’s either going to give up on it or he’s going to be messed up by the movement of it.”
The amount of pitch combinations in Moyer’s repertoire is endless, and enough has already been described here, but what matters most is the mind of Moyer and the consistency of his command. He couldn’t strong arm his way to becoming a winning pitcher, but through trickery and consistency became something different than baseball had seen.
On September 22, 2003, Jamie Moyer threw 8 innings of shutout baseball before a throwing error by rookie third baseman, Willie Bloomquist allowed Angel’s center fielder, Chone Figgins to score from second. Regardless, Moyer threw a complete game of six-hit one-run baseball to become only the 5th pitcher over 40-years-old to win 20 games in a season. After the game, he said, “It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. You’re here to do your job and find ways to get better, become consistent and stay consistent. Right now the consistency is there, and I’m going to cherish it and enjoy it.”
Moyer’s found paths to success were not built solely on “pitching to the X’s” or feeling his way through an at-bat. His game was cerebral; every clash with a batter was waged with a calculated attack. He kept a book where he’d log every confrontation with a batter and make notes. Jamie’s “black book” was an idea he picked up early in his career from a fellow Cub infielder who jotted down notes about his at-bats. Here’s an example of his strategy pitching to Derek Jeter, “First ball fastball swinger. Climb the ladder. Start low.” In other words, get Jeter to chase, then, because he doesn’t adjust his eyes well when pitched low, keep pitching higher in the zone.
This entry is just one of probably thousands—the whole collection to the baseball historian, priceless primary material.
Moyer was a contrarian, going against the conventional wisdom. When he was behind in counts he’d do the opposite of what over 90% of pitchers do to get back into counts and not throw two and four-seam fastballs over the plate. He’d slow up and paint the corners, effectively keeping batters on their heels and guessing. He used the batter’s ego against them time and time again by not giving them what they wanted, or knowing what they wanted and delivering something that looked like it but destined to spurn them in the end.
Mariners’ legendary manager, Lou Piniella was once asked what advice he had to help a batter hit Moyer, he said, “Think Backwards.”
In these uncertain days of Felix Hernandez—will he be good today, or bad?—where is The King to turn? Could it be that at this crossroads of his career Felix must metaphorically pitch to the X’s and find the overlap where his trajectory crosses with a former great’s, whose career unfolded in the inverse of his own?
Many journalists and fans alike have said that Felix has been too proud to change and too stubborn because he believes he’s still the King. I don’t buy that. I think he’s trying, but he’s also afraid. He’s afraid of not being good anymore. Afraid of getting hit. After all, his entire career has been predicated on not getting hit, especially during the years when he’d have to shut a team out to win. To his credit, it’s a contradiction to say to someone who’s pared down the elements of winning to not getting hit that they have to get hit in order to win. I suppose, he must understand that he’s going to get hit regardless and so he needs to be in control of how his opponents hit him.
Moyer’s gift was creating soft contact in the form of infield and outfield pop-ups, and to a lesser extent, ground balls. As stated before, he threw backward, pitched to the X’s, and never gave the batter what he wanted. He flustered batters by going from slow to slower. Angels manager, Mike Scioscia said after Moyer’s 20th win in 2003, “He has that ability to change speeds, he had uncanny control, and he has a clear idea of what he wants to do out there.”
I have no logistical analysis to divulge that can answer the question of what Felix should do. However, I believe if he continues to rely less on his fastball and increase his number of changeups and curveballs he’ll find his groove. That said, he needs to hone his control and be the most consistent he’s ever been; without the velocity, he has to make fewer mistakes. So though he and Moyer have little in common as pitchers, Moyer’s approach to the position could prove beneficial to Felix during his transition from a power arm to a nibbler.
The King needs his own little black book, a plan, his own Magna Carta.
After all, what I do know is that Felix still has life in him, just a smaller margin for error.