Over the last few seasons, David Price and James Shields have formed a dynamic duo at the top of the Tampa Bay Rays rotation. This weekend it was time for another pair of Rays’ starters to take center stage. Sandwiched around a 15-inning loss on Saturday, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb combined to throw 14 shutout innings against the Miami Marlins, leading their team to a series victory. The tandem allowed just three hits and four walks along the way. Together, they struck out 18 Miami hitters and generated 31 swing-and-misses
On Friday, Moore played the role of Price: a fire-balling left-hander, who is learning how to use his secondary pieces to augment his plus-fastball. While it took Price a few seasons to sort out his other pitches, it has taken Moore just a few turns through the rotation to piece together a solid game plain around the heater.
In his last four starts, Moore has allowed just seven earned runs while striking out 31 and walking nine in 26 innings. Everything is still predicated off his high-octane fastball; however, since his Memorial Day start against the Chicago White Sox, his secondary pitches have played a primary role in his success.
Moore’s fastball gets a lot of attention, but his changeup has arguably been his best pitch thus far. According to brooksbaseball.net, the 23-year-old has generated a whiff on 38% of the swings on his off-speed pitch. The waviness of the changeup is a big reason why his 12% swinging strike rate is tied with Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander for the best mark in the American League.
The changeup has helped Moore neutralize the high amount of right-handed hitters he faces. In fact, he has the lowest percentage of plate appearances in which he holds the platoon advantage – in his case facing left-handed batters – among all major-league starters with at least 75 innings. Facing a right-handed batter nearly 80% of the time, his fastball/changeup combination has held the opposite hand to a .216 average against.
Meanwhile, following his seven-inning, one hit effort against the Marlins, Moore’s breaking ball received a lot of post-game attention. “How about the curveball strike?” said Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon. “I like the fact that he commanded his breaking ball without trying to overthrow it, making it too good of a pitch and then it started becoming a strike.”
Moore threw 20 breaking balls versus the Marlins, earning a strike 16 times (80%) including 10 called strikes. Although his fastball was the outpitch du jour, the lefty used his breaking ball to pitch backwards; often throwing it in traditional fastball counts. “I feel like I had a good feel for it (breaking ball), especially in the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th innings when I was throwing it for strike one” he said after the game.
Using the pitching 2.0 philosophy, Moore threw eight first-pitch curveballs, receiving a called strike on all eight. The success of the first-pitching breaking ball set up favorable counts for Moore moving forward. “I’m not necessarily looking for a swing right there” he said “but I am looking to get ahead in the count; a little get-me-over to start 0-1.”
Over his last four outings, the New Mexico native has done a better job of burying the breaking ball in the lower portion of the strike zone. Along with the fastball and changeup, he is quickly learning how to use his all of his weapons to be both effective and efficient; two things the opposition does not want to see.
Speaking of effective and efficient, both adjectives can be used to describe Alex Cobb’s outing on Sunday. Like Moore, Cobb held Miami scoreless over seven innings; however, he allowed two hits to Moore’s one. Cobb did best Moore in the strikeout department, notching a career-high with 10 punchouts.
While Moore played the role of Price in the series opener, Cobb was very James Shields-like during the finale. Similar to Shields, the right-hander does not have the top-shelf fastball of his lefty counterpart. Instead, he uses an advanced feel for pitching and a fantastic off-speed pitch to keep hitters off balance.
To classify Cobb’s changeup a secondary pitch against the Marlins would be factually incorrect. Of his 100 pitches thrown, a whopping 53 of them were changeups. Clearly his bread-and-butter pitch, he generated 15 swing-and-misses on the off-speed pitch. Both the frequency and amount of whiffs were major-league highs for changeups this season according to ESPN’s stats and info department. The right-hander used the changeup to complete 11 outs including six of his 10 strikeouts and three of his eight groundball outs.
Cobb is also a student of the pitching 2.0 academy. In fact, 16 of his 24 first-pitches on Sunday were something other than a fastball – including 11 first-pitch curveballs. Of those 16 pitches, 12 of them were strikes. “Great fastball command but today was the uncanny ability first pitch curveball strike was really good” said Maddon. “You put that in the hitters head and then you combined that with a great changeup, fastball where he wants to.”
In the last two seasons, Shields and Price have finished within the top three of the AL Cy Young vote; however, it was a younger left/right combination that turned in award-winning performances this weekend. The Rays will start a nine-game road trip on Tuesday in which they will face pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. It will be an extremely tough task for the offense to get going against pitching of that quality. That said, when looking back at the pitching performances of this weekend, the opposition’s task to score against Tampa Bay could be equally difficult.