What a disaster. In every sense of the word.
The pitching staff's resident quadragenarian did his best Sean Bergman imitation on Opening Day, surrendering three homers and six runs against the Angels. Things would improve, and Moyer's ERA hit 3.64 on June 18th as his smoke and mirrors accomplished feats that Kevin Jarvis can only dream about as he sleeps on top of his piles and piles of money. Little did we know then, but that would be the peak of Moyer's season. From 6/24 on through the end of the year, Moyer spun just three quality starts - two, if you consider that one of them featured four unearned runs. The most memorable aspect of Moyer's 2004 was that his 44 home runs allowed put him fifth on the all time single-season list, one ahead of last year's Eric Milton. It all got us wondering: what has happened to our favorite crafy southpaw? Can we still call him "crafty" if he sucks? Is the English language plagued with such little depth that "crafty" is the only word we can think of to describe a pitcher of Moyer's ilk? These are the important questions to consider as we enter the 2005 season.
A casual glance at those numbers reveals that Moyer's ERA was just about where it should have been, given his performance. In other words, the 2004 season can't be brushed off as "bad luck".
Note the low BABIP - 17th-best in baseball. On the surface that seems like good luck, but Moyer has consistently been able to induce more outs on balls in play than the average since arriving in Seattle. He's been helped by a good environment, a good defense, and being left-handed (which is a factor in the original DIPS research), but the .270 BABIP since coming to the Mariners in 1996 is low enough to suggest that Moyer is one of those statistical outliers against whom batters simply aren't as effective as they are against other pitchers.
A lot of people want to compare 2004 to that brutal 2000 campaign, in which Moyer fought injury and frequent ineffectiveness in putting up an ERA in the mid-5's. The argument is that he's sucked once and come back successfully before, so why can't he do it again? It seems reasonable, and it's not entirely incorrect, but there's a significant difference between the two seasons. In 2000, Moyer's walks were up, but it was the .301 BABIP that did a lot of the damage; he was missing bats just as often as he always had, but the balls that were hit fell in for hits too often. In 2004, on the other hand, the walks were up again (and the strikeouts were down a little bit), but the number that stands out is that 44. Moyer's home run problem were the main reason why his ERA skyrocketed, unlike the problem with defense that plagued him in 2000.
People who have been reading me for a little while might remember that I made a particular argument about Moyer's ineffectiveness a few months ago. To a point, I think was correct. The take-home message was that Moyer had lost that pinpoint command that he'd had for so long, and that this exposed his Little League repertoire, leading to an increased home run rate. I don't think this is out of the question; rather, I think it was no small factor in guiding Moyer's 2004 season. I think that, at 42 years old, Jamie started to fray around the edges, which made him more vulnerable than he used to be.
I don't think you can put all the blame on this single issue, though. According to the Hardball Times, batters hit line drives off Moyer 17.4% of the time - three-tenths of a point below the league average. While this is probably higher than usual for Moyer (I don't know; they don't have pre-2004 numbers), it doesn't support the argument that batters were sitting back and teeing off on Jamie's soft stuff.
To the best of my knowledge, there haven't been very many studies done concerning how home run rates and 2b/3b rates are related. However, the prevailing wisdom right now is that there isn't much difference between what happens on a double and what happens on a home run - in other words, that there's a lot of luck (for lack of better term) involved in determining whether a well-hit ball sails over the fence or falls into the gap. With this in mind, I want to show you a few numbers:
The first thing you notice is probably that Moyer's extra-base hits allowed went up in 2004 - by nearly 20%, for what it's worth. For this reason, I believe that the guy has lost a bit of his command, and he's getting hit harder than usual. But that's not why I entered the numbers.
Moyer's home run rate nearly doubled, while his doubles/triples rate decreased. Knowing what we can about the relationship between homers and other kinds of shiny hits, it doesn't require too much manipulation of your brain to consider that general bad luck turned a bunch of doubles into homers last year. A few millimeters here, a few wind gusts there, and you can get dramatically different results from the same basic pitch and swing.
I don't think that Jamie Moyer is going to rebound to what he used to be as a Mariner. Between 1996-2003, he put up a 3.73 ERA, and those days are probably done. From the wild increase in home runs allowed and the elevated walk rate, we can infer that Moyer should in no way be absolved of blame for his poor 2004 season. He missed some spots, some of these pitches got slammed, and that's not all thanks to bad luck.
At the same time, I think we need to consider that fortune did play a significant role in shoving Jamie's ERA north of five. The home run rate is so out of line with his prior career, and the 2B/3B rate is so low by comparison, that we have to assume that luck screwed him over (so to speak). While I expect Moyer's extra-base hit rate to remain somewhere in the upper-8's/low-9's, the home runs should come back down at least a little bit, which should be enough to make him a much more useful pitcher in 2005 than he was last season. Something in the mid-4's wouldn't surprise me, although when you're talking about a guy like Jamie Moyer, it's tough to be surprised by anything.
Before I close, it should be pointed out that Moyer had all kinds of trouble when he fell behind in the count. Hitters torched him for a .298 batting average after a first-pitch ball, as opposed to a .270 figure in 2003 and .271 for his career. It wasn't that he was struggling to start off at bats with a strike (his first-pitch strike percentage was in line with his career performance), but that when he missed with that first pitch, he had all kinds of trouble salvaging the at bat. One way to interpret this is that Moyer didn't have much confidence in his ability to locate stuff on the edge of the plate, so he was forced to come right after the hitters and throw "easier" strikes (this would seem to refute the theory that he avoided throwing over the plate for fear of making a costly mistake). There are a few other ways to interpret the data, though, so think about the numbers however you please.