Colin Moran Just Did Something Absurd

Because of what’s happened after the fact, I don’t know how good the Pirates currently feel about the Gerrit Cole trade. Cole, of course, has seen his strikeouts skyrocket with the Astros, even after moving to the more difficult league. But it’s not like the Pirates got nothing, and the key to the trade all along, for me, has been Colin Moran. Moran once looked like a bust of a prospect, but in 2017, in the minors, he unlocked his power. He was a swing-changer, and the changes seemingly paid off. Moran took to the air with his batted balls, and, fast-forward — through 143 plate appearances with Pittsburgh, Moran has a 130 wRC+. He’s been making a strong early impression.

Because Moran was a swing-changer, I found myself making an assumption. The way this usually goes is that a guy works to elevates pitches down in the zone. That, in turn, can make him exploitable up. We’ve been talking about the high fastball for years. Yet Moran did something in early April that caught my eye. His first home run with the Pirates was a grand slam, and here’s where the pitch was located:

Up above the belt. I didn’t think that was a pitch he could get to. My assumption was wrong. I also hadn’t seen anything yet.

About a week or so ago, I started getting a flurry of tweets about Willson Contreras. Contreras, see, singled against a really high pitch. You know I’m a sucker for these things, and, indeed, the pitch location was extreme. In this plot, you see the locations of every pitch turned around for a hit in 2018. The Contreras single is highlighted in yellow.

Highest pitch knocked for a hit this season. Good for Contreras! Also, in a way, kind of bad for Contreras, in the bigger picture, but let’s leave that be. It took something for him to be able to get up there. That’s no small feat. Contreras should be proud.

And yet we all know that not all hits are created alike. Singles are fine — singles can win games! — but a single is worse than a double, and a double is worse than a triple. And a triple is worse than a home run. No hit can be more impressive than a home run. So let’s look at a similar plot, but this time looking only at dingers. One dinger is highlighted in yellow. It’s a Colin Moran home run from Tuesday night.

Yeah. Now that is exceptional. Not only has Moran hit the highest pitch that’s gone for a homer — it’s the highest by seven inches. It’s the fifth-highest pitch hit for a homer in the pitch-tracking era, spanning more than a decade. The difference between this and the highest pitch hit out is an inch and a half. Not much of a difference at all. Colin Moran got a fastball four and a half feet off the ground. He Gattis-ed it into the seats.

The victim, in this case, was Matt Harvey. Harvey allowed only one run to the Pirates over six innings, and this was it. To make matters all the more fascinating, Harvey faced Moran in the first inning, with two outs and the bases loaded. Here’s how Moran struck out:

High fastball, at the belt. Usually a pretty good putaway pitch. I don’t think anyone forgot that the second time around. Harvey and Moran faced off again in the fourth, and Harvey quickly got ahead 0-and-2. What’s a good pitch ahead 0-and-2? Many pitchers would tell you a fastball at the letters. Harvey executed a fastball at the letters!

If you try to read the catcher, you might say Harvey missed, and missed by a mile. If the target is indicative, the fastball was supposed to be down and away. I don’t know if that’s true. A down-and-away fastball isn’t always as effective as an above-the-belt fastball. And in any case, there’s no good reason why this pitch should’ve turned into a home run. When you throw that pitch, you’re praying for a swing. You want the hitter to chase, because chasing means expanding, and no one should be able to expand and hit a pitch like that hard, if at all. As Moran started to swing, Harvey’s brain would’ve smiled. It would’ve sent those positive signals. And then, immediately, it would’ve tried to get those signals back. This is the face of a man whose punishments don’t match up with his sins.

For everything Matt Harvey has been through, that pitch gets hit out? I don’t know how you go home and make sense of a job where something like that can happen. I know that baseball is all about playing the probabilities, and that over a large enough sample, talent wins out, but I don’t know how you do anything with conviction when even your best possible pitch can go for four bases. As if Harvey needed further reason to worry about his career.

The highest pitch hit out on record was clubbed last season, by Mark Trumbo. The pitch to Moran was 4.45 feet off the ground. The pitch to Trumbo was 4.57 feet off the ground. Let’s look at a shot of Trumbo first:

You see hands at the shoulders, and a more or less level bat. It doesn’t actually look that ridiculous. Compare that to this shot of Moran:

Hands in front of his face. The bat still has an angle to it. It should also be said that the pitch to Trumbo was away. Therefore, he could get his arms extended. The pitch to Moran was inside. Moran, somehow, still kept his hands in and above the ball. Moran hit the pitch like it was somewhere mid-thigh. It was actually even with his left shoulder. It is, simultaneously, a demonstration of great hitting technique, and poor decision-making. Moran got a pitch he had no business getting to.

And this gets us all the way back to the beginning. Colin Moran has broken out because he’s started to hit more balls in the air. Doesn’t do him any good to hit a bunch of grounders. My initial assumption was that Moran got better at hitting pitches down in the zone. Instead, what Moran is doing is targeting pitches up. Consider this table:

2018 Swing Rates
Player High Low Difference
Marwin Gonzalez 86% 48% 38%
Aaron Hicks 81% 44% 37%
Jarrod Dyson 73% 37% 36%
Brian Dozier 69% 33% 36%
Colin Moran 88% 55% 34%
Kolten Wong 77% 45% 32%
Manny Machado 81% 49% 32%
Kyle Schwarber 79% 48% 31%
Albert Almora Jr. 76% 46% 30%
A.J. Pollock 79% 50% 29%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Upper and lower thirds of zone. Minimum 50 pitches in each area.

Moran has swung at eight of every nine pitches in the upper third of the zone. Meanwhile, he’s swung at just five of every nine pitches in the lower third of the zone. That gives him the fifth-greatest difference in the league. It’s not so much that Moran is trying to hit low pitches in the air. He’s trying to target pitches more likely to be hit in the air in the first place. That’s the other way of trying to eliminate grounders, and with Moran looking high more often than he’s looking low, that at least helps to partially explain how he could do to Harvey what he did. Moran wants the pitch up. Not usually that far up, but, things happen.

Ultimately, Harvey got to feel good about his start. Moran went hitless his other three times up, and the Pirates lost to one of the worst teams in baseball. If you care only about results, then, on Tuesday, the Reds got the best one. But it was Colin Moran who got the weirdest one. Also the most difficult one to forget.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

That’s the kind of thing you expect out of Evan Gattis. Still remember Trevor Bauer’s face when Gattis destroyed a forehead-height fastball a couple years back.

5 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

I didn’t know Gattis’s forehead was at shoulder height.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bret

Gattis’ shoulder.

Altuve’s forehead.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bret

In the internet age, where everything is just a click away, you just can’t use good ol’ fashioned hyperbole anymore!

5 years ago
Reply to  Bret

I was dreaming up some adjusted plots but then it seems that Gattis, Moran, and Trumbo are all the same height.

5 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

Was it the same face Tyler Clippard made?