Left-hander Jovani Moran is most well known for his changeup, which FanGraphs’ prospect evaluators have described with the adjective “bugs bunny” and some of MLB Pipeline’s scouting sources have assessed as “double-plus.” In baseball scouting jargon, those two descriptors are rare and not thrown about lightly.
Moran combined that beautiful changeup with a slightly below-average low-90s fastball and a rarely used change-of-look slider (almost exclusively to lefty batters) to mostly dominate the minor leagues. He was the Twins’ 7th-round selection in the 2015 first-year player draft out of Puerto Rico, and, over parts of six minor league seasons pitched to a combined 2.96 ERA with a 37.4% cumulative strikeout rate.
Despite the solid results and strikeout dominance at every level, Moran has never been considered a top-of-the-charts prospect, usually ranking somewhere in the 20s and 30s on the public-facing top prospects lists (and 28th on Twinkie Town’s prospect vote). Those rankings reflect that Moran faces questions about his ceiling as a two-pitch guy without an overpowering fastball and occasionally wobbly command. Baseball history is chock full of pitchers with similar profiles who succeeded in the minors before getting exposed in the majors.
Rocky 2021 Debut
With those strong results at AA and AAA in tow, Moran was promoted to make five appearances (8 innings) down the stretch when the Twins were far from playoff contention in 2021. If ever such a small sample can be instructive, this was, as all the pluses and minuses of Jovani Moran were on clear display in his first cup of coffee.
He struck batters out (26.3%) and got ground balls (50%) at above-average rates and his go-to changeup proved just as baffling to big league hitters as it had to minor leaguers (-2.3 Statcast run value per 100 pitches). Opponents hit just a lone single in 13 at-bats ending on Moran’s changeup and whiffed at the pitch a touch more than half the time they swung.
At the same time, Moran struggled to throw strikes (40.1% zone rate, 18.4% walk rate) and opponents showed they were quite comfortable waiting to hit his fastball (8 for 18, .472 wOBA allowed, +4.5 run value per 100 pitches). In total, he gave up 7 runs and ended the season with a 7.88 ERA.
It would be somewhat reasonable to explain a lot of this away as a small rookie sample that was hampered by very poor luck. Moran was hurt by a .429 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a 56.3% strand rate, both significantly worse than the league average. As a result of that data, plus the strikeouts and the fact that he did not allow any home runs, Moran’s run prevention estimator marks looked a lot more favorable (FIP 3.30, xERA 3.78) than his actual ERA. But the command and hittable fastball remained concerning.
A Better 2022
Entering Spring Training, there were jobs to be won in the Twins’ bullpen, but Moran was not able to stake claim to one after he allowed five runs with four walks and two home runs in four Grapefruit League appearances. He started the year with AAA-St. Paul before he was recalled to the Twins for the first of what would eventually become five times in early May. Throughout the rest of the season, Moran would shuttle back and forth between St. Paul and the Twins every few weeks, and he worked effectively at almost every opportunity.
In total, he made 31 appearances out of the Twins bullpen and 24 of them were scoreless, mostly in low-leverage situations. Moran worked 40.1 innings with a fantastic 2.21 ERA, 1.79 FIP, 32.9% strikeout rate, 11.0% walk rate, 48.9% ground ball rate, and no home runs allowed. Moran’s top-line AAA numbers were less inspired – 6.00 ERA in 24 innings – but he struck out 38.4% of the minor league batters he faced and had a very solid 3.01 FIP because he suffered from terrible batted ball luck and sequencing fortune (.451 BABIP, 65.4% left on base).
Even more encouraging than the great results is that Moran demonstrated some needed improvements. There is some risk inherent in drawing insights by comparing to Moran’s 2021 since it was such a limited sample. But, the data clearly suggests that he did some things differently.
The most obvious difference from 2021 to 2022 is that Moran threw the ball over the plate more frequently. His 45.2% zone rate was up 5.1 points from 2021 and that naturally plays a significant role in walking fewer batters.
More granularly, though, Moran threw both his fastball and his changeup in the strike zone more frequently. The in-zone rate of his fastball, as tracked by Statcast, went from 51.8% in 2021 to 54.2% in 2022. Moran threw his changeup in the zone 37.2% of the time he offered it, nearly a ten-point increase from the 27.6% rate he displayed in 2021.
As a result of throwing more strikes, Moran was able to throw 70.4% of his pitches with the ball-strike count even or to his advantage, compared to 67.3% last season. That probably does not seem like a big deal, but it is because of how strong a role count leverage plays in offensive production. Take a look at how the league fared this season when the hitter was behind in the count:
For comparison, St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt, the possible National League MVP, produced a .419 wOBA this season, roughly the same as the league average when the hitter has the count advantage.
Moran also made some subtle changes in where he located his pitches around the zone. In 2021, to the extent you want to draw signals from it, Moran’s fastball was located across the top of the zone. This past season, it appears that he tightened up the horizontal locations of his heaters and did a better job of clustering them together:
In tandem, he got his changeup on the plate much more frequently:
For fastball-changeup pairings to work most effectively, the two pitches need to look like each other for as long as possible as they fly to the plate. When about 3 of every 4 changeups are thrown for a ball and the scouting report is that the fastball is a lesser pitch, it’s easier for hitters to try to sit on fastballs in the strike zone and ignore the changeup.
That plan is sound, but still very difficult to execute if the trajectories of the two pitches mirror one another closely. But when the trajectory of the changeup is so clearly wide of the zone and the fastball is sprayed horizontally across the zone, as they were in 2021, it’s easier for the hitter to identify one pitch type from the other and find the one they want to hit. That’s why narrowing the horizontal locations of his fastballs and changeups is so important.
In 2022, Moran’s fastballs and changeups paired together more tightly — an approach known as “tunneling” — and gave him a more consistent north and south profile, compared to the east and west of 2021:
The interplay of the two made it harder on hitters. Moran’s changeup remained excellent. It was valued at -2.2 runs per 100 pitches and opposing hitters whiffed against it 49.7% of the time they swung at it and went 8 for 79 in at-bats ending on the pitch last season, good for a tiny .101 batting average and .139 slugging percentage.
His fastball went from a liability to a neutral offering, as shown by its 0.0 Statcast run value per 100 pitches. Opponents hit .270 and slugged .349 against Moran’s fastball, producing an average-ish .322 wOBA against it (150 points worse than in 2021).
A New, Better Fastball
The location tweaks weren’t the only explanation for his four-seamer improving. Statcast measures the characteristics of pitches in a variety of ways – velocity, spin rate, active spin, movement, extension, and perceived velocity to name a few – which we can use to analyze pitch quality. Those measurements suggest Moran made some subtle but very significant mechanical adjustments that increased the quality of his fastball. (This is something the Twins have shown they are adept at in recent years.)
Moran increased his average four-seamer velocity from 92.5 mph (37th percentile) in 2021 to 93.4 mph (48th percentile) last season. Moran’s average four-seamer spin rate increased from 2150 RPMs (30th percentile) to 2225 RPMs (45th percentile). Velocity is positively related to spin rate and his spin-to-velocity ratio moved from 23.2 to 23.8, suggesting that the extra spin was not only a byproduct of the velocity bump but perhaps from a small grip or release tweak. In conjunction with that, the active spin on his four-seamer – that is, the spin that contributes to movement – increased from 90% to 92%.
That little bit of extra spin, slightly more efficiently applied, meant that Moran’s new fastball dropped 2.6 inches less on average than it had previously. That moved him from having below-average vertical movement to having 12% above-average movement at his velocity.
Finally, Moran’s extension – how far down the mound he gets before releasing the ball – increased from 6.5 feet to 6.7 feet, which, when taken in combination with the velocity increase, meant that his fastball had a perceived velocity of 94.0 mph.
All of those small fastball adjustments and more optimal pairing with his changeup increased Moran’s overall stuff grade, as assessed by The Athletic’s Stuff+ metric, from 92.1 in 2021 to 104.9 in 2022 (100 is average).
Moran’s future outlook is more solidified than it was this time last year. He’s shown he can be successful in the majors. While their degree of appearance difficulty is not comparable, among relievers to throw at least 40 innings this season, only the Mets’ Edwin Díaz (0.90) had a better FIP than Moran’s 1.79, and Moran ranked 31st in context-neutral wins (WPA/LI).
That’s not to say he’s a finished product. Even with the improved command this season, his walk rate remains higher than desired and should continue to be a point of emphasis. Moran has held his own against left-handed batters (.250 wOBA) but is clearly better suited for facing right-handed batters (.219 wOBA) because of his changeup. A breaking ball or cutter he can trust more than the slider he threw all of 23 times last season would be another helpful development, even if it were just a get-it-over strike-stealer. Nonetheless, the current package works, especially with this season's tweaks, and Moran looks positioned to be an important part of the Twins’ bullpen next year.