How A’s reliever Sam Moll found his career-changing pitch

DETROIT — Oakland Athletics reliever Sam Moll traces the origin of his slider to a period of experimentation.

Moll, the 30-year-old southpaw, started 2021 at the alternate minor league venue the Diamondbacks. Playing catch with pitcher Tyler Gilbert, Moll began to play with his cutter, moving his grip and release point.

“I was just having fun with a slider,” Moll said. “And he was like, ‘Are you throwing this in a game?'”

Moll hadn’t. But on the alternate site, he could try it out against live hitters without the results appearing as statistics. He noticed that he swing-and-miss more than the cutter he used to offset his ballast.

“I think teams value three things about pitchers: if you throw hard, if you have a swing-and-miss pitch, and if you have a weak contact pitch,” Moll said. “Well, I didn’t have a pitch to bat or a swing-and-miss, the cutter was a weak contact pitch. So I was like okay, fuck it, I’m just going to throw sliders.

Which translated into Moll’s ability to generate spin on a baseball. The result, so far this season, is one of the most exceptional break-points in the majors.

Moll creates an elite spin and horizontal movement on his slider. His average spin rate of 3,113 rpm on his sliders leads all pitchers who have thrown a slider at least 50 times this year, per Baseball Savant.

Moll’s 17.7-inch horizontal break average on sliders ranks fifth among those pitchers, second for a southpaw behind Tampa Bay’s Brooks Raley. The vertical breakup of the pitch is also above average, creating a two-plane motion that hitters on both sides are challenged to face.

Entering Thursday, Moll had thrown 76 total sliders. The batters were 0 for 16 with six strikeouts against him. In his first 11 outings, Moll had yet to allow a run, with two hits allowed in nine innings.

Moll’s slider action “means he can start it away from the plate and bring it to a right-hander, he can start it deep to a left-hander and bring it back to the plate,” the coach said. A pitchers, Scott Emerson. “But what also helps it with the slider is the ability to cast a sinker that also has good horizontal movement in that direction. So he can play the east-west game very well.

Moll has followed a winding career path. Drafted in 2013 by the Rockies, he made his major league debut with the A’s in 2017. He was claimed on waivers and then designated for assignment by three other teams before the 2018 season. In December 2018, the Giants selected him in the Minor League Rule 5 Draft.

At this point, Moll said he threw mostly with a four-seam fastball and a “crappy” slider. Working with Giants pitching science coordinator Matt Daniels, Moll switched to a lead-cutter combination. Moll posted a 2.39 ERA in the minors in 2019 and then didn’t play a game in 2020 as the minor league season was canceled amid the pandemic.

Its current cursor evolved from the cutter. Moll said he spun the ball slightly in his hand and started “trying to get a bit more to the side”, which resulted in a “fairly swept pitch”.

“He has the ability to just let go and throw it as hard as he can, and he goes around the ball and creates that good tight spin,” Emerson said.

Not all rotations are equal. When Moll first started throwing the slider last season, he said, it was more of a “gyro” ball. This type of slider has a “ball” spin, like a soccer ball, which does not itself create motion but relies on gravity to create a break in the field.

The “sweep” slider, a trending pitch at the moment, prioritizes the rotation of the ball on an axis which helps create horizontal movement. Moll said he worked last season on tilting the spin axis of the slider where he could create that break while controlling the pitch.

Moll is averaging 11.1 inches of horizontal break on the sliders he’s pitched in the majors in 2021. This season, he’s pairing the slider averaging nearly 18 inches of break with sinker averaging 12 .2 inches of horizontal break in the opposite direction.

“But I think what also benefits me is that because I spin it so hard, I can get away with a less impaired spin axis,” Moll said. “Sometimes, even on less level ones, I get bad swings – probably because it’s still not bad pitch and it’s spinning at such high speed that (the hitters) just see it as a white ball, they can’t see any spin on it.

In bullpen sessions, Moll said, he generated up to 25 inches of horizontal break on the slider.

“But the problem is that I feel my fingers very far in front of the ball,” he said. “And that’s where in a game it can get too big, I try to feel it instead of just letting it go.”

On Moll’s first outing this season, April 10 in Philadelphia, he created his first serious sweep. Six of the 10 sliders he threw had 21 or 22 inches of horizontal break, per Statcast. He struck out two of the three batters he faced.

On May 2 against Tampa Bay, Moll threw 12 sliders averaging 19 inches of horizontal break. He still got three puffs on five swings and struck out two of the three batters he faced.

“I came into this game trying to stay behind the ball more, make it more consistent, throw more shots with or start as a shot, (then) ball, and I think the result was pretty good,” Moll said. “They may have had less sweeping, but if I can keep replacing that I’d be happy.”

Quietly, Moll has been a go-to option in leveraged situations for manager Mark Kotsay. Moll appeared in four games with men on base and failed four of five legacy runners.

“Last year was great for him as well,” Kotsay said, “and he continues to have that success.”

Matt Kawahara covers the A’s for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @matthewkawahara

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