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Back to the future: Matt Moore’s quest for what might have been

The date was September 30, 2011. At 4:06 that afternoon, the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers began their American League Division Series against the same Tampa Bay Rays team it eliminated from the postseason just one year prior. At 4:05 that afternoon, a 1-0 series lead for the Rangers seemed little more than a foregone conclusion. The Rangers were coming off of a 96-win regular season, good for the third best record in all of baseball. On the hill for the Texas, staff ace, All-Star, and 16-game winner C.J. Wilson. His opponent, 22 year old rookie Matt Moore who was making just his second professional start.

Exactly three hours later, the Rays would put the finishing touches on a 9-0 victory to take an early series lead, and 50,498 fans walked out of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington with the feeling that they may have just witnessed the future of the Rays organization and Major League Baseball boisterously announce his presence. Moore fired seven shutout innings, holding one of baseball’s best offenses to just four total baserunners while striking out six. 

As most of you know by now, Texas would go on to win the next three games, en route to a series victory and a second straight American League Pennant. The Rangers ultimate success in no way diminished the brilliance of Matt Moore in Game 1 and the impression he left on the rest of the league. The young lefty, already heralded as baseball’s number three overall prospect at the time, did more than enough to earn his spot amongst the better young arms in all of baseball.

Over the next two years, Matt Moore would continue to make his case as one of baseball’s bright young stars.  Moore finished his 2012 rookie season with an 11-11 record, compiling a 3.81 ERA. He improved to 17-4 in 2013, receiving his first All-Star nod and finishing 9th in the American League Cy Young race. At the tender age of 24, it appeared Matt Moore’s time at the top of the pantheon of Major League pitchers was imminent.

But baseball can be a funny sport. And often times, it can be downright cruel. On April 7, 2014, Moore was making his second start of the season against Kansas City. Moore, in complete control early on, would eventually leave the game after 4.1 innings, citing discomfort in his throwing elbow. Although an MRI did not reveal a complete tear of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament, Moore continued to experience pain while throwing over the ensuing weeks. He elected for Tommy John surgery in late April, bringing an early and unceremonious end to his 2014 campaign.

Tommy John surgery is no longer the baseball death sentence it once was. Complete recovery has risen to over 90% among all professional baseball players who elect to have the procedure. Post-surgery durability has not been an issue for Moore. After sitting out almost all of 2015 following surgery, he made 33 starts in 2016 and 31 last season.

A complete return to form however has thus far alluded the southpaw. After struggling through his first 21 starts in 2016, the Rays shipped Moore to San Francisco for fan favorite Matt Duffy and prospects midseason. In his 43 starts with the Giants over the past season and a half, Moore finished 12-20 with an ERA of 5.12. Moore’s 15 losses and 5.52 ERA in 2017 ranked last in majors among qualifiers. Moore allowed 80 extra base hits last season, second most in the NL, and lefties raked to the tune of a .373 batting average against him for the season.

Moore’s time in San Francisco wasn’t without its bright spots. Moore took a no-hitter in to the ninth inning against the Dodgers in August of 2016 and held the Cubs to two runs over eight full innings in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS. However moments like this were far too few for a man who was once considered among the best young arms in all of baseball.

Will a Change in Scenery Work This Time Around?

On December 15, 2017, Texas shipped two minor league relievers to the Giants in exchange for Moore. The Giants made the move in an effort to shed payroll. Texas made a perfect dance partner as the club’s probable rotation at the time consisted of Cole HamelsMartin Perez, potential reclamation projects in Mike Minor and Doug Fister, and (perhaps) one of the club’s top 2017 bullpen arms in Matt Bush.

The trade to Texas came as a surprise to Moore. Just three months prior, the Giants announced plans to pick up Moore’s $9 million club option for 2018. Despite a shaky tenure in San Francisco, it appeared the club was willing to be patient and still viewed Matt Moore as a part of their future. The Giants however began gearing up for a potential run at big name free agents this past offseason. As a result, Matt Moore and his $9 million salary for 2018 eventually became expendable.

On paper, Texas appears to be a nice fit for Matt Moore’s pursuit of resurrection. He will have to prove very little this spring to earn a spot in the opening day rotation, and the high expectations that followed him to San Francisco are now all but forgotten. This will truly be an opportunity for Matt Moore to just show up and pitch.

Pitching Coach Doug Brocail will be tasked with helping Moore turn the corner. In his disastrous 2017, Moore lost considerable velocity in his four seam fastball. Opposing hitters took advantage, slugging .558 against the pitch, which dipped to an average velocity of 92.5 MPH compared to the nearly 95 MPH he carried while in Tampa. In an effort to combat an ineffective four seamer, Moore turned to a cut fastball designed to tie righties up inside. He never found the feel for the cutter, a pitch that opponents hit .322 against in 2017.

Early this spring, Brocail convinced Moore to put the cutter in his back pocket for now. The focus is on ramping up velocity and regaining command of his four-seam fastball. In his first few seasons, Moore featured a plus changeup and an effective curveball, which he would routinely use when ahead in the count to keep hitters of balance. Yet, lack of command and confidence in his fastball over the past two seasons has essentially rendered his secondary pitches unserviceable. Moore’s fastball usage, including both the four-seam and cut fastball, has gone from just north of 50% in his first two years in the league to over 62% in 2016 and 65% in 2017. The goal this season…get ahead and mix it up.

There is little doubt that the talent is still there. Also important to keep in mind, Matt Moore is still just 28 years old. Despite posting less than desirable numbers over the past two seasons, Moore has had his fair share of positive moments. Yet it remains clear that post-surgery Matt Moore has yet to regain the confidence and consistency he displayed early in his career.

Brocail and Ranger’s manager Jeff Banister have to be encouraged with the results early this spring. Moore blanked the White Sox over two innings in his first spring start. He followed that up yesterday by holding his former team, the Giants, to one run on one hit over 2.2 innings. While the former number three overall prospect is no longer considered one of the future faces of baseball, the Rangers are optimistic that Matt Moore can rebound and establish his place among the future of the Texas Rangers organization.

Contributor covering the Texas Rangers | I have lived in the DFW Metroplex for more than 35 years and I have been an avid fan of all Dallas pro sports franchises since the mid 80s. In addition to my lovely wife and two perfect children, my passions include reading, playing sports and of course, watching as much sports as I can possibly fit into my schedule.

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