Since longtime MLB veteran Matt Moore debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies versus the New York Yankees, spinning two shutout innings on one hit and one walk allowed along with two strikeouts, he has quietly crafted one of the best comeback stories in the major leagues. It’s been a circuitous journey for the talented lefty; after breaking into the big league all the way back in 2011 and compiling a 28-15 record over his first two full seasons in the MLB, Moore has struggled to consistently replicate that early career success. From 2014-2019, Moore turned in a 25-41 record with a cumulative 5.08 ERA. By all accounts, it very much seemed like the Matt Moore story was about to come to a close.
With his future prospects in doubt after a disastrous 2018 season with the Texas Rangers and a 2019 season with the Detroit Tigers derailed by injury, Moore settled for a one-year deal with the Fukoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league in Japan. Now, while it has only been a handful of single spring training starts, on the heels of a successful stint overseas and with a clean bill of health, the Philadelphia Phillies should feel a cautious sense of optimism in regard to Matt Moore and his potential impact on the backend of their starting rotation.
Filling a need
A few weeks ago, I wrote a speculative piece about a potential solution for the backend of the Phillies starting rotation, one of the more notable weaknesses on this roster. At the time, my ideal candidate to slot into that four spot in the rotation was free agent Julio Teheran. Teheran featured the track record that would make him an attractive buy-low candidate going into 2021.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Phillies brought in Matt Moore and, initially, I had mixed feelings on this signing. Granted, Matt Moore very much seemed like an ace in the making when he debuted ten years ago. He featured a great fastball, a bugs-bunny-esque changeup, and a great feel for inducing weak contact and whiffs. As a minor leaguer, Moore consistently put up a K-rate north of 12.0 per 9 innings. He transitioned this penchant for strikeouts to the big league level. These are all great building blocks for a cornerstone piece of any rotation. However, as I mentioned earlier, that was ten years ago. And it’s been a long ten years since Moore broke out with an eleven strikeout performance against the New York Yankees on September 22nd, 2011.
Causes for Concern?
My biggest concern over Matt Moore was his ability to stay healthy. After necessitating Tommy John surgery in April of 2014, Moore has struggled to recapture the mid-90s velocity that made his fastball/changeup combination so effective from 2011-2013. When things looked to be on the up-and-up in 2019, the injury bug struck again and Moore was downed after only two starts with the Detroit Tigers with a torn meniscus suffered while fielding a bunt. Injury-prone starters are not what the Phillies need in 2021 and beyond (cough, cough, Jake Arrieta, cough, cough).
Sure, Matt Moore represents the sort of low-risk, high-reward that ballclubs love to make on a shoestring budget, but the Phillies need dependability and length out of their rotation. The backend of their rotation was chased from the game in the 5th or 6th inning too often in 2019 and 2020. We can sit back and pick on the historic awfulness of the 2020 Phillies bullpen all we want, but I think any group of relievers would be embattled if they were asked to pick up six to seven innings twice a week over a two-game stretch. So, pessimist that I am, I was initially skeptical of this move and felt that it fell into the same vein as their signing of Drew Smyly off the scrap heap back in 2019.
On Second Thought…
The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to consider the possibility that perhaps this signing will end up being a steal for the Phillies. I don’t expect Matt Moore to return to the form that made him look like a potential perennial Cy Young candidate back in 2012 and 2013. That pitcher is long gone by now. However, take a look at this video from his 2020 season in the NPB:
Moore definitely seems to have rediscovered the changeup that induced a whiff rate in the 30+%ile in 2012 and 2013. That thing is just nasty. Follow that video up with this serving from the 2020 Japan Series that saw Moore take the mound for Game 3 and post seven no-hit innings:
I’m not sure how well Moore’s curveball will play in the MLB. He induced a lot of swings and misses on balls in the dirt in this video. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to do that at the major league level. Still, Moore is consistently pumping 150+ kilometers per hour (around 93-94) on his fastball. He does a fine job spotting his fastball and changeup to his arm side. All in all, that’s a pretty nice arsenal of pitches to attack hitters with.
During his stint in the NPB, Moore did a nice job limiting his walks allowed (halting a downward trend over the last few years of his MLB tenure) as well as keeping the ball in the park (0.8 home runs allowed per 9 innings). This goes without saying: limiting baserunners and opponent home runs is key to success at the major league level. While the competition level of the NPB is nowhere near that of the majors, but think of it as AAAA. His stuff will play at the major league level if he pitches like he did in 2020.
Conclusion: A Bright Future for Matt Moore?
Perhaps most importantly, Moore has been able to maintain a clean bill of health. Should Matt Moore be able to stay healthy, he would be a boon to the backend of the Phillies rotation. Granted, that’s a big if. Can Matt Moore physically handle the rigors of thirty-two starts over a 162 game season? That remains to be seen. It’s a risk that teams are willing to make nowadays, though. Just look at the Red Sox with Garrett Richards or the Yankees with Corey Kluber. At the very least, I think Matt Moore can put up average production as a pitcher. Think an ERA around 4.00, roughly 6 innings per start, a decent K-to-BB ratio. Buoyed by an explosive Phillies offense, average pitching can take this team a long way.
Perhaps Matt Moore can follow in the footsteps of Colby Lewis and Miles Mikolas, two other major league pitchers who struggled to find their way in the MLB only to develop their talents overseas and return to relevance upon reentering the major league landscape. Unlike Lewis and Mikolas, though, Moore did have that initial burst of success at the big league level. Certainly, he comes with a higher upside than Mikolas or Lewis ever did. We’ve witnessed it in years past. Perhaps the Phillies found a diamond in the proverbial rough in the form of Matt Moore. One can only hope based on the results from today.
— Hunter Brody (@Brodes81) March 4, 2021