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Giant Expectations

Five years ago, multiple prospect lists ranked Matt Moore ahead of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Today, he’s a no. 3 starter for San Francisco. But he’s also coming off of the most impressive start of the 2016 playoffs. So, what comes next?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Three seasons ago, the Chicago Cubs won 73 games. In 2015, that number jumped up to 97. And last year, well, you know what happened. In consecutive campaigns, Joe Maddon and Co. made the proverbial leap: from a mediocre team with potential to a bona fide mid-tier contender to a flexible juggernaut that looks set to dominate the sport for years to come. So this week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a look at what other teams and players — good, bad, and otherwise — are poised for some sudden improvement this season. It’s Make the Leap Week!

On October 11, Matt Moore had one of those games. His Giants were down 2–1 in the NLDS to the 103-win Cubs, who’d already beaten Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, then strangled implacable playoff stalwart Madison Bumgarner in Game 3, though the Giants came back to win in 13 innings and force a Game 4. By that point, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy had publicly lost faith in a bullpen that had won him three World Series but blew a league-leading nine saves in September.

So Moore, the wiry, wide-eyed 27-year-old left-hander, who’d arrived in San Francisco only two and a half months before, took the mound against the best team in baseball, with his team’s season on the line and no backup coming. Faced with this Thermopylae-on-the-Bay, Moore held his ground until he ran out of ammo: eight innings, 10 strikeouts, two hits, two walks, two runs allowed. He even pulled a fourth-inning RBI single through the hole off John Lackey. Moore left after throwing 120 pitches, the second-longest outing of his career and the longest postseason start of any player in 2016, with a 5–2 lead, at which point five Giants relievers gave up four runs to only seven Cubs batters.

It’s not the first time Moore’s had one of those games. In 2011, the manager whose Cubs Moore mowed down, Joe Maddon, then with the Rays, tabbed the left-hander to start Game 1 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. Moore had made only one big league start before he took the mound, but David Price, James Shields, and rookie of the year Jeremy Hellickson had all pitched during that chaotic last week of the season, in which the Rays scrambled back from a seven-run deficit against the Yankees on the last day of the season to steal the wild-card spot from the Beer and Chicken Red Sox, who were doing a decent impersonation of the 2007 New York Mets.

Moore was green, but rested, and he delivered a masterpiece: seven innings, two walks, two hits, six strikeouts, no runs allowed. Tampa Bay won 9–0, its only victory of the series.

That start in Arlington feels like ancient history because it was — there was only one wild card back then, the playoffs started in September, and Wade Davis was a mop-up guy. It’s certainly a lifetime ago for Moore, who by the time he came back and did almost the same thing to the Cubs, had become a different pitcher.

Today, Moore is just another veteran starter trying to fit in during his first full season with a new team. The Giants picked him up at last year’s deadline, and after the trade and the whirlwind of a pennant race, Moore is just now starting to get the lay of the land, and to think of himself as a Giant.

“It rolls off my tongue easier,” Moore said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a grip on a lot more of the personnel, getting to meet people who are behind the scenes a little more and minor league staff that I haven’t met yet. So it’s nice heading into camp having a general idea of where and who everybody was.”

He’s trying to fit in now, but as a rookie, Moore couldn’t help but stand out.

Unless he runs for president or makes some great scientific discovery, the first thing everyone’s going to remember about Moore is that before the 2012 season, and Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the no. 1 prospect in baseball, ahead of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. (Baseball America had him second, behind Harper but ahead of Trout.)

At the time, it didn’t seem that crazy — Kevin Goldstein, then BP’s top prospect writer, said that Moore had “everything one looks for in an elite-level pitching prospect” and that his upside was that of an “ace-level starter and Cy Young candidate.” Certainly his playoff debut backed that assessment up. Here’s Moore’s pitch usage chart from that start, sorted by times through the order.

Moore retired eight of nine Rangers the first time through the order using, essentially, just his four-seamer, which averaged 96.59 mph through the first nine hitters and peaked at 98.49. Lefty starters just don’t throw that hard — and they certainly didn’t back then. Moore lost about a mile an hour off his four-seamer each time through the order, so he started going to his changeup and curveball. That afternoon, right-handed hitters — including Ian Kinsler, Adrián Beltré, Nelson Cruz, and Michael Young — went 0-for-23.

That offseason, the Rays inked Moore, with only 17 days of big league service time, to the Evan Longoria Special, a five-year deal for $14 million guaranteed with bonuses and options that could have pushed it to eight years and $40 million. Moore made 31 starts in 2012 with a 101 ERA+ over 177.1 innings. He struck out about a batter an inning, but he posted the seventh-highest walk rate among qualified starters. The next year, Moore missed a month with elbow inflammation, threw only 150.1 innings, and led the majors in wild pitches, but his 117 ERA+ and 17–4 record got him his first All-Star appearance and some down-ballot Cy Young votes. Through two years, Moore wasn’t throwing enough innings or enough strikes to be the ace he was heralded as, but he was still only 24 and already a solid midrotation starter.

In April 2014, he blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery. Moore missed almost all of 2014 and 2015, then came back a different pitcher.

In 2016, Moore made 33 starts and threw 198.1 innings, both career highs, with a K/9 ratio of 8.1 and a BB/9 of 3.3, both career lows for a full season. The result was a bang-on league-average ERA+ of 100, but with a few real highs sprinkled in, including the strong playoff start and an August 25 no-hit bid, broken up by Corey Seager with two outs in the ninth. But the innings total, particularly after Tommy John, was comforting.

“I think it was just a new appreciation, like after a bad game, the fact that I still feel OK and nothing’s hurting, I get another chance to go out there and compete,” Moore said. “I was probably more happy at that little small victory right there in that loss [to the Cubs] than in years past where you kind of take those things for granted.”

Moore doesn’t think of the trade to San Francisco as a new chapter in his career (“I mean, I didn’t choose it, right?” he said), but in his first weeks with the Giants, he had what can only be described as a watershed moment. Let’s take a look at his pitch usage from that 2016 playoff start.

You’ll see that the fastball (which sits at 93 or 94 and touches 96, compared to sitting at 96 and touching 98 or 99 like it did in 2011), curve, and changeup are all there, but also a sinker, which he leaned on throughout his Rays career but didn’t use against the Rangers, and a cutter.

“I think I messed around with it in a game of catch years ago. I was like, ‘Alright, it’s cool. I finally figured out how everybody gets the ball to do that without it being a slider,’” Moore said. “So I … had it in my back pocket, and nobody really liked it where I was at ” — Moore threw 73 cutters in 2014 and 2015, then only two more in 2016 in the four months before the trade — “and then Buster [Posey] asked me about it and basically just went into games with it.”

Posey had Moore throw 133 cutters in 12 regular-season starts with the Giants, nearly twice as many as he’d thrown in 94 starts with the Rays. In his playoff start against the Cubs, Moore threw 20 more, drawing eight swings, none of them line drives.

“There’s not a big difference in the thought process of throwing a four-seam fastball, and throwing a cut fastball,” Moore said. “I haven’t been around that long, but it does feel like it’s nice to have a pitch that’s something new to kind of mess around with, a different look.”

Missing barrels — without necessarily missing bats — is the key to a cutter. Take Corey Kluber, who’s one of the best pitchers in baseball for two reasons. The first is that his slider is the kind of breaking pitch that comes in straight, then burrows into the ground so quickly you have to hire an ex-Soviet oil-drilling team to dig a hole to go after it, and by the time you find the ball it’s been six years and you’ve spent $2 billion on a seven-mile-deep borehole and the umpire’s telling you to go back to the bench, you’ve struck out.

The second is that he throws three different fastballs — a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter — in proportions that vary wildly from month to month, and while they all come in somewhere between 90 and 94 mph, hitters can’t tell which way they’re going to break. Here’s the movement on Kluber’s fastballs since 2014, when he won the Cy Young.

And here’s Moore’s, since he joined the Giants.

Moore doesn’t use his sinker as much as Kluber does, but he’s got a tighter velocity grouping (all three fastballs sit between 91 and 93 mph). The difference between Moore’s cutter and four-seamer is about two or three inches of rise and five inches of glove-side break, which isn’t a lot, but like Moore said, it’s about missing barrels.

“I don’t have any balls that sweep across the plate, so something that looks like a hard four-seam fastball [helps],” Moore said. “For me it’s just more so getting guys off the barrel; if I can get to the end of the bat or inside the label, that’s where our money’s made.”

Moore’s still on the back end of the contract he signed when he was 22. He’ll make $7 million this year, with a $9 million option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2018 and a $10 million option for 2019. He has usage-based escalator clauses in both options — his recovery from Tommy John put the 2018 bonuses out of reach, but if he makes 66 starts or throws 400 innings over the next two years, that’ll be worth an extra $500,000 to him. Thanks to his 33-start, 198.1-inning 2016, an extra 1.2 innings over 400 in the next two years would trigger another $500,000 bonus for throwing 600 innings or making 98 starts from 2016 to 2018.

The Moore of the 2012 prospect lists is long gone, but for this new Moore, the cutter-happy no. 3 starter who has shown he can Hulk up in October, those bonuses make his newfound durability a literal million-dollar question.

“Expectations are usually for outside the locker room,” Moore said. “You can’t say I expect to throw 200 innings. Maybe some guys would say that; the way I approach it is that I expect myself to show up every day and give what I got.”

Ideally for Moore and the Giants, one day next fall he’ll be able to give them another shutdown playoff start — no matter how he does it.