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Did the Giants solve Matt Moore?

He was supposed to be an ace. Did San Francisco finally unlock that potential?

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at San Francisco Giants
San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Moore
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Moore has yet to fulfill the potential so many saw in him as a minor leaguer. In 2012, he was the second-best prospect in the game, according to Baseball America, ahead of one Mike Trout, among others.

Baseball America called him “An ace waiting to happen” in the 2012 Prospect Handbook and mentioned that, at the time, many scouts believed he had better pure stuff than David Price, who would go on to win the American League Cy Young later that year. Moore’s fastball, curveball, changeup and command/control were all given at least a 60 grade on the 20-80 scale. His overall future value was pegged at a 75, and he was given a risk evaluation of “safe.”

With the exception of Stephen Strasburg, you could make a case for Moore as the best pitching prospect of the 21st century.

Moore should have a Cy Young of his own by now, according to the evaluations at the time. Instead, he’s become another friendly reminder that — repeat after me — there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.

Moore’s failure to reach that sky-high ceiling has been two-fold. For one thing, he has never shown anywhere close to the command scouts and prognosticators foresaw for him when he was dominating Double-A. And for another, he got hurt, his UCL needing a reconstruction in 2014.

It’s not exactly as if Moore has been an outright bust. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP model is the least friendly to him, with a career WARP of just 1.3, but both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have him as worth at least six wins since his debut in 2011. More importantly, all three believe he’s coming off of either the best or second-best season of his career.

So while Moore may not be at the place we thought he’d get to five years ago, he has shown signs that he can be a solid, dependable starting pitcher. That’s extremely valuable.

I just mentioned that he’s coming off perhaps the best season of his career, and of course, the more recently a player performs well, the more likely we are to believe he has really turned a corner.

So what changed for Moore in 2016? A few things, actually, so let’s take them one-by-one.

First, Moore put in a full season of work for the first time in a few years. Even though he didn’t have Tommy John until 2014, it is possible Moore’s arm was bothering him even before then. This was probably the first time since 2012, his rookie season, in which we can confidently say he was 100 percent healthy.

Secondly, Moore was traded at the deadline this past July. For the first time, he found himself playing for someone other than Tampa Bay.

Of the two, the healthy recovery from major reconstructive surgery is obviously the more meaningful. There is no trade, and no career for that matter, if Moore never gets healthy again.

However, the trade to San Francisco also brings with it some very positive signs for Moore’s future, and not just in a needed-a-change-of-scenery kind of way. There was a real, measurable difference in how Moore pitched with the Giants, and as a result, Moore’s numbers were better than ever.

The most obvious change in Moore’s approach was the re-introduction of a pitch he had only toyed around with in the past: a cutter.

matt-moore-san-francisco-giants-cutter-usage Brooks Baseball

As you can see, Moore actually debuted the pitch two years ago, but he only threw it 17 times before putting it back on the shelf until this past July, his final month with the Rays. Even then, he still didn’t throw the thing more than a handful of times.

So while the Giants didn’t necessarily teach him the pitch, they did encourage him to throw it more. In an article for FanGraphs, Eno Sarris noted that Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey both saw potential in Moore’s cutter and encouraged him to throw it more often. Over the rest of the season, that’s exactly what he did.

More important than Moore’s willingness to throw the pitch was his ability to throw it effectively. He threw the pitch 139 times with the Giants, and the worst damage any batter did against it was a pair of doubles. It did not elicit many whiffs (8.6 percent) but it did garner a lot of swings (54 percent), and the result of those swings were mostly ground balls.

Nearly half of Moore’s cutters put into play were ground balls, which is right about league-average. League-average might sound like a disappointment in relative terms, but recall that Moore just started to throw this pitch during the last few months of the season.

The cutter is primarily used as a fastball supplement or fastball substitute. Moore did a great job of using it as the former, and of throwing it out of almost exactly the same arm slot as his four-seamer:

matt-moore-san-francisco-giants-fastball-cutter-release-points Baseball Savant

Because they look the same coming out of the hand, hitters had a hard time squaring up the cutter despite its somewhat mediocre movement:

This, in part, is why Moore was so much more effective in the second half, boosting his ground ball rate, cutting his home run rate in half, and decreasing his FIP by a full run.

Now, another part of that is the shift from Tampa Bay to San Francisco. Tropicana Field is not exactly a home run haven, but no place suppresses homers like AT&T Park. Plus, getting away from AL East lineups is generally a good thing for any pitcher.

Still, even if you just look at his away splits while with both Tampa and San Francisco, the difference in performance is still there. That comes with the obvious caveat of a small sample, but it’s another nugget of information we can file away.

It was not all good news, however. Moore’s Tampa Bay problems are not completely cured just because he added this new pitch and changed his home address.

His second-half improvements in the areas listed above came at the cost of others. Most notably, Moore’s walk rate jumped nearly four percentage points during his time with a Giants, going from a respectable 7.3 percent in Tampa all the way up to 11.1 percent in San Francisco.

Likewise, his Deserved Run Average actually went up with the Giants. DRA would lead you to believe that Moore’s better results were more a matter of luck than genuine improvement.

So why is that?

The thing that jumps out the most is the defense behind him. The Rays were a below-average defensive team, according to FanGraphs, while the Giants were the best in baseball outside of the Cubs. Overall, it was a massive upgrade:

Giants vs. Rays Defense

Team DRS UZR Def
Team DRS UZR Def
Giants 50 47.7 53.7
Rays 4 -6.4 -11.4

So for as much genuine improvement as Moore may have made, it’s easy to imagine the Giants defense covering up for a great many mistakes, especially in light of that massive walk rate while wearing orange and black.

Another reason why it may be wise to exercise caution when thinking about Moore’s future was his volatility game-to-game. While certain numbers improved overall with his time in San Francisco, he had a hard time maintaining that success in consecutive starts. Check out this plot of his Game Scores with the Giants, remembering that each pitcher begins a start with 50 points:

Game Score isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s a good baseline and it displays what’s long been the knock on Moore. One day he’d come out and shove, looking like that top prospect. Then five days later he’d come out and get shelled. He was always tantalizing, never reliable.

That volatility didn’t just show up game to game — it appeared batter to batter. I mentioned above that his walk rate increased significantly, but Moore’s strikeout rate also took a big leap after the trade, from 19.9 percent to 23.9 percent. Overall, his K-BB% increased by a hair with the Giants, even with that uptick in walks.

Moore’s Tampa Bay vs. San Francisco Splits

Team K% BB% K-BB%
Team K% BB% K-BB%
Tampa Bay 19.9% 7.3% 12.6%
San Francisco 23.9% 11.1% 12.8%

Both the increase in strikeouts and walks seem to result from a conscious effort to pitch more in the bottom of the zone or below it. Check out the difference in Moore’s zone profile before and after the trade (Tampa on the left, San Francisco on the right):

matt-moore-san-francisco-giants-tampa-bay-rays-zone-profiles Brooks Baseball

There was clearly a concerted effort to pound the bottom left portion of that zone, and specifically to try and get batters to expand just outside of it. Though it did lead to more walks, it also meant Moore was avoiding pitches up in the zone, which — along with AT&T Park — goes a long way towards explaining why his home run rate was cut in half with the Giants.

Put all of that information together and combine it with the fact that this new pitcher we saw in San Francisco only showed up for a couple months, and it’s hard to know what to think about Moore. For every positive morsel of information suggesting he has turned the corner, there is another that makes you doubt him all over again.

Overall, that’s not all that different than how we already thought about Matt Moore. He’s been enigmatic since his debut, and this trade didn’t stop that train from rolling. Whether you believe more in his second half results or his second half peripherals is a matter of perspective.

Just know that no matter which side you’re on, Moore will probably do something in his next start that will make you reconsider your position.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.