THE SURVIVOR

Matt Moore, once an elite prospect, reached 10 years of major-league service the hard way

By Jerry Crasnick

In the winter of 2011-2012, any discussion of Major League Baseball’s top prospects typically began and ended with the same three names.

Some observers in the prospect analysis sector were partial to Mike Trout, a multi-talented outfielder in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Others favored Bryce Harper, a budding star in the Washington Nationals chain.

 

The third prospect in the mix was Matt Moore, a young lefty starter in the Tampa Bay Rays system. “With above average grades in every facet of his game, Moore is an ace waiting to happen,’’ Baseball America wrote in its 2012 scouting report on Moore, while ranking him ahead of Manny Machado, Gerrit Cole and several other players who would go on to stellar careers.

We all know how things played out. Trout is a 10-time All-Star and three-time MVP who is generally regarded as the best player of his generation. Harper had seven All-Star appearances, two MVP awards and a Rookie of the Year award on his resume by age 29.

And Moore? He came out blazing, posting a 17-4 record with a 3.29 ERA and making the All-Star team at age 24 before injuries and other setbacks changed the course of his career. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and knee surgery five years later, spent a year in Japan and has pitched in the majors as a starter and reliever with the Giants, Tigers, Phillies and Rangers (twice) since throwing his final pitch with Tampa Bay in 2016.

Moore’s 61-62 record and career 4.45 ERA are testament to his ups and downs. But his longevity makes him a monument to resourcefulness, resilience and the power of reinvention.

And now he’s part of a small and proud fraternity. This week Moore reached 10 years of service, a distinction achieved by an estimated 6-8 percent of players in major-league history He processed the milestone with the same even-tempered, almost clinical detachment that helped him navigate all those setbacks through the years.

“It's a nice threshold,’’ he said. “I remember talking to Garrett Richards about it (when he got there). It doesn’t change anything, but it’s a nice round number and an acknowledgement of what you’ve done. Nobody ever starts out saying, ‘I want to be in the big leagues for 10 years.’ They say, ‘I want to be a big leaguer.’ Not for 10 years. That’s crazy.’’

At age 32, Moore logged some of the best numbers of his career in the Texas bullpen. After an offseason emphasis on long toss and some spring training fiddling with pitch grips, he appeared in 63 games and posted a 5-2 record with a 1.95 ERA. Moore was equally effective against righty hitters (a .537 OPS) and lefties (.634). For the first time in his career, he will be coming off a strong platform year in advance of free agency and have an array of options to consider.

On the list of players who have joined the 10-year club this season, Moore has more in common with Jake Diekman, Aaron Loup, Brian Shaw and other pitchers who’ve had to navigate different roles and locales than he does with the perennial All-Stars who have taken straight line shots to 10. The brotherhood has room for all types.

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“The superstars are the superstars,’’ said Dallas Keuchel, a friend of Moore’s who played briefly with him in Texas this season. “They’re household names and they put up their numbers every year. But Major League Baseball is made up of the average Joe who makes all these teams go. It’s nice to see guys who were big-time prospects in the minors go through a little bit of a struggle and come out better on the other side. Matty is that guy. You really have to appreciate his hard work and his love and dedication to the game.’’

Moore is a self-described late bloomer and “Air Force brat’’ who was born in Florida and spent four years in Okinawa when his father was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base as a mechanic. Martin Moore spent more than 20 years in the Air Force and now works for the Defense Department. Moore’s mother, Dolores, has worked as a medical clerk, a cake decorator and an elementary school music teacher through the years. His parents stressed the importance of being present and accountable, and those lessons have stuck with him throughout his professional journey.

 

After Moore experienced a growth spurt as a high schooler in New Mexico, Tampa Bay picked him in the eighth round of the 2007 draft. The Rays exercised patience with his development, and Moore flourished in the minors.  He logged back-to-back 200 strikeout seasons, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for Class A Bowling Green and a nine-inning no-no for Double A Montgomery, and received the call to the majors while the Rays were fighting for a playoff spot in September 2011.

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Moore embraced the pressure and pitched three innings of effective relief at Fenway Park followed by 11 strikeouts against the Yankees in his first MLB start.


“I remember coming to Fenway and I was kind of in shock,’’ he said. “If you’ve never been to the big leagues and you’re in the middle of a pennant race, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ But I think that’s where I really fell in love with those moments.’’


Moore’s resolve was tested at times. His velocity dropped from 96-98 mph pre-Tommy John surgery to 92-93 post-elbow reconstruction before an uptick to the mid 90’s this season. He has been traded and released, and he knows what it’s like to go to spring training on a minor-league contract and have to compete for a job.

Stick around long enough, and you can land on both sides of history. In 2013, Moore became the youngest American League lefty starter to begin a season with eight straight wins since Babe Ruth achieved the feat in 1917. Two years later, he surrendered David Ortiz’s 499th and 500th career home runs at Tropicana Field.

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Moore kept grinding through it all, because he refused to consider the alternative and walk away from the game.

 

“There's a book by Ryan Holiday that somebody gave me last year called ‘The Obstacle is the Way,’’’ he said. “A lot of it is talking about discipline and stoicism-type stuff. My mom and dad set such a good example by going to work every day and not making excuses, I don't think I have some problems that some other guys might allow themselves to have.’’

Now that Moore has reached 10 years of service, he has a realistic path to 12, 14 or more as a lefty reliever if he chooses to keep playing. But he and his wife, Anna, have three young children, and the off-field demands on his time have prompted him to think long-term. 
 

“I don’t know if I want to miss one of my kids’ games for one of mine,’’ he said.


Until that decision comes, he will revel in the good days, move on from the bad and continue to alter his career narrative on the fly. 


“I’m 32 years old and still playing baseball, and I keep thinking, ‘This is crazy. This isn't normal,’’’ he said. “I feel fortunate to be here. And when I do feel a little bit bad for myself, it doesn’t take long to remember that this was never meant to be a permanent thing.’’