Matt Moore pitched nine seasons in the big leagues, started playoff games for two franchises, and made an All Star team.
But in the fall of 2019 — after a season when the left-hander logged just 10 innings with Detroit — his options were limited.
He led the National League in losses with 15 in 2017 and lost his rotation job in 2018 before knee surgery ended his 2019 season after two starts. Free-agent interest was tepid, but Moore wanted a full-time role to prove himself.
“The best opportunity just happened to be Japan,” Moore said.
So Moore took a one-year deal in Japan, made 15 starts in the country’s top league, and posted a 2.65 ERA, enough for the Phillies to sign him to a one-year contract worth $3 million. He will enter spring training as a near certainty to be in the starting rotation, which could include six starters as the team tries to manage playing 102 more games than it played in 2020.
If so, the 31-year-old Moore comes well adjusted. He pitched in a six-man rotation for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who won their league by 14 games en route to winning the Japan Series. Moore logged seven scoreless innings in Game 3 of a four-game sweep of the Yomiuri Giants.
“It’d been a long time, since probably amateur baseball sometime, where you kind of had that feeling like you were supposed to win every day,” Moore said. “Those guys, my teammates, the coaching staff over there, it’s all on purpose. Things don’t happen over there by accident. Things aren’t just falling into place. They’re purposely working in a direction constantly.
“One of the things I think that stuck out to me the most was it didn’t really matter who you were. We had guys making quite a bit of money in the minor leagues. They just weren’t producing, so they weren’t on the field. It really was all hands on deck for that first team. It was a little bit different to see things kind of play out that way.”
The Phillies have not started a season with a left-hander in their rotation since Cole Hamels in 2015. They did not use a left-handed starter last season and have had a lefty start just 7% of their games over the last five years.
Since 2016, Phillies lefthanded starters have the highest ERA (6.28) and the lowest innings pitched (259 ⅓) in the National League. Moore, especially if he duplicates his success from Japan, could be a welcome addition.
“To have a left-hander on the staff I think is always important,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You’re going to face teams that maybe their most dangerous hitter is left-handed and all of a sudden you can neutralize them more or maybe force the other manager to give them a day off. I think having different sidedness, having different looks is really important for a staff and I think Matt gives us that.”
The coronavirus pandemic was not yet a thought when Moore signed to play in Japan. But it soon would be. He pitched in empty stadiums and canceled plans to have any extended family fly to Japan to visit his wife and son.
But everything else seemed fairly normal, Moore said, about living 7,000 miles from home during a global pandemic.
“I thought, at least the government and the things that we were having to follow, it didn’t really shake their everyday life too much,” Moore said. “I think the Starbucks kind of closed down. But most grocery stores and things were open, so we were still able to go out and about. ... But overall, I can’t say enough about the relationships with people, the teammates, the interpreters over there. It was a really difficult decision for me to not go back and be a part of that environment again. But having said that ... it’s been a while since I’ve looked forward to spring training quite as much as I am right now.”
Moore was once one of baseball’s premier prospects and was ranked by some ahead of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout before the 2012 season. He started Tampa Bay’s postseason opener in 2011 as a 22-year-old and finished ninth in Cy Young Award voting in 2013 with a 3.29 ERA.
But as Harper and Trout continued to ascend, Moore’s career was derailed by injuries. He combined for just 14 starts in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Moore pitched for three teams — Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Texas — between 2016 and 2018 and posted a 5.20 ERA.
He was able to land a one-year deal with Detroit in 2019 and did not allow a run in his 10 innings with the Tigers. But another injury sapped his value, limiting him to the likelihood of a minor-league deal in 2020.
So Moore bet on himself, headed to Japan, and returned home with a likely place in the Phillies’ starting rotation.
“The biggest thing with making the decision to come to Philly, it seemed like out of the teams that I had the opportunity to go pitch for, this squad has the best chance of competing at a higher level this year,” said Moore, who said he had other major-league offers.
“I’ve played on some pretty good teams and I’ve played on some teams that had long seasons. I’m for sure at the point in my playing days where I want to have that feeling where you head to the park and you know someone’s chasing you. Or you’re just one or two games away. That feeling is pretty invigorating. It’s something you talk to pretty much anyone in a clubhouse, your year is a lot more enjoyable. For me, that was a pretty easy decision. This club is obviously set up and ready to compete. I’m just happy the opportunity presented itself and I’m healthy and able.”