Felix Hernandez throwing his final pitch in a Mariners’ uniform will be the story of the season. Those stories have already been written, most of them beautifully, and they will continue to be written. But I am not writing about Felix Hernández, not directly.
Instead, we should talk about the player who with one leap saved Felix’s final outing from becoming tainted with the bitter aftertaste of concealed embarrassment. I am talking of course about Dylan Moore, a player I once accused of looking “like a lost toddler in an amusement park.”
On March 30th this year (was it really this year?), against the Boston Red Sox, the recently acne-free Dylan made his first major league start. He played third base, a position he’d only started in 70 of his 447 minor league games. In the ninth inning, up by four runs to the defending World Series Champions, Dylan Moore made an error. Then, he made another error. Then, unbelievably, he made a third. Three balls in play, three errors by one player, three runs scored, the game nearly lost.
He was the sixth player in the last 10 years to make three errors in an inning, though he may be the only to make them on three consecutive balls in play in the ninth inning. Dylan Moore took a risk-free game, a leverage index of .13 (1 being average), and in three plays raised the leverage index to over 5. He created for himself a moment that was too big to escape, digging until the puddle of a mistake had become a lake threatening to drown him.
“One thing led to another, obviously,” he said after, lobbying for an understater of the year award. “It’s one of those things where when it rains, it pours..it snowballed.”
By my count Dylan Moore used as many clichés as he committed errors. But those empty phrases: “one thing led to another; when it rains it pours; it snowballed” describe a moment with which most are familiar. The moment when you are overcome from within. When your body will no longer perform the routine tasks assigned to it. When your heart pounds in your ears, and your limbs become heavy and unresponsive. When “I don’t belong here,” runs into your mind and doesn’t run out. You panic. You do more. Too much. You do less. Not enough.
As a thirteen year old kid in the State Championship, I cost our team the entire series in just such a panic. I remember pop flies bouncing off my mitt, airmailed throws to easy targets, swings through pitches in the center of the plate. I wanted to quit, to bury myself in the backyard like a time capsule only to be opened after everyone that witnessed my failings had died. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have more chances to retell my brief baseball career.
Dylan Moore had another chance. Quietly he has reinvented himself into a player that, in the most important moment of the season in front of 20,000 desperate fans and a King on the brink of collapse, was capable of this:
The transformation, as far as I can tell, started with his swing.
Here crouches Dylan in April, coiled, knees bent, bat cocked, leaning over the plate.
Here he is in June.
The difference is striking, his posture transformed before the pitch, standing taller, his bat quieter, his hands lower. From the video I could find the change happened sometime in May. His transformation is not unlike Chris Taylor’s transformation from a lower stance with high hands, to an upright one. The goal being, like everyone’s, to hit the ball in the air.
With Dylan’s change came an increase in launch angle and exit velocity.
Dylan Moore is not a great hitter, in fact he is below average (88 wRC+) if you take his entire season together, but he has changed as a hitter. He hits the ball harder than league average, with more loft, and a higher hard hit percentage. And his greatest weakness, a strikeout rate above 30%, may not be as real as the stabilization rates would have us believe. Alex Chamberlain over at Rotographs invented a formula for predictive K-rate based on comparative plate discipline metrics. In fact, he came up with two separate formulas, both of which claim Dylan Moore’s rate should be ~25% based on his swing decisions and contact ability.
Whether this means Dylan will actually strikeout 25% of the time going forward, or if some other aspect of his game is impacting his strikeouts, we do not yet know. It is encouraging, though, that more improvements could be coming.
His defense has also transformed. After playing nearly his entire minor league career in the dirt, Dylan Moore has been tasked with becoming an outfielder at the major league level. Like Chris Taylor before him, he’s taken the opportunity and ran with it. And he’s ran fast.
According to Statcast’s “Outfielder Jump” metric, which measures the components of an outfielders ability to track down a ball including: reaction, burst, and route to a batted ball, Dylan Moore ranks 6th in the MLB. He ranks 5th in total range.
While still dragged down by his adventures at 3rd and his below average (though not awful) performance at SS, game-by-game, Dylan has put distance between himself and that first start. He has worked himself into a good outfielder and second baseman, and a more powerful hitter. His weakness, though, it still the big moments. His clutch% is the lowest on the team (-0.72) and his Run Expectancy (RE24) is second worst. In high leverage situations his wRC+ dropped to 66. The moments had, thus far, bested him.
In the fifth inning of Felix’s final game, the bases were loaded with two outs. The outcome of the game did not necessarily hang in the balance, they were already down two runs. The actual leverage of this moment was 1.4, above average but not incredibly so.
Yet, Leverage Index couldn’t measure the intense quiet of a crowd dressed in yellow holding their K cards at their hips, breath held back, hoping for a reason to cheer. Or the breaking of surface tension on a bead of sweat sliding down Felix’s cheek as he tries to calm the hammering of his heart. The stat is not calibrated to capture a legacy hanging in balance.
There are moments that are hard to contextualize without becoming hyperbolic. So forgive me when I say this was the most important at bat of the season. If he allows a hit, if the runners score, how much longer would Felix stay in the game? Under what circumstance would the ball be taken from his hand? Would he have gone out proudly, his last moment a final out, or defeated, his smile forced, awkward, the cheers tainted with the painful recognition of his failure. If Dylan Moore doesn’t catch this ball, the night that gave us this moment:
...may have turned out different.
The problem was it was not a catch Dylan Moore should have been able to make. Here are a few reasons:
- The ball left the bat at 109 MPH. The hardest hit ball of the game.
- The combination of location, angle, and exit velocity would result in a hit over 70% of the time. This ball is almost always a hit.
- Dylan Moore has been here before. In a moment that grew larger by the second. In a moment that overwhelmed him.
When the pitch was struck, the crowd silenced. Goldsmith whispered a brief narration. Well struck. Dylan Moore moves back.
Dylan Moore did what Dylan Moore does: He got a great jump. Only it was the wrong direction.
He cuts almost straight to his left first, reading the line drive. Only the ball is hit at 109 MPH, and he misjudges the distance it will carry.
He realizes this late. He makes a hard pivot, digging so deep and quickly that he leaves a gash in the outfield.
His first step has cost him. His angle is too shallow and the ball flying too fast. Most fielders would cut their losses, play the ball off the wall. Plenty would be physically unable to recover from a missed step on a 109 MPH line drive. But the moment dictates that he try. The stakes are too high to play safe. He’ll need to adjust. There is no time to think.
He takes flight, he must. The ball cannot land in the grass. If he misses this catch, everyone scores and he must drag himself off the ground to fetch the ball.
Look, for a moment, at the Mariners dugout in the picture above. Their arms draped over the yellow line like Kilroys, recognizing they are witness to history—the final game of Felix Hernández, Seattle Mariner. Scarcely in my Mariner fandom has there been a moment with so many united in their desire to see one player make one catch.
Dylan Moore leaves his feet, contorts his body, and throws his glove blindly above his head. He doesn’t see the ball, he can't. He reaches on instinct alone, his decisions driven by desperation and a lifetime of playing this game. He doesn’t see the ball smack the back of his glove. Doesn’t hear it. The roar of the crowd is too loud.
Out number three. The inning is over. Felix is free from the mound his night still intact, his legacy preserved and he lets Dylan Moore know how he feels about it.
Felix has always been emotive. He is readable—you know when Felix is upset with a call or himself or excited. This expression, though, is unlike any I’ve seen. This is a kind of desperate joy that’s hard to pull apart and find the roots. A look of pain suddenly being relieved—of shock, joy, desperation, and maybe a bit of sadness, for needing the play as bad as he did.
There’s some symmetry here. That the most desperate moment of an aging all-star in his last game is rescued by a rookie utility player who is best known for choking in his first.
It’s rare in life that we are offered a chance at redemption and can seize it in so public a way. After all, It is only because the Mariners had been so terrible, and Dylan Moore had worked so hard, that he was even in left field in that moment. While I’ll never live down the last missed catch of a championship, that night Dylan Moore was able to rewrite his story and in so doing save the ending of another’s.
Dylan Moore’s redemption from that three error inning in Boston didn’t happen with one play. It’s been a process, a patient watering of the ground hoping the seed will grow. Sometimes, the light has to hit just right to notice a new bud has broken into blossom.