'It's gonna be a memory': Moreno homers against former team

July 15th, 2023

TORONTO -- As D-backs catcher rounded the bases, he flipped his right hand in the air to celebrate. The 22-year-old kept his head down, blew a massive bubble of chewing gum, and scooted around third while Rogers Centre booed his game-tying homer in the top of the seventh.

Not long ago, this same Toronto crowd cheered for Moreno’s early milestones. In the D-backs’ 7-2 loss on Friday night, though, Blue Jays fans scoffed at his big moment.

They had their reasons. Moreno’s graceful solo blast reminded the home crowd what it was missing.

In the moment, Moreno’s reaction wasn’t much. But on the inside, he was beaming.

"[I was] pretty excited to hit the homer to tie the ballgame, especially when it’s against your former team," Moreno said through an interpreter. "It’s gonna be a memory."

A former top prospect, per MLB Pipeline, Moreno debuted with the Blue Jays in 2022. He headed for Arizona last December -- along with -- when Toronto and Arizona struck a deal of mutual benefit.

The D-backs, overloaded with outfielders, traded Daulton Varsho to the Blue Jays, who boasted catching depth. Unproven and still raw, Moreno didn’t quite carry the same Major League stability as Toronto’s other catchers, Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen.

But what Moreno lacks in consistency, he makes up for in star potential. Take the first inning of Friday’s contest, for example, when he threw out George Springer from his knees.

Before the game, Moreno joked around with his former teammates, saying that he’d throw them out stealing, and even warning them about his quick snap-throws from his knees. Sure enough, Moreno backed up all his friendly trash talk.

"It was completely instinctive," Moreno said of his quick toss.

Within a split second, Moreno made the transfer, cocked back his arm, and rifled a laser to second base, nabbing Springer by several feet.

Manager Torey Lovullo was very impressed.

"[Moreno] pulled one out of the bag that we haven't seen yet," said Lovullo. "He dropped that knee and threw out a pretty good baserunner in Springer. So we come to expect great things when he's behind the plate, and he doesn't let us down."

Throws like those are eye candy for catching coaches, but the numbers tell an even more remarkable story. Pop time is the most important number for catchers, and Moreno's 1.91-second average throwdown time supports his status as a supreme defender. Even better, the Venezuelan had the highest caught-stealing rate in baseball as of Friday (59%), leading the next closest backstop by 14%.

"I feel like I never really have to worry about anybody stealing on me at all," said D-backs starter , who pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs (one earned). "So he makes big plays and saves runs that way."

But defense is only half the equation. And while Moreno seems to have the contact tool down at the plate, his power is the X-factor.

Moreno slugged .479 in his Minor League career. He can rake in the cages and in batting practice, too, but the in-game power hasn’t shown up consistently yet. Friday’s long ball was just his third homer this year.

There’s more pop in the tank, but Lovullo is content with his young hitter emphasizing some of his other strengths.

Priority number one: Get that front foot down and connect the barrel to the ball. After that, the power will come.

"[When] he uses an all-field approach, he can drive the baseball out of any part of the ballpark," Lovullo said, referencing Moreno’s homer. "That was a pure swing. That was a really good approach. We wanted him to stay right there. I think he's very close."

Moreno sees pitch selection as the key to opening up more extra-base potential.

"I want to be more consistent in the strike zone or shrink the strike zone," Moreno said.

Unsurprisingly, Moreno’s hot zone burns red on the inner half, particularly up and in, but he’s just as good at slugging pitches over the heart of the plate. When pitchers work him outside, however, he’s not as successful. According to Baseball Savant’s zone metrics, when Moreno swings at pitches up and away this year, he is batting just .091.

Discipline takes time to develop, and, in that sense, Moreno is still very green. But the physical traits are all there, and if the approach, quick bat, and laser arm all sync up, he could vault himself into the upper echelon of Major League backstops.

The Blue Jays won Friday’s game, but if Moreno keeps improving, it’ll be hard to argue that they won the trade. Each time Moreno rakes an opposite-field double or throws out a base-stealer with ease, Blue Jays fans might just lose a little sleep wondering what could’ve been.