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The incredible rise of Gabriel Moya

The 23-year-old Twin has risen five levels in pro-ball two years. It might not be unprecedented, but it is impressive.

Minnesota Twins Photo Day Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Two years ago, Twins reliever Gabriel Moya was pitching for the Kane County Cougars. They’re the Low-A, Midwest League affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In other words, he was pitching to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. He didn’t spend long with the Cougars, though. On May 18th, 2016 he was promoted to the Visalia Rawhide of the High-A California League.

That promotion was well earned. In his short stay in the Midwest League, Moya pitched in twelve games, totaling 19.0 innings pitched. He literally gave up a single earned run, making for an ERA of 0.47, while striking out twenty batters and walking only four. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a 9.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, and 5.00 K/BB ratio. Pretty doggone good for his first taste of full-season ball.

Moya spent the rest of 2016 with Visalia, and might have done even better than his Low-A performance. He acquitted himself extremely well for a 21-year-old that was two full years younger than average for the league. In 40 games, he pitched 44.2 innings and earned five saves. He also picked up five pitcher wins and only a single loss, if you like useless stats. As far as the more useful stats go, his ERA was 2.01, as he gave up ten earned runs on 26 hits. He also racked up 62 strikeouts, while only allowing thirteen walks. Considering his age, experience, and level, his 12.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 4.77 K/BB ratios were incredibly impressive, and earned him a promotion straight to Double-A the following year.

The Jackson Generals, Arizona’s Double-A affiliate, play in the Southern League, just like the Chattanooga Lookouts. Hence, when the Twins acquired the young pitcher in exchange for catcher John Ryan Murphy at the trade deadline, Moya was able to keep pitching to most of the same competition. Before being traded, he pitched 43.2 innings in 34 games with a sterling .082 ERA, while racking up 17 saves for the Generals. In doing so, he pitched to a massive 14.0 K/9, with only 2.5 BB/9 and a 5.67 K/BB. After the trade, he was somehow even better. As a Lookout, Moya’s ERA dropped to 0.61. Although he only appeared in 13 games, pitching 14.2 innings, he was still able to add an additional seven saves to his total. Both his walk and strikeout rates dropped with the new team as well, suggesting better control as a trade-off for some swing-and-miss power.

Less than two full baseball seasons removed from playing in the Rookie Ball Pioneer League, Moya made his MLB Debut as a September call-up for the Minnesota Twins. He joined the Twins on September 12th, 2017, and while he didn’t have the same results against the big-leaguers as he did in the minors, he wasn’t unsuccessful either. Moya pitched 6.1 innings for the Twins and gave up three runs, making for a 4.26 ERA. His characteristic control was present, with a BB/9 of only 2.8 — well under the MLB average of 3.3. What didn’t translate the the big leagues as well was his strikeout ability, which dropped to 7.1 K/9. He still showed the Twins enough apparently, because the spring training dark horse opened the 2018 season with the Twins again.

Paul Molitor has called on the 23-year-old Moya four times so far in 2018, typically asking him to pitch about an inning per appearance. In that very small sample size, some encouraging things can be found. ERA isn’t the place to look, as his currently sits at 6.23. Moya has also walked two batters already, making for a 4.2 BB/9 rate that is drastically out of line with his career average. This discrepancy can be perhaps (hopefully) attributed to the cold the Twins have largely been forced to play in so far this season. The most encouraging thing about Moya’s 2018 so far is that his strikeout is back in his game. He has fanned six batters already, for a monstrous 12.5 K/9 ratio. If he can keep up that strikeout rate while cutting down on the walks just a bit, the Twins will have a very impressive reliever on their hands, at six full years below the league average age.

Moya’s success has always come from his high percentage of strikeouts and a low percentage of walks. He has currently struck out 31.6% of batters this season (small sample size), and with the exception of last year’s cup of coffee in the MLB, has not struck out less than 28.2% of batters in any full-season league. At the same time, Moya is currently at a career-high 10.5% walk rate, but prior to this season, he had never walked more than 7.7% of batters in a full-season league. His ability to sit a man down on strikes is also complimented by fly-ball tendencies. At Double-A, he induced slightly more fly-balls than ground-balls. Since arriving in the majors, this split has become even more extreme. Fortunately for Moya, the Twins have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball to save him.

It seems inevitable, that at some point this season, Moya will get sent back down for his first taste of Triple-A. With two other left-handed relievers available, and Moya having options remaining, the Twins will likely send him to Rochester at some point in order to fill other roster needs. The demotion won’t be any reflection on Moya’s talent though — he has already proven that he can pitch at the highest level of baseball.

It’s been a long time since the usually cautious Twins have seen a player rise this fast, and with this much success. Just compare Moya to Byron Buxton, who is considered a fast riser through the Twin’s system. It took Buxton three years in full-season ball to get his first cup of coffee, while Moya only took two.

Time has yet to tell what Gabriel Moya will become, but the signs are all pointing up. A guy who strikes out a lot of batters, walks very few, gives up some home runs, and has a solid three-pitch mix? Sounds like a good recipe for a long-term closer to me — or, even better, a modern bullpen ace. Add in the fact that the Twins can let him develop in their bullpen for a couple years, and still get a decade or more of peak performance (with an extension or two, of course), and maybe we could be writing Gabriel Moya into the Twins’ history books before all is said and done.