After second-half surge, Gabriel Moreno will be among Diamondbacks' keys to 2024 success

For all the celebration and all the jubilation of the Diamondbacks’ run to the National League pennant, one moment stands above the rest.

It came in the decisive Game 3 of the division series and, if you were among the 48,175 inside Chase Field that day, it’s likely seared into your memory forever. Gabriel Moreno homered into the right field bullpen, circled the bases and headed into the dugout before he was asked to return to the batters’ box after a review. Then, he somehow — magically and inexplicably — did it all again on the very next pitch.

Even if they only counted as one, the consecutive homers served to showcase Moreno’s immense talent. From August to October, he seemingly arrived as the Diamondbacks’ second young star alongside Corbin Carroll.

At the winter meetings this month, General Manager Mike Hazen was asked what his response would be if asked about Moreno in a trade. “I'll pick up the phone,” Hazen said. “I'll say thank you. And then I'll change the subject.”

But whereas Carroll is one of baseball’s best players, Moreno’s output was more inconsistent. As the Diamondbacks aim to establish themselves as regular contenders in 2024, his development will be among the keys to doing so.

After returning from injury in mid-August, he hit .311 with an .878 OPS for the remainder of the regular season. But in the two-month stretch that preceded his injured-list stint, he hit .218 with a .606 OPS. For the first five games of the playoffs, he was a breakout star, hitting three home runs. Over the final 12 games, he had just two extra-base hits.

Behind the plate, Diamondbacks’ pitchers lauded Moreno’s growth as a game-caller, emphasizing their trust in him. By most measures, he rated as the sport’s best catcher at throwing runners out, nailing an absurd 16 of 33 potential base stealers. But in metrics that attempt to quantify pitch framing, he graded out as below average.

This complicated nature of Moreno’s profile is reflected in his stats. By Baseball Reference’s calculations, Moreno was worth 4.3 wins above replacement in 2023, the most of any catcher. By Fangraphs’ calculations, he was worth 1.9 wins, ranking just 15th.

But Moreno is just 23. Using Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, only 13 other players have ever had as valuable of a season at such a young age while playing the majority of their games at catcher.

There are also reasons to believe Moreno can continue to develop. Before this year, he had never played more than 82 games in a season. This year, he played 128, including the playoffs. It takes time to adapt to that workload. And at the plate, the Diamondbacks believed they made progress developing his plate approach down the stretch.

“His ability to get to those pitches where they hang them,” hitting coach Joe Mather said during the World Series, “whether they're fastballs or breaking balls, instead of those borderline pitches, which are almost always to the pitcher's advantage — that combination of things has led to the on-base and the additional power.”

If Moreno can harness that on-base ability and power threat over a full season instead of in scattered stretches, he can become a true star. For the Diamondbacks, that would represent one significant step towards maintaining their success.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: After second-half surge, Gabriel Moreno will be key for DBacks in 2024