In his first plate appearance he knocked a two run double that short hopped the deepest part of the ballpark on his way to a three hit, four RBI major league debut. He registered Division, Championship, and World Series starts during his rookie season. He has a career 3.16 ERA after his sophomore season, a talent for spinning various household objects on his finger, and his grandfather is a baseball meme. Of course I am talking about Steven Matz, the 25 year old Metropolitan South Paw.
A few weeks ago I claimed Steven Matz ranked 7th among the top starting pitchers using xStats (xOBA, VH%, scFIP, etc). This may have been a little controversial to some, and I know it brought a smile on a few others. While that ranking was, more or less, algorithmic, I do stand by the assessment of Matz. He is good. He is very good. He may be one of the most underrated starters right now, and that needs to change.
A History With Injury
Steven Matz has struggled with injuries from the word go. He was a first round talent who dropped to the second round of the 2009 draft where he was selected 72nd overall by the Mets. Almost immediately upon entering the Mets system, Matz injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately it took two full seasons to recover which, in addition to hailing from the North East, obscured his name a bit from the public eye. That didn’t stop Matz from pitching brilliantly through the minors putting up a 2.26 ERA and 395 strikeouts to 124 walks over his 377.2 IP. He transitioned to the major league pitching staff flawlessly in 2015, giving up only two runs in his first 13.2 innings, including his 3 hit four RBI debut game I mentioned earlier. However, the injury bug struck him again after his second start, and he was diagnosed with a partial lat tear. After rehabbing this injury, he returned to the major leagues to pitch four additional games, 22 of the 35.2 IP total for the season, in which he pitched brilliantly, finishing the season with a 2.27 ERA and 34/10 strikeouts/walks.
Matz entered the 2016 season as one of the linchpin arms of the Mets rotation, and he began the season just as well as he left off in 2015. During April and May he continued the same 2.28 ERA he had been accustomed to throwing since A ball, making batters look silly with his fastball, change-up, curveball mix. That is, until he was hit by the injury bug yet again. Sometime in June he developed a bone spur which seems to have influenced his ability to pitch profoundly. As you can see in the chart below, from mid June through mid July Matz pitched very poorly before rebounding back to, apparently, full health for six more starts until he was finally shut down with a shoulder impingement.
|4/11 – 6/7||60.1||2.39||2.73||2.38||.248||2.50%||61/13||3.3||4|
|6/12 – 7/18||40.2||5.31||4.60||4.38||.337||9.10%||34/11||6.7||7|
|7/24 – 8/14||31.1||2.87||3.08||2.58||.277||19.40%||34/7||2.1||3|
So lets sum this up: Matz had Tommy John Surgery in 2010, a partially torn lat in 2015, a problematic bone spur in mid 2016, and then finally shoulder impingement to finish 2016. In between these four injuries, he has been an elite pitcher. Low ERA, low FIP, respectable strikeouts, few walks, and weak contact. Injury is his one and only bugaboo up to this point. That said, he had surgery this offseason to remove his bone spur, and all reports to date have stated the surgery has been a success. I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, shoulder impingement is often caused by trapezius muscles being too strong, and considering Matz’ history with muscle problems in his back, perhaps these issues are related. If that is the case, hopefully this latest round of treatment will finally cure that problem.
Matz ought to be entering 2017 as a healthy 25 year old pitcher. A 25 year old with the arm of an ace, and a track record of major league success. A level of success that should place him in the upper echelon of pitchers in MLB. None of the injuries he faced in 2016, at least on their face, hint towards long term issues. Bone spurs happen, it is part of pitching, and some are worse than others. The problem has been dealt with surgically, and he proved capable of fighting through the injury to put up a six solid starts prior to developing an impingement problem. The impingement itself, perhaps related to a muscle imbalance, perhaps caused by inflammation, should be treatable, and hopefully will not come back to bite him in 2017.
High Trajectory Fly Balls and Low Trajectory Ground Balls
Matz gives up some of the more polarizing batted ball launch angles in MLB. Among pitchers who threw at least 125 IP in 2016, Matz had the fifteenth lowest avg launch angle for ground balls (-11.2). He also had the tenth highest average launch angle for fly balls (36.1). You may be interested to know his teammate, Noah Syndergaard, ranked similarly on both counts: -11.3 degrees for ground balls and 37.1 degrees for fly balls. Drew Pomeranz (-11.7 and 36.5) is the only other pitcher to lead both categories. Matz also had the 9th lowest average overall launch angle among pitchers with at least 125 IP.
His ability to control launch angles likely stems from three factors:
First, he has a tremendous two seam fastball that sits 94-95 with great movement. It is his primary pitch, he throws it about 60% of the time, and he can locate it very well. Nearly 60% of the balls put in play off his fastball are ground balls.
Second, he has a good change-up. It sits around 84-85, a solid 9+ mph gap from his fastball. He throws it about 20% of the time, and the thing has a 20% whiff rate. More importantly, contact on his change-up has a 50% ground ball rate and around a .250 batting average. I the beginning of the 2016 season, this change-up had a 50% ground ball rate and a 50% fly ball rate, which is an interesting combination. As the season progressed, perhaps with the bone spur issues, this fly ball rate steadily dropped, but the ground ball rate held reasonably steady.
Third, Matz developed a second breaking ball in 2016. Or, perhaps it is better to say he rediscovered a pitch he once abandoned: the slider. After his Tommy John surgery, Matz abandoned his slider in favor of a curveball to help preserve his arm a little bit. In the years since he developed a decent albeit inconsistent curveball. In 2016, in an effort to better establish a breaking ball, he began to throw the Warthen Slider, a pitch made famous by the Mets pitch coach Dan Warthen. The Warthen Slider is thrown very hard, like a cutter. It is kinda half cutter, half slider. Well, it’s a Warthen Slider, let’s keep it at that. This second, hard breaking ball (88-89 mph), in addition to the slower curveball (78-79 mph) created a devastating 1-2 punch which blends in perfectly with his primary fastball/change-up arsenal.
While Matz did a great job controlling launch angles on his batted balls in 2016, exit velocities were nothing special. He ranked pretty well in exit velocity on his fly balls, which averaged around 87.6 mph, good enough for 22nd lowest in MLB. However, 22nd lowest isn’t exactly spectacular, and it is pretty close to the league average of 88.9 mph. Matz gave up pretty much league average exit velocity, his success in the majors is focused much more around manipulating launch angles. This is the primary difference between him and guys like Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Jon Lester all of whom excel at limiting exit velocity in addition to controlling launch angles. For this reason, disregarding his history of injuries, Matz may never be able to enter that upper tier of elite starting pitchers. But he is certainly knocking on the door, and at age 25 he still has room to grow.
The Weakest and Strongest Contact of 2016
I have created two stats called Value Hits and Poor Hits, and they are both measured as a fraction of the total plate appearances seen by the pitcher (VH% and PH% respectively). Value Hits represent the best of the best batted balls, they account for the vast majority of home runs, doubles, and triples. On the flip side, Poor Hits measure the weakest of all the contact, batted balls that have little more value than a strike out. Poorly Hit balls are those that are near automatic outs, runners may reach on errors or perhaps as the result of a swinging bunt in a shift, but otherwise their chances of reaching base are near zero. Below I have charted the locations of all Value Hits (red) and Poor Hits (blue) Matz gave up in 2016.
Many of the Value Hits he gave up were home runs. Fourteen of the 28 Value hits you see here were home runs, and considering he only gave up 14 home runs in 2016, that means each of his home runs came off a value hit. That doesn’t always happen, occasionally you will give up home runs on slightly weaker batted balls. Looking at this chart, which I carefully made exactly to scale, I count 13 balls that, from these landing spots alone, appear to have cleared the wall by some margin. Perhaps a few of these balls, for instance the ones out by the 370 sign in left field, may have been low enough to, perhaps, bounce off the outfield wall in certain parks or during certain weather conditions. Above I listed an estimated home run total of 12.1, meaning, if you were to expect league average success rates on each batted ball, you might expect 2 of the home runs Matz surrendered in 2016 to have remained in the park, perhaps for a double instead. Going through the red dots on this chart, it isn’t hard to guess which ones may have stayed inside certain ball parks.
Looking at his Poorly Hit balls, Matz being a ground ball pitcher, many of them are hit to first and third base. Out of all of these Poorly Hit balls, only two landed as hits. In the right field corner, just above the 330 sight you see one blue dot, that bloop flyball landed for a single. In left field, the ball between the 358 and 370 signs against the wall, it landed for a double. Every other blue dot was an out. About half of these balls were hit off Matz’ fastball, and the remainder split evenly among his change-up, slider, and curveball.
Tying It All Together
Steven Matz finished the 2016 season with the 46th highest value among starting pitchers. That isn’t great. This low value stems directly from missed playing time, not a lack of talent or performance. Earlier this week Brad Johnson rated Matz 50th among starting pitchers going into the 2017 season. Perhaps that is fair, if you are risk adverse. Matz has a history of injury, he hasn’t completed a single season yet. But he has also put up Ace-like numbers when on the mound, and his injuries are mostly minor nagging injuries (aside from the torn UCL, which was over 6 years ago). I believe Matz is a pitcher well worth taking in 2017. With health, he could rocket up towards the upper tier of both real world and fantasy value. He will (probably) never have the pure strike out totals of guys like Scherzer or Sale, but he consistently pushes batters into creating weak contact. He will be a low ERA pitcher, average a strike out per inning, and keep a strong strikeout to walk ratio.