It’s been reported that Steven Matz feels sharper since he returned from the disabled list in mid-August. He’s made five starts since being activated and two of those he was really good and the other three he was forgettable or worse. Given that he allowed 16 ER in 11.2 IP in his last three starts before hitting the DL, it’s not a huge surprise that he feels sharper. That’s nice but the pertinent questions remain: What kind of pitcher can the Mets expect Matz to be and is there anything they can do to help him improve?
After 26 starts this year, Matz has a 4.17 ERA, a 4.57 FIP and 4.05 xFIP. It’s a marked improvement over what he gave the club last year but a far cry from the strong pitcher he was when he first came up to the Mets. Looking at his IP and ERA, Matz has been a low-end SP3 this season. That’s not a bad thing but it still feels disappointing. With three pitches that he can throw for strikes, it seems like Matz should be better than he is.
My theory is that Matz gets hurt by leaving offspeed pitches in the middle of the strike zone that opposing batters tee off on. He’s got enough stuff to pitch both inside and upstairs but when he throws pitches below 85 miles per hour and leaves them middle-middle, the other team punishes him. Matz has allowed 22 HR this year, tied for 32nd in the majors with Corey Kluber. But the Indians’ ace has 59.2 IP more than Matz. While Matz has a 1.48 HR/9, Kluber has a 1.02 rate.
The homers are even more exasperating because Matz has a solid K.9 (8.89) and his GB% (48.9) is the 24th-best mark in the majors among starters with at least 100 innings. But when batters do hit the ball in the air, they have a 16.9 HR/FB rate, which is tied with Bartolo Colon for the 12th-worst mark in the majors. Even worse is that Matz gives up more homers with men on base than average. Typically, about 60 percent of homers in the majors are solo shots. In the NL this year, 59.6% of the homers came with no one on base. But 12 of Matz’ 22 HR allowed came with runners aboard.
Through games of Friday in the NL, 3,616 of the 9,214 runs allowed by pitchers came via the gopher ball. The average NL pitcher allows 39 percent of his runs to score via the home run. For Matz, 37 of his 71 runs allowed scored on homers. That’s 52 percent of his runs. It seems safe to say that curbing the HR ball should be his top priority.
Let’s take a look at Matz’ 22 HR allowed this year.
This information comes from the PITCHf/x Tool at Brooks Baseball. The “Height” and “Section” information is from me eyeballing the info from Brooks while mentally dividing the strike zone into a 3×3 grid. This is subjective and if you went back and looked at all of these, you might very well come up with different labels here.
By my subjective classifications, 19 of Matz’ 22 homers came on pitches that were somehow in the middle of the zone, with nine of those being middle-middle offerings. Six of those nine middle-middle came on either a change or curve.
Before putting this together, my guess would have been even more.
According to the Brooks Baseball classifications, 12 of Matz’ 22 homers have come off his sinker. It’s important to note that Brooks classifies virtually all of Matz’ fastballs as sinkers, even those up in the zone. Five homers have come on the change and five have come off his curve.
My theory was partly wrong. It’s not the offspeed pitches that are the main source of the gopher balls. But it is pitches in the middle of the zone that are getting knocked out of the park. Sometimes they’re middle in, rather than middle-middle. But it’s rare to see Matz get beat upstairs (3X) or downstairs (3X).
Matz may feel sharper since returning from the DL but he’s allowed 5 HR in 26 IP in that time frame. That’s not good. He’s doing well in virtually every other department, though. He’s limited opposing hitters to a .188 AVG, he has a 0.923 WHIP and he sports a 5.5 K/BB ratio in his last five starts.
Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland have done some good work with the starting pitchers this year, most notably Zack Wheeler. It will be interesting to see if they can come up with a solution to Matz’ gopher ball problem. A small improvement in this area could pay big dividends.