Steven Matz and his gopher ball issues

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.

Date Park Height Section Strike? Speed Type
9/7/2018 Citi Middle Inside Corner Yes 94.33 Sinker
9/1/2018 SF Middle Inner 1/3 Yes 94.07 Sinker
8/21/2018 Citi Top Middle Yes 94.14 Sinker
8/16/2018 CBP Top Middle Yes 85.91 Change
8/16/2018 CBP Middle Middle Yes 86.36 Change
7/26/2018 PNC Middle In Yes 94.34 Sinker
7/26/2018 PNC Lower In Yes 78.65 Curve
7/12/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 94.34 Sinker
7/12/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 79.88 Curve
6/26/2018 Citi Lower Outer 1/3 Yes 78.37 Curve
6/21/2018 Coors Middle Inner 1/3 Yes 82.9 Change
6/9/2018 Citi Middle Inner 1/3 Yes 94.19 Sinker
6/9/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 78.35 Curve
5/19/2018 Citi Middle Inside No 93.72 Sinker
5/19/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 83.37 Change
5/11/2018 CBP Middle Middle Yes 78.83 Curve
5/5/2018 Citi Lower Middle Yes 94.87 Sinker
4/18/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 83.9 Change
4/13/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 92.47 Sinker
4/13/2018 Citi Upper Inner 1/3 No 93.28 Sinker
4/1/2018 Citi Middle Middle Yes 93.38 Sinker
4/1/2018 Citi Middle Inner 1/3 Yes 93.33 Sinker

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.

13 comments for “Steven Matz and his gopher ball issues

  1. TJ
    September 9, 2018 at 10:12 am

    Once again, it is a pleasure reading your work. My observations are both anecdotal and unprofessional, just that of a multi-decade baseball fan. So, for me, Matz and Wheeler have been very similar pitchers. Wheeler seems to have better “stuff”, not just mph but also movement, from what I can tell from the CF TV view with a few in person occasions. The big similarity to me was in the pitching motion, as both struggled to repeat their delivery and maintain the same delivery regardless of the pitch. Mind you, this is incredibly difficult, as only a handful of the 7+ billion of us have accomplished. We never do know when an athlete has hit their ceiling. Both Wheeler and Matz were challenged with injuries that results in fewer innings to hone their skills and additionally with pain that likely inhibited their ability to repeat the motion.

    Seeing Wheeler “get over the hump” has been a highlight of this season, and it encourages me to think Matz can still improve. I do have confidence in Eiland and Callaway to provide the proper guidance. Every person is different, and Matz’s intensity/demeanor may also be a contributor to those middle middle pitches that result on long balls. That too can improve with experience and age.

    So long as he can maintain decent health, I consider his a quality #4 starter, affordable, controllable, and still with upside. It doesn’t seem that other teams value him enough to part with assets that would make the Mets pull the trigger on a deal this offseason. All considered, by improving on those middle middle pitches, I this he has a good shot to drop his ERA and FIPs under 4 in 2019, which makes him a nice piece on a contending team.

    • September 9, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Thanks for the kind words!

      One thing that didn’t make it into this piece is how much damage Matz allows in the first inning. Eight of his 22 HR allowed came in the first and opposing batters have a 1.014 OPS against him in the opening frame.

  2. Chris F
    September 9, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Interesting Brian, as always.

    So Ive been looking for a Matz pitch heat map but to no luck. One thing I see anecdotally, which I needed the heat map for is this: I think Matz has delivery issues related to release point, or pitch completion, or leading shoulder that keeps him pitching up to the left side of the plate. Its easy to see his frustration when this pattern happens. What results is that he has to go into “must throw strike” mode where he begins to aim, and I think we see problems then.

    Like I said, I dont have the data to show this, but Ive seen it often enough to know that it is part of the equation. He struggles to throw down with any meaning, almost like Noah cant throw with meaning up.

    • Chris F
      September 9, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      I did find his heat map in fangraphs

  3. Pete from NJ
    September 9, 2018 at 11:50 am

    This is my observation and please group correct me if I’m off base. Matz is best if throwing his fastball very high in the zone. When the umpire calls it a ball instead of a strike, Matz then throws his fastball into the a more hittable zone. His off speed pitches then are less deceptive.

    I remember very vividly watching Matz pitch in LA last year, having to watch the game with the sound off. LA batters layed off the high stuff with the ump calling the pitch a strike. Matz was dominant.

    • Chris F
      September 9, 2018 at 11:50 am

      Pete…that exactly what my post was aimed at.

  4. TexasGusCC
    September 9, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    Nice job Brian. Just want to throw this out there, but with Matz being so mindful of his base stealers success, maybe he’s paying more attention to the runners and being in the set position, lacking movement and location to the batters? Meaning, it’s a dual problem: One of focus and one of pitch quality coming together.

    One other thing: in April all the Mets hitters were throwing inside. Now, it seems they went back to their comfort zone of low and away.

    • September 9, 2018 at 9:22 pm

      Might go a way towards explaining the additional homers with men on base. Not sure how you would test that, though.

  5. Mike Walczak
    September 9, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    We have to coin his gopher problem as Matz-o ball.

    I too am a 50 year fan of baseball. Watched almost every Mets game on TV on channel 9 in NY. Being old school, I rely a lot on the eye test and basic stats. Plus I speak from feelings.

    That being said, Brian, your articles and insight is really awesome. You really could do this for a living.

    I am really looking forward to having the AAA team in Syracuse next year. I think it will help to have the team in NY and have players play in a similar environment. Much better than Vegas.

    That being said, being in the International League, they will be coming to Durham. I am psyched about that. So, let’s plan on going to D Bulls vs Syracuse game next summer.

    • Metsense
      September 9, 2018 at 9:50 pm

      TJ I couldn’t have written your comment any better. Brian,another gem of are article.

    • September 10, 2018 at 6:39 pm

      Matz O Ball…Brilliant!!!!!

      • Metsense
        September 10, 2018 at 7:13 pm

        Jealous that I couldn’t think of that first! I’m still laughing!

    • Metsense
      September 10, 2018 at 7:18 pm

      Mike, we should have a met 360 Gathering when Syracuse visits Durham or Charlotte in 2019. How’s that sound?

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