Where is the Real Steven Matz?

Steven Matz’s last start was brutal. He allowed three homers and eight earned runs in three innings and saw his ERA jump from 4.56 to 7.01. It’s a tough start to the year that’s worth analyzing.

The newcomer’s start to the season is very un-Steven-Matz-like. Despite being a strong sinkerballer, he sniffs above average, doesn’t get balls off the floor, hits more than ten batters in nine innings, and gets hit hard.

It’s no wonder all of these things add up to a FIP (3.81) that’s almost half of Matz’ ERA (7.01).

Typically, a 30-year-old starter with 700+ innings under his belt is a household name. There can be small variations, but in general, unless you are Robbie Ray, you are basically who you are at this point. That’s not always true, but I don’t think anyone expected a Robbie Ray-like season from Matz this year. Most of us would be happy with a mid-to-backend launcher.

Is Matz’s true talent closer to his FIP or closer to his ERA? His fWAR (based on FIP) is 0.3, which puts him up to speed for around 2 WAR or a little less. It’s not great, but it certainly makes it a viable backend starter. His bWAR (based on runs allowed per nine innings) is -0.7. This is a guy who shouldn’t even be sniffing the majors.

Obviously, St. Louis Cardinals fans will be hoping for the former. If he can get his ERA closer to his FIP (as opposed to getting his FIP closer to his ERA) then he should be fine this year. However, there are obvious warning flags. We start with the good and then get to the bad.

Let’s start with Matz’s bat ability.

That’s pretty good company, except for Yusei Kikuchi (sorry Yusei Kikuchi). He’s just ahead of Kevin Gausman, who was by far the best pitcher in baseball to date (according to fWAR) and just behind Max Scherzer, who’s pretty good.

Matz has never missed a shot, which isn’t surprising given that he throws a sinker half the time. Prior to this season, the right-hander’s career-high was just 23.4%, and that came in 2020 when he threw just 30 23 innings Excluding the COVID season, his highest breath rate in 2018 was 23%.

This season, the league average breath rate is 24.6%. He’s not exactly difficult to hit; at least he wasn’t. But that has changed this year. Matz’s current breath rate of 27.3% would shatter his career high if it stays that way throughout the season. That breath rate puts him comfortably above the 57th percentile average.

He’s seen the biggest increase in his sinker, which is usually around 18-20% in breath rate. This season, it’s jumped to a whopping 27.4%. You know how many qualified starters have higher breath rates with their sinkers? A.

Michael Lorenzen (29.5%) is the only starter ahead of Matz, although Matz is also behind four reliefs. He’s thrown at least 65 more sinkers than any name above him, which makes his breath rate all the more impressive.

The nearly 31-year-old has also noticed a slight 2% increase in breath rate with his curveball. That’s nice, but the sinker is really the story here, because it’s the pitch that he lives and dies with.

The thing is, Matz’s sinker was his worst throw this year. Opposing hitters hit .396 against the offer with a crazy high of .473 wOBA and .436 xwOBA. To make matters worse, his average off-court exit speed of 91.2 mph was the highest of his career outside of 2020, and only 20% of his off-court batted balls were on the ground.

So Steven Matz takes a pitch to contact pitch and gets swings and misses at the expense of hard contact and flyballs. The playing field is too beatable and difficult to beat at the same time. If you told me he threw a four sail instead of a sinker it would be easier to believe.

This trend does not stop even with bad games. Take for example the other night when he was shot at by the Giants. Matz has a 33% breath rate on his sinker. He also dropped three bombs with the pitch. This is… not ideal.

Why is this happening? Well, for starters, Matz likes throwing high sinkers. That makes him unique among the Cardinals sinkballers, but he’s been hammered to the top of the zone.

Also note that his sinker has been hammered everywhere, not just at the top of the zone, but still Matz needs to be effective when going up.

Next, take a look at his heatmap.

Basically, he throws all of his circuit boards where they will be crushed. Where does that leave us? Well I can’t really tell. Matz loves throwing high sinkers. It’s kind of his thing. I don’t expect him to suddenly change that after a couple of bad starts.

He’ll keep throwing high sinkers and we just have to hope the opposing batsmen stop batting from them. There is reason to believe that this could happen.

Matz currently runs with a BABIP of .395, which is well above his career average of .308. So I’m assuming he’ll get better results on contact soon. He also has a stranded runner rate well below his career and league averages, and that usually normalizes as well. These are at least good indications that a regression back to the averages might be coming.

At the beginning of this article, I said that Matz’s home run rate this season is right around his career average. That’s right. It was a lot lower up until his last launch, but it’s not like it’s absurdly high. The problem is that Matz gives up fewer flyballs than usual, 5% less to be exact.

The problem here is twofold. He’s giving up fewer flyballs not because he’s getting more groundballs, but because he’s getting more line drives. In fact, he allowed an insane 35% line drive rate. That is a big problem. The second problem is obviously a higher rate of flyballs leaving the yard. That’s perhaps more of a concern this season given the impact of dead ball, but he also gave up three of his four home runs in his last start. In terms of home run suppression, he’s been great in five starts.

The high exit velocity (38th percentile) and high hard-hit rate (27th percentile) are worrisome when I think about home runs, so I’m not ready to give him a pass for a bad play just yet.

The real problems for Matz were the mains drives. His 35% rate is almost 15% higher than his career average and almost 13% higher than last season. On line drives, hitters have an .808 wOBA against Matz. If more than a third of the balls you hit have a wOBA of 0.808 on average, you’re going to have some problems.

So is Matz just easier to hit or was he unlucky?

None of the underlying stats indicate that Matz has deteriorated. His pitches all have basically the same movement and speed as previous seasons and he is actually throwing an above average number of pitches to the edge of the plate. His meatball percentage (percentage of center-to-center pitches) is really the only number of concern at 10%. This is well above the league average of 7.2%.

That means Matz threw 48 pitches mid-mid. He’s allowed a .639 wOBA when he hits there, so he’ll surely get hammered if he makes a mistake.

35 of those 48 pitches were boards. He throws his plumb bob about half the time, so with a fairer distribution, only 24 of those meatballs would have been plumb bobs. That’s 11 extra meatballs.

If he throws a meatball sinker, he gives up an even higher .701 wOBA. Sinker Command is the real problem for Matz. He’s just making too many mistakes and his sinker isn’t good enough to get away with. He’s still throwing 44.6% of that on the edge of the plate, which is above average, but he’s just throwing too many of it over the dead center of the plate.

If Matz wants to improve, he has to get better at his sinker. The line drives are a concern, but I would expect that rate to return to normal at some point. Throwing fewer meatballs should help with this, but also better luck.

In 2020, Ben Clemens wrote at Fangraphs that batters control line drives more than pitchers and that a batsman’s line drive rate tends to fluctuate from year to year. (I linked the article for you to read because it really is an excellent summary of batter consistency.) That worries me a lot less about matz, as it means bad luck is the more likely culprit of the high line drive rate as opposed to lack of competence.

Matz line drive rates typically range from 19% to 22%. The only exceptions were the COVID season (28.4%) and 2018 (15.4%). 2018 is really the only exception that matters.

I would expect the Matz line drive rate to normalize. If not, I still don’t expect much more than 25-26%. That would be a bad year for Matz, but generally pitchers don’t allow consistently high or low rates of line drives, so after this year I wouldn’t worry too much about a higher than normal rate holding up for anything.

Now that I’ve written 1700 words about Steven Matz to make it clear to you – his Velo isn’t down, his pitch mix is ​​the same, his pitch shapes are the same and he’s throwing the same pitches in the same places. Basically, he’s still the same launcher. He just had a bad start to the year.

Much of this is due to hitters enjoying his high sinkers and hitting a lot of line drives. Better mastery of his sinker can help, but he just needs more luck with batting.

Should we be worried about Steven Matz? Maybe a little bit. But it’s way too early for me to have any serious concerns that he’s not a legitimate 4/5 starter. To answer my original question – it is much closer to the fangraphs version (0.3 fWAR) than the baseball reference version (-0.7 bWAR).

In fact, amidst its chaotic launch, there are actually promising signs. If he has better batting luck and maintains his newfound puff rates, he could bounce back later in the season. I’m more heartened by the puff rates than the beaten data.

Pretty much nothing went well for him last time out, but I expect he won’t be that bad all the time. I know that’s a really high bar, but once his BABIP comes down and the hitters stop being monsters against him, he’ll settle into the back-end role the Cardinals have come to expect of him.

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