On Monday afternoon, the NY Post’s Mike Puma and Ken Davidoff reported preliminary trade talks between the Yankees and Mets for starter Steven Matz. The never ending 2019 injury bug has hit the Yankees’ rotation this spring. The young pitching prospects are performing well in camp so far. Despite this, it doesn’t hurt to seek veteran upgrades if options arise. The keyword here is upgrade.
Matz is a big time source of frustration for Mets fans. The local kid from Long Island possesses top end talent. A few years ago, Matz was the third pitcher in a fearsome trio in the Mets rotation including Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Things have not worked out well for Matz. He has suffered injuries and experienced inconsistencies in performance yet the talent and high ceiling still remain. A quick look at his numbers suggests entertaining the thought of acquiring Matz is a wasteful exercise. There may be underlying data hinting at why the Yankees inquired. While acknowledging how hard it is for the Yankees and Mets to make a deal, let’s examine if Matz is a trade target worth pursuing.
Looking under the hood of Matz’s standard statistics reveals a pretty mixed bag. Matz has a four-pitch arsenal that he likes to mix up. He primarily throws a sinker, which is his fastball of choice, but he will go to his changeup, slider and curve a fair amount of the time. He throws the sinker over 50% of the time. The offspeed offerings are pretty evenly spread out with his changeup sitting around 20%.
Matz’s sinker is a pretty fascinating pitch. In 2019, it averaged a velocity of 93.3mph, which is above the league average of 91.1mph. That is a good thing. On the flip side, his spin rate on the pitch sits around 2100rpms, which is below the league average. In a vacuum, the below average spin rate works well for a sinker. This may not be the case with Matz though.
The sinker goes against conventional wisdom mainly because of where he locates the pitch. We normally think down in the zone with sinkers. Matz uses his in the opposite manner. Here is a chart to illustrate his sinker location:
This is pretty atypical for a sinker heavy pitcher. This could very well reflect the Mets pitching philosophy. Matthew Trueblood over at Baseball Prospectus discussed Noah Syndergaard using his sinker in a similar way. Matz loves to pound his sinker up in the zone. One possible explanation for this is the desire to play up the above average velocity on the pitch. It is much more difficult for a hitter to get on top of a hard fastball up in the zone and Matz exploits this. Here is the pitch to Juan Soto:
And here is the fastball to a dangerous righty hitter in Anthony Rendon:
An effective high fastball is an important weapon for two reasons. One, it minimizes the opportunity a hitter has to drive the ball in the air. This is a problem Matz has that we will get to soon. Two, it is a great set up for Matz’s most effective secondary pitch in 2019.
The change worked really well for Matz last season. He averaged 84.3MPH on the pitch, which was slightly above average. His 2300RPM was well above average. As mentioned earlier, the changeup was his second most frequently used pitch last year and with good reason. It was easily the pitch with the highest movement in his arsenal. Here is a graph comparing the horizontal movement of his pitches against the average. The changeup is the green line:
The changeup had 16.8 inches of break. That was 22% higher than the average. That is a good amount of movement going from one side of the plate to the other. It doesn’t stop there. The changeup also has a really good drop as well. Here is a graph detailing the vertical movement of his pitches against the average. Again, the changeup is the green line:
This is a really good pitch. It has a ton of movement and plays really well with the high fastball. He has a pretty strong command of the pitch as well. He is able to keep it down in the zone in on righties and away from lefties as this graph shows:
When you combine really effective movement with good command you force swings like this from our boy Starlin Castro:
Yeah, that works.
Why Isn’t He More Effective?
As we’ve seen, Matz has two strong pitches that at times keeps hitters off balance. But a quick glance at his numbers reveals he hasn’t been able to put it all together over the course of a season. One reason for this is an inconsistent third pitch to complement the fastball and change. If the fastball command isn’t there or hitters lay off that pitch, he has to rely on his secondary pitches more. Both his curveball and slider sit below average in spin rate. The slider, in particular, is a below average pitch. The lack of effective movement results in the two pitches sitting in the strike zone close to or more than 50% of the time. Overall, he’s thrown 50.6% of his pitches in the zone, above the league average. This leads to one of Matz’s biggest issues.
Steven gives up a ton of hard hit balls. Batters have swung and missed on only 23% of his pitches. This is well below average. Last season, he allowed the highest hard hit rate of his career at 38.5%. He allowed 9% of his balls in play to be barrels. The league average is 7%. To make matters worse, he is a flyball pitcher. All of this leads to a career high 27 home runs allowed in 160 innings last season. That is creeping towards J.A. Happ territory. It is possible that Matz throwing his sinker so much takes away from the slider and curveball.
Matz also has a long injury history. Here are his ailments since 2016:
- Missed over a month with left shoulder tightness.
- Missed over a month with left elbow inflammation.
- Didn’t finish the 2017 season due to ulnar nerve irritation in left elbow.
- Missed two weeks with a flexor pronator strain in left forearm.
- Missed a week due to radial nerve discomfort.
This is frightening. It is pretty surprising that he didn’t end up getting Tommy John surgery. To his credit, outside of the radial nerve discomfort in May, Matz didn’t suffer an injury the rest of 2019. That may provide little solace to a Yankees fan base who is exhausted with new injury news coming out seemingly every day.
Is Matz Worth Pursuing?
From a sole talent perspective, the Yankees should look to acquire Steven Matz. The numbers don’t suggest this route, but the stuff does. There aren’t many lefties with this combination of velocity, aggressiveness, and talent on the major league level. The key is unlocking his third pitch. That would go a long way in mitigating the hard hit and strike zone issues he’s experiencing.
According to the available data, the curveball has more potential than the slider. Matt Blake may be able to unlock that pitch. It also doesn’t hurt to have a pitching savant like Gerrit Cole or a lefty with a good curveball like James Paxton on either side of you as well. The 2020 Yankees can take Matz to the next level. Their recent history of increasing spin and velocity for pitchers suggests they can improve Matz’s metrics. If they do that they may have a gem on their hands.
The flip side is the scary injury history. The Yankees are already without Luis Severino for the year. James Paxton is recovering from back surgery. The injuries to some of their position players also compromise the team’s ability to deal someone like Clint Frazier. It may not be wise to bring in another injury prone player who could realistically miss a month or more regardless of talent.
While the allure of unlocking Steven Matz is tempting, the potential IL stints are not. The Yankees have a nice group of young pitchers who can fill in the back end of the rotation until James Paxton and Domingo Germán return. A trade for Matz would also help the 2021 rotation, but how valuable is that if you can’t depend on his availability? Durability is every bit as important as pitching ability. Since that is a clear issue for Matz, it may be best to not tempt fate.