If you’re a constant reader of Pitcher List, you’d know that I have a large infatuation with Steven Matz. He was the only pitcher with 100 Innings or more in 2017 to have all four of his pitches carry a 50%+ zone rate and I believe has the complete approach + repertoire to be a legitimate ace. After missing the first two full months of the year, Matz made his first trip to the mound today to face the Atlanta Braves in the second game of a double-header and I was excited. It has been reported that Matz will be abandoning his Slider and stick to his strong Fastball-Curveball-Changeup arsenal as he claimed he felt the effects of throwing the pitch on his elbow. I was curious to see if he could still be effective without the pitch, while showcasing the high level of polish we had seen in the past, and sat down to watch the affair. Here is the GIF Breakdown of Steven Matz’s 2017 Debut against the Atlanta Braves in 15 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s look first at Matz’s strikezone plot for the game:
I’m not going to hold back, this is a pretty bad plot. There are few pitches down in the zone with plenty of wasted pitches that are far off the plate both arm-side and high (top right) and Fastballs that he just could not locate away to left-handers. We’d want to see more Changeups and Curveballs located in the bottom third and underneath the strikezone, but the majority of his Curveballs were middle or elevated, while Changeups were split between being high in the zone or low. On the positive, there were a vast amount of pitches inside the zone and Matz was rarely behind in the count the entire day. Still, I’d much rather see more pitches around the edges of the zone than a shotgun blast inside of it.
Now let’s move through the innings and watch how Matz got through seven frames with just 1 ER to his name:
First Inning – 15 Pitches, 11 Strikes, 1 Hit, 0 BBs, 0 Runs
Here were the first two pitches Matz threw to start his evening:
It should come to no surprise that Matz would feature more Fastballs than usual to begin and got ahead 0-2 with two solid heaters over the plate. After barely missing inside with a Fastball then a mediocre Curveball away, he got a groundout with a heater. Not a great finish to the at-bat, but an important first out.
Now, if you don’t remember Matz’s MLB debut, the very first batter he faced was Brandon Phillips, who Matz got behind fast (nerves are a major factor in MLB debuts) and sent a 3-1 Fastball into the bleachers. This time, Matz tried to get a feel for his secondary pitches and was 1-for-3, missing badly with a Curveball and Changeup, while having a deuce fall in for a strike. At 2-1, Matz didn’t give in and threw a heater over the plate, which Phillips lined up the middle for a single. These are the kind of things you’d expect after missing plenty of time, and I was hoping that Matz would find a groove for his secondary pitches as he traveled through the game. (Spoiler alert: Not really)
Two Fastballs to Nick Markakis were great to see as it’s clear Matz has a foundation in place early with his heater. His second one had a little bit of a dip at the end that made it look like a Cutter, but I’m going to believe it was the camera angle more than the actual pitch. At 0-2, Matz wanted a Curveball away and instead threw poor Curveball that Markakis swung through. Here’s the whole at-bat to understand how Matz set up the 0-2 pitch but didn’t execute it well:
It’s obviously not the best offering, but it had enough action and was close enough to the plate for Markakis to take an awkward cut. It’s just like we saw in the strikezone plot where Matz was highly inconsistent with his breaking ball.
With two outs, Matz faced Matt Kemp and used his Fastball exclusively, staying away from the right-hander to get him to flyout on a 1-1 pitch. His heaters didn’t have the best locations, but he avoided the heart of the plate enough to get the out.
Second Inning – 10 Pitches, 6 Strikes, 0 Hits, 0 BBs, 0 Runs
I was hoping that as Matz faced the lower part of the Braves order that he would experiment a little more with his secondary pitches – Changeup and Curveball – to allow him to throw them with confidence against the top half of the order. He had that idea as he threw two straight Curveballs to Matt Adams but missed with both:
Still not there, but I love his aggression to stick with it until he gets it. He went back with three straight Fastballs after, leading to a groundball out to second base. Not the most polished once again, but it worked and avoided a walk.
With Kurt Suzuki up, Matz didn’t have any fear and threw a Fastball right down the pipe to open the at-bat, leading to a long flyout to center. There’s no way he throws this pitch to Matt Kemp, but Matz knew who he was facing and earned an out because of it.
Next up was a first pitch strike to Dansby Swanson with a Fastball on the corner as the clear approach for Matz has been to go Fastballs away against right-handers. Matz’s two best Curveballs of the day followed, the first traveling across the entire plate for a whiff, followed by one in the dirt that nearly induced a chase from Swanson.
Well executed pitches and great location for an 0-2 pitch, even if it missed its spot. The pitch serves two purposes: 1) Try to end the at-bat here with a whiff or 2) set-up the next pitch, which would be an inside Fastball along the same horizontal plane but staying up in the zone for a strike. Matz tried to hit the spot, but it peeled out toward the middle of the plate. Fortunately for him, Swanson hit into foul territory for a lazy fly that even Jay Bruce could track down for the third out.
Third Inning – 9 Pitches, 7 Strikes, 1 Hit, 0 BBs, 0 Runs
Matz opened the third inning with two Fastballs for an 1-1 count, then floated a Curveball over the plate that Johan Camargo laced for a single to center. He’s fortunate that he made this mistake against the #8 hitter.
Opposing pitcher Matt Wisler laid down a bunt for the first out, then Matz got a lazy flyout on a first pitch Fastball for the second out.
Now the fun begins. Matz missed with a high-away Fastball – we haven’t seen Matz miss low yet, which does tell me his timing is a bit off thus far – but followed it up with a perfectly executed Changeup for a whiff down and away, a Fastball right on the outside corner for a second whiff, then a down-and-in Curveball that crossed the whole plate to dive under Phillips’ bat:
That’s prime Matz and hopefully we will see plenty more of this. He completely controlled the at-bat starting with that 1-0 pitch and Phillips didn’t have a chance.
Fourth Inning – 12 Pitches, 8 Strikes, 0 Hits, 0 BBs, 0 Runs
To start the inning, Matz missed with a Curveball just a little worse than the pitch he struck out Markasis with previously. A solid 1-0 Fastball on the outside corner with another one a little higher got him to 1-2, but he got away with a questionable Curveball that was lined to Neil Walker:
That should be away, and we haven’t yet seen Matz make that pitch against a left-hander yet. There’s work to be done.
Matz got to 1-1 against Kemp and tried to throw a Changeup over the plate, but missed high and away. Just one solid Changeup on the day out of three so far. He followed it up with two more Fastballs – one excellent 2-1 pitch along the outside corner for a foul ball and another that missed his spot but earned a chopper back to the mound:
Finally, Matz is able to throw his Curveball away from a left-hander for strike as he jumped ahead 0-1 to Adams. After trying the same pitch again and missing low, Matz tossed another missed Fastball that was still in the zone but not in the center that Adams rolled over for the third out:
It’s odd since Matz clearly doesn’t have the command we’ve seen in the past, but the Braves bats are having trouble getting solid contact on his heater. Normally Matz sits lower in the strike zone, but most of his Fastballs are up in the zone and missing their locations. Still, it’s working and he’s not missing for major mistakes…but it could be a product of a weak Braves lineup. It’s hard to be incredibly confident so far despite just two hits and zero walks to his name.
Fifth Inning – 8 Pitches, 7 Strikes, 0 Hits, 0 BBs, 0 Runs
After sitting down for a long top of the fifth from the Mets offense, Matz came out with a great Fastball to earn a quick first out against Kurt Suzuki:
…and of course Matz follows it with a terrible high Fastball that is easily taken for ball one against Dansby Swanson. It’s once again high-and-away from a right-hander, which we normally see from someone flying open too soon, or their arm is lagging behind their body on delivery. Nevertheless, he rebounded with a good Fatball for a foul ball, then a picture prefect Changeup that falls in for strike two:
That’s great to see. Only the second Changeup of the game that Matz command as he wanted, but it was a crucial 1-1 pitch that forced Swanson to be on the defense for the next pitch. Now, d’Arnaud set up inside for a Fastball and even though Matz didn’t jam it in as much as he would like, the previous Changeup made Swanson have trouble connecting and earned a lazy groundout.
Matz jumped ahead quickly with two Fastballs to Johan Camargo, the second having good life to come back over the plate. Once again, Matz went inside while up in the count and this time executed it perfectly, jamming Camargo for a weak flyball out.
Sixth Inning – 21 Pitches, 13 Strikes, 1 Hit, 1 BB, 0 Runs
Matz got ahead once again 0-2, this time against Danny Santana, missed with a bad high heater, then spotted a 1-2 Fastball perfectly on the inside corner…that was called a ball. Great pitch. 2-2 was a beautiful Changeup on the outside corner that was fouled off and another Fastball missed for ball three. Matz then turned to his Curveball that hung way up on the zone that Santana lofted into left field. Fortunately for Matz, it resulted in an out instead of a 2-run shot. You be the judge if you think Matz got away with one (I sure think he did):
With two-outs and a man on first, Matz tried hitting the outside corner with his Fastball to left-handed Nick Markakis and fell into an early 3-0 hole. There weren’t the “poor” pitches that I’ve talked about before and were instead somewhat near the plate, but far from ideal. After an easy 3-0 strike, he overthrew a heater in the dirt for his first walk of the day. It’s one of those at-bats you just throw away and move on to the next guy.
Now with men on first and second, Matz kept his faith with his heater as he didn’t have confidence to throw strikes with his Changeup or Curveball. He aimed twice inside against Matt Kemp, the first earning a whiff a bit elevated and middle-in, with the second getting a foul ball on a tighter pitch. Matz wisely went outside 0-2 and got a weak flail from Kemp resulting in a foul ball as he hit his spot off the plate. Next was an intended Curveball in the dirt that didn’t get deep enough for another foul ball. Matz just needs to execute one pitch perfectly at this point and Kemp is dead to rights. The next pitch is a terrible heater that isn’t close to being a strike and sails high-and-away out of the zone. At 1-2 the plan was a high-and-tight heater, but it creeped out a bit over the plate. It was just high enough for Kemp to miss the pitch and sky it for a can of corn:
It’s another piece of the same sentiment I’ve felt through this outing: Matz isn’t throwing a bad game, but he’s far from his formerly polished self.
Seventh Inning – 23 Pitches, 15 Strikes, 2 Hit, 0 BBs, 1 Run
At 75 pitches, Matz went back out for the seventh and opened with two Curveballs that fell on the inside corner while trying to hit the outer half. With an 0-2 count, he missed with two Fastballs away, but then followed it with one of the better Curveballs he’s thrown, keeping it low and away to Matt Adams for a weak flyball out:
The following at-bat to Kurt Suzuki was interesting. He missed a Fastball right off the outside corner – not a bad pitch – then threw an excellent Changeup right along the outside corner for a weak foul ball. He then elevated his Fastball outside for a check-swing swing, which I want to dock him points for missing his spot, but I have to acknowledge that he got to a 1-2 count. After a poor Fastball, he threw a pitch near the heart of the plate that Suzuki just couldn’t handle and popped it up to shallow center. A good result but it was mixed along the way.
Great Curveball for a first pitch strike to Dansby Swanson and once again he’s ahead of his batter. As I’d love to see from a confident pitcher, Matz followed it with a Changeup away, but Swanson remembered the one-strike Changeup Matz threw in his previous at-bat and was ready for it, hooking it behind Michael Conforto for a double to left.
A batter is in scoring position and Matz looked to his Fastball to get out of the jam. Following two great heaters away to Johan Camargo, he doubled up on inside Fastballs, barely missing the first, then getting a foul on the second. By doing his job there, he was able to set up a Curveball low, but he left it up in the zone, resulting in an RBI single to right-center field. Matz deserved to give up that run:
Surprisingly, Matz was allowed to pitch against pinch-hitter Ender Inciarte, where he missed multiple times with his Fastball. The polish just isn’t here and he’s a bit gassed at 92 pitches. With his final offering of the day, he gets his 3-2 Curveball down enough and earns a slow roller to second base to close the seventh:
Final Line – 7.0 IP, 1 ER, 5 Hits, 1 BB, 2 Ks. 67-98 Strikes, 19/27 First Pitch Strikes
I’m a bit torn after watching this outing from Matz. On one hand, a 1 ER outing with just six baserunners in seven innings is excellent. 97 Pitches is more than I expected after missing as much time as he did, and nearly 70% strikes is phenomenal. On the other, his Curveball wasn’t the proper putaway pitch that it has been in the past, his Changeup was spotty, and his Fastball command was nowhere near where it was last year. It was inside the zone, but it sailed high constantly and didn’t hit the glove often. There was just one at-bat where I felt Matz was in firm control (Brandon Phillips in the third), steering the hitter as he wanted and properly disposing of the hitter. It was a commonality last season and I was hoping to see more of it today.
Ron Darling made a good point in the booth about Matz’s improved lower half, showing images of how far Matz was getting off the rubber with his stride before releasing the ball. This is definitely a positive as getting closer to the mound and getting more strength from your legs will result in an “easier” velocity that isn’t stressful on your top half. It does also make plenty of sense in regards to his poor Fastball command, as greater emphasis on his lower half will cause timing issues for his arm – the most common result is his arm lagging more than normal leading to more elevated pitches. To clarify this, having your front foot farther ahead means you need to get your arm circle moving earlier in order to reach the closer release point in time. There’s still some much needed repetition needed here for Matz and I don’t think this will be an issue that carries through many starts in the year, but it might be a bit rocky early on.
With that in mind, it’s hard to make a proper assessment of Matz for the rest of 2017. He isn’t the guy we want him to be right now, but there’s clearly room for growth and Matz has shown elite ability in the past that showed up at times today. I would imagine that if he can stay on the field – which is always a question with Matz – his second half should be along the lines of our expectations – a true #2 arm that hints of ace-like ability. For the near future, though, I have my concerns that he needs more time to get the timing right in his mechanics and gain the confidence in his secondary pitches to properly support his Fastball. Let’s hope he can get there soon.