One of the reasons I love Andrew Heaney is because he defies convention. He throws a high spin, rising sinker (oxymoron alert!) that plays well at the top of the zone. It’s a really weird pitch. At this moment in time, I’m not going to be writing about Heaney. Of course, at my first convenience, I will certainly do so, but that time hasn’t arrived yet. No, this is about Steven Matz, who also has a weird sinker.
As far as sinkers go, Heaney’s serves as the gold standard for a sinker with a lot of ride. It plays well at the top of the zone because it doesn’t, well, sink. And then there’s Sandy Alcantara, who throws a really hard sinker with a lot of horizontal movement. Alcantara’s gets elite whiffs at the bottom of the zone, to his arm-side. They’re both unicorn pitches. For Matz, he gets the best of both worlds…sort of. I’ll show you what I mean.
Here are their whiff rates on their sinkers in 2019:
You can see what I’m talking about above. If they’re after whiffs, Alcantara has to pitch to a very specific area and Heaney has to pitch to a specific area. But for Matz, he just needs to stay to his arm-side, generally speaking. There may not be an area that he totally dominates as Heaney and Alcantara do, but he’s got the benefit of a little flexibility.
And now, we’ve been gifted with a pleasant surprise: a bump in velocity.
The first thing Luis Rojas mentioned about Steven Matz's performance in Camp: his increased velocity.
Said he's been mid-to-upper 90s with really good velo differential on his curveball.
"I was pumped," Rojas said.
— Jacob Resnick (@Jacob_Resnick) July 21, 2020
If this is true, this is pretty significant. Matz sat 93-94 mph in 2019 and topped out at 96 mph. If he can sit where he was maxing out, that’s obviously going to be a big deal.
If we are to consider “mid-to-upper 90s” as 95 mph and greater, then we can compare Matz’s outcomes at 95 mph and below.
Matz’s sinker, ≤ 94 mph: 7.9 SwStr%
Matz’s sinker, ≥ 95 mph: 11.3 SwStr%
Now, one caveat is that just 62 of Matz’s 1162 sinkers were 95 mph or higher in 2019, so that’s going to throw a wrench in feeling confident about what his sinker’s swinging-strike percentage could look like in 2020. But also, isn’t that in itself significant? Just 4.5% of Matz’s sinkers reached 95 mph in 2019, and yet now his sinker is ostensibly sitting there. It’s really impressive and you can see why his manager Luis Rojas has referred to his simulated games as “eye-popping.”
It should be obvious that pitches don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in something of an ecosystem, feeding off one another, to different extents. Matz is unique in that he already had a changeup that he can throw for strikes — it ranks in the 82nd percentile in CSW. That’s right above Dylan Bundy, who throws a good slow ball. With a harder sinker, it’s not outlandish to think that it could get even better, either.
Given that his changeup is his second-most thrown pitch, it’s interesting that Rojas chose to single out his curveball as a pitch to rave about. For me, I’ve never loved Matz’s curveball. I don’t usually love curveballs with sweeping movement and his hasn’t garnered many whiffs. Over his career, it’s returned just a 34.9% chase percentage and 10.1% swinging-strike percentage. Not exactly the out pitch that Matz is hoping for.
Well, thanks to Jeff Zimmerman’s Mining The News series, I’ve been alerted to a fun change. He’s working on his curveball:
Matz spent his quarantine working on various new curveball grips, with an eye toward making the pitch more of a weapon. “I really was just able to tinker with a lot of different grips,” said Matz, the lone left-hander in New York’s rotation. “All that just gave me a better feel for what I was doing out there, and I think that’s the biggest thing is having that comfortable feel on the mound.”
This is really interesting. At least for me. It seems like a lot of pitchers have been making significant tweaks while quarantine and this is quite significant. The first phrase that sticks out is that Matz is trying to turn it into more of a weapon. That’s exactly what we’d like to see out of him—that he weaponizes his curveball to give him another secondary that he can throw for swinging-strikes.
The other thing, though, is that in the article, Matz talks about throwing his curveball with different shapes and speeds. Patrick Corbin is really well-known for this, and pitchers like Dinelson Lamet do it too. It sounds like Matz is not only trying to reshape his underwhelming curveball, but he’s trying to turn it into two pitches. It’s easy to imagine this being profitable.
That leaves him with a lot of options now. He already has a sinker that looks like it’s going to be trending towards more whiffs and less hard contact. That’s a sizable enough change that I’m already significantly more interested in Matz. After all, his sinker is his most-thrown pitch. And his changeup was already a good secondary offering. But now, he might be adding one or two pitches that will give hitters a newer look, and they’ll hopefully be able to draw the whiffs that he so desperately needs. And then, if he ever gets into trouble, Matz always his that hard slider in his back pocket that he can use to induce weak contact when he’s in unfavorable counts.
It seems like I’ve been getting caught up in a lot of Best Shape Of His Life narratives lately. In fairness, it’s still technically preseason. The difference is that there is perhaps a reason a lot of these changes are taking place. Quarantine has given players an unprecedented opportunity to give them some extra time to work on some things they might not have otherwise. For Brett Cecil, that’s dropping down to throw sidearm, and for, say, Vince Velasquez, that’s been toying with a new cutter. Matz has been lucky enough to come out of quarantine with added velocity and a curveball that he can manipulate into two pitches as his souvenirs.
I should pump the breaks a little before I go off the rails here. Matz has shown us who he is over the years and that’s a pitcher who gives up too many home runs. On the one hand, these changes might not be sticky. His velocity could revert and he may not have feel for his new curveball(s). But on the other hand, if he can limit the home runs, he’s already got a nice foundation, and now there’s the added possibility of more strikeouts too. In the end, these are two changes that have me a lot more excited about Matz than I was before I learned of them. It only takes one to stick for him to take a step forward, but if both do, he’s going to look like a new pitcher.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)