Of the assortment of arms that have soared through the Mets minor leagues since 2013, perhaps no major league debut was as captivating as Steven Matz’s.
The wait was agonizingly long. A slew of injuries prevented the uber talented 2009 first-round pick from stepping on a big league mound until June of 2015.
Symbolic of that wait was the day of his professional debut, which was originally scheduled for 1:10 on a summer Sunday. A 6th inning monsoon the prior day meant that the Mets and Reds would have to cap off Saturday’s affair on Sunday before the big lefty would finally toe the rubber in the regularly scheduled game.
The anxiety that surely accompanied Matz while pondering his debut was accentuated by the fact that he had absolutely no idea when he would take the hill. Saturday’s Mets-Reds game restarted in the 6th inning that Sunday, but would persist all the way into the 13th.
His first pitch of his career was uncorked to the backstop. He threw two more balls, than served one up to Brandon Phillips, who proceeded to crush the first strike he threw into the bleachers. What a start.
As it turns out, it was quite the start. Matz pitched into the 8th inning, a feat that three years later is an accomplishment for almost any starting pitcher. And to boot, he drove in four runs on three hits (take that Ohtani!), solidifying his grandfather as an internet sensation in the process.
The Mets were in the midst of a roller coaster season when Matz arrived. The potential of their major league starters was quite clear by then, but the arrival of Matz seemed to conjure a different kind of excitement.
Noah Syndergaard was emerging into his Thor persona. Matt Harvey was clinging on to his Dark Knight label. Jacob deGrom needed no alias as he was a rockstar in his own right over the course of his first full season.
Matz’s super power was that he looked like a lefty spit out of the most advanced 3-D printer for baseball players imaginable. The dude could not look more like the quintessential stud left-hander, and there were certainly more than their share of Mets fans who boasted that he was going to be the best of them all.
Despite being stalled by another injury, Matz finished 2015 with a 2.27 ERA in six starts. With health, Matz was surely destined for stardom, and his roaring start in 2016 seemed to confirm that. After an abysmal season debut against the Marlins, he anchored the pitching staff through the end of May.
Those stats jump off the page, especially on the heels of his tantalizing rookie performance. Over those eight starts, his ERA was 1.17. His control was excellent, and he was pitching fairly deep into games.
While it is virtually impossible to maintain that performance throughout the season, his production has deteriorated since that incredible stretch. There are an array of factors contributing to this, chief amongst them being his health, which has burdened him since entering the Mets organization in 2009.
Included in that table above was the amount of sliders he threw per game during that period. This is noteworthy because his outings post May-2016 were considerably worse, and a certain pitch type was noticeably lacking.
Matz’s performance tailed off significantly after May as he compiled a 4.87 ERA during this stretch. His discomfort led him to decrease the frequency of his slider usage, which he couldn’t throw without feeling pain.
This didn’t stop him from going back to his slider later on in the season, however. In fact, he threw the most sliders over the course of an outing in his second to last start of the year, at 20% of the time. His last start, on August 14th, he threw it just 1% of the time.
Matz did not undergo surgery that winter, instead receiving a series of platelet-rich plasma injections in his shoulder. Prior to 2017 Spring Training, he discussed the importance of his slider and how he was planning on reincorporating it again in 2017.
“It was a really effective pitch for me,” Matz said. “I’m gonna mix it in. I felt I had some success with it, so I’m definitely going to start throwing it right away and hopefully it gets better.”
He only pitched from June-August in 2017 and his slider usage was intermittent. He peaked by throwing it 20% of the time on a July 16th outing, but had five games where he didn’t throw it once. Overall, he threw it just 4% of the time in 2017, accruing an abysmal 6.08 ERA along the way.
2018 presents difficult circumstances for Matz. The abundance of quality arms in the Mets rotation has already displaced one former blue-chip prospect to Triple-AAA. With the pending return of Jason Vargas, a few shaky outings could send Matz there next.
This presents a quandary for him. In order to handle the rigors of a long season, the injury-prone Matz might want to minimize the exposure he has to injury by throwing his slider less. However, he could be conceding some level of effectiveness by doing that and find himself sent down to the minors in the blink of an eye.
It’s early, but it appears that Matz is avoiding the slider again in 2018. He hasn’t thrown a single one yet.
With that said, Matz’s second appearance of 2018 seems to indicate that he is buying in to the new regime’s philosophy of throwing a plethora of off-speed pitches and throwing his fastball inside. He labored through his first start against the Cardinals but was much more effective while matching up against a potent Nationals lineup. His pitch usage was significantly different in D.C.
The April 7th start was an encouraging sign for Matz, one that he himself said he hopes would serve as the foundation for him to build a successful season upon. In the midst of a fierce and perpetual pitching competition in Flushing, his margin for error is slim.
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