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Mets playoffs: Using Steven Matz in relief makes sense

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With potentially just one start in the NLCS, using Matz in relief early in the series makes sense.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Every inning in the playoffs is a high-leverage inning. If Noah Syndergaard gets the start in Game 2 on Sunday night, Steven Matz is probably in line for only one start in the NLCS. An outside-the-box approach might include using him as a lefty out of the bullpen earlier in the series to maximize his impact. Getting ahead early in a series is obviously huge, and by picking up some key outs in late-inning situations, the Mets could well turn the series their way.

Since Chicago sports left-handed mashers Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber as central cogs in their offense, this could actually be a viable option—despite the fact that Collins has previously stated that he is reticent to use Matz in relief. Let’s talk strategic options first, then sprinkle in some stats, then address the human element.

Logistics

Using Matz as a LOOGY in Game 1 and/or 2 could substitute as a bullpen session in the normal off-day pitching routine. A bullpen session comes 2-3 days before a scheduled start. Pitchers don’t go full tilt in these sessions, but you could possibly forgive that in this case given, you know, playoffs.

If you had Matz available in the bullpen for the first two games of the series, he could come back and start a Game 5 or 6 on four days rest if used extensively in Game 1 and / or 2, or just take the ball in Game 4 if he isn’t used.  If used as a LOOGY instead of a bridge-man in Games 1 or 2, he could actually theoretically start Game 4.

Also, Matz would be free to let it fly knowing that he’s only facing one (or a handful of) hitter(s); he usually works around 95 MPH as a starter but can hit 98.  There are not many lefties in the game who throw that hard. Add to this the fact that he is a relative unknown to the Cubs, who have yet to face him, and he could be a real nice ace in the hole.

With Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, and Sean Gilmartin available, this team has the luxury of a few options to cobble together starter-worthy innings if Matz was utilized early in the series to a point where it would be unsafe to start him in Game 4. (We can safely assume that Matt Harvey pitching on three days rest is off the table.)

(But you could always call Scott Boras and ask.)

Certainly you could also just start Matz in Game 4 and have him ready out of the pen for Game 7…if there is one.

Anyway, these are just serving suggestions.  Contents may settle during delivery.

What the Stats Say

One of the biggest reasons to consider Matz as a reliever would be a white-hot Schwarber, who is hitting .467 with three home runs in five postseason games. In 56 at-bats against lefties in the regular season, however, he hit only .143, so there is the possibility he even would get pinch-hit for—he didn’t start NLDS game 2 against lefty Jaime Garcia.

Matz himself has yet to show a platoon advantage, and Rizzo actually has hit better against lefties than righties the last two years average-wise, but with a significantly higher BABIP, which tempers those results. Earlier in his career, Rizzo struggled mightily against lefties. Then there is also lefty-hitting catcher Miguel Montero, who often hits behind Schwarber in the order. He has consistently had lower numbers against lefties throughout his career.

You would think that Matz, with his low-angle delivery and heat, would be an especially tough assignment in a first-look situation.

This all sounds well and good in theory, but what do the numbers suggest about abruptly changing a pitcher’s role and routine for the post-season, and Matz’s suitability as a candidate for such an experiment?

Henry Druschel of Beyond the Boxscore recently examined 28 pitchers in 2013-14 who had only started during the regular season but appeared in relief in the playoffs. It appears the only clear trend is that there is an increase in a number of walks issued (+33.4%), although drops in runs allowed (-15.4%) and a slight rise in strikeouts (+3.4%) are also indicated. As contradictory as all that might sound (as well as taking into account the small sample size), there might be some sense to it. Achieving command is not always an instantaneous thing, even when starting, but not having to pace yourself allows pitchers to throw more wicked pitches, hence more strikeouts and the ability to get out of an inning unscathed. Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus ran some numbers on regular season pitching appearances of various lengths which seem to support all of the above, but with less dramatic variation in numbers than the Druschel piece.

In Matz’s own very short history of pitching at the major league level, he has had a habit of giving up first-inning runs (four times in six regular season outings), which you would think would not be optimal for a prospective reliever. Indeed, in-season returns on his first-inning numbers weren’t pretty—a .346/.438/.899 line with a 1.75 K/BB ratio and an HBP thrown in. However, a closer examination tells a kinder story.

He was a victim of a .421 BABIP in regular season first innings; he gave up a first-inning run in each of his last two starts against the Yankees and Reds, both of which featured a couple of key hits that were not particularly well-struck; and in his first game back from rehab he gave up a "small-ball" run, courtesy of Dee Gordon stealing and advancing to third on a flyout after a leadoff walk. The other first-inning run was a home run to his first-ever major league batter. In context, those numbers aren’t as worrisome. Take into account that he set down Los Angeles 1-2-3 in his Game 4 start and showed excellent command after his first pitch (which nearly went to the backstop), and things look even better.

Oh, the Humanity

Matz appeared visibly nervous early on in his regular season appearances, often overthrowing; he actually looked the most collected during his first career playoff appearance opposing arguably the best pitcher of this generation. Even when he has looked shaken, he has consistently shown the mental fortitude to battle through his jitters, and his stuff is electric enough that he is hard to touch up even when he has trouble locating. The first time he faced a hitter in a game (including the playoff appearance), he has struck that hitter out 17 times over 63 plate appearances, for a very impressive 27.0% K rate—or just about Jeurys Familia's normal rate (28.0%).

He also has a track record as a "big game" pitcher in the minors, having started in championship-clinching wins in both Savannah (A) and Binghamton (AA). The first such game saw him strike out nine without allowing a run, while the second saw him carry a no-hitter into the eighth inning. It certainly would appear that he can rise to the moment.

Of course the biggest arguments against moving a young guy around between starting and relieving on short notice and no track record center on unpredictability.  It’s impossible to tell how he or his young arm would respond to such treatment, as every individual is different.  There are always risks in messing with a pitcher’s routine, ranging from loss of command or velocity, to the worst case scenario—injury. Being that Matz has recently had two non-throwing injuries, it may not be worth the risk of adding another variable to what you are asking his body to do.

Yet, the tantalizing reward is why you consider the risk in the first place. While it is reasonable to think that if the Mets continue to play it safe with their newest addition to the rotation, they should have more postseason opportunities in the coming years, and could even well win this year by sticking with the staid, time-tested approach…it is kind of hard to stick to the long game when the trophy, the realization of what every player strives for, and eternal glory, are all staring at you from a distance of just a couple of weeks.