I suppose the first thing to say is a bit about me. I am left-handed. I desperately wanted to be a pitcher growing up. Tom Glavine was my hero. Lefties were the crafty ones, the wily ones, the ones who couldn't live just on power alone. (Yes, I actively ignored Randy Johnson in this little fantasy of mine.) Subsequently, I've always carried an abiding love for lefties, and it pleases me no end to see that the current best pitcher on the planet is a southpaw.
So even though the three-headed, right-handed hydra that was Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard carried the Mets all the way to the World Series last year, it was another young arm that I focused my attention on: Steven Matz. While Syndergaard's dominance and Harvey's collapse have both held the spotlight in the first two months of the 2016 season, it is Matz, in his first full season, who has quietly made himself the anchor of the Mets rotation.
Matz has a 2.36 ERA through 49 2/3 innings, the 12th-best mark among qualified starting pitchers in baseball. His 2.52 FIP is the 7th-best in baseball, and his 3.20 DRA—deserved runs allowed by Baseball Prospectus—is the 19th-best in baseball.
How has he done this? Let's dig in.
When Matz made his major league debut last June, he was a three-pitch ground ball pitcher, with a fastball, curveball, and changeup. He admitted he struggled to maintain consistency with his curveball, so like all young Mets pitchers, he added a Warthen slider to his arsenal to offset his curveball usage. He's throwing both in equal measure now, and given the near-identical vertical release point for both pitches, hitters are often unsure of which pitch is coming. In fact, the mixing in of the slider has made his curveball even more effective, to the tune of nearly three runs saved per 100 curves thrown. Matz has had one of the best curveballs in baseball among starters so far this year.
Every good southpaw needs a changeup, and Matz has one. He can pull the string inside to lefties and let it tail away to righties. He's got 9-to-10 miles per hour of separation between his fastball and his changeup, which is devastating. Here he is striking out Daniel Murphy in the sixth inning on Wednesday:
And here is Michael A. Taylor going down earlier in the first inning:
Matz's bread and butter, however, is his fastball. There is debate between Brooks Baseball and PITCHf/x as to whether the pitch is a four-seamer or a two-seamer. Occasionally, Matz will run it upstairs, or he'll let it sink down. Either way, the pitch has tons of movement, and Matz consistently changes eye levels with it. The pitch "only" sits at about 94 miles per hour, but Matz doesn't need to throw it for brain-melting gas.
Put it all together, and Matz looks the genuine article. He's got plus command, and he's generating a sterling 55.6% ground ball rate so far this season. Matz's average exit velocity sits at a league-average 88.9 mph, coupled with a way-below-league-average 4.8-degree average launch angle. Translation: Hitters are only getting medium-to-weak contact off him, with no lift.
Compared to his debut season, Matz's strikeout rate is up (25.8%), his walks are down (4.6%), and his pitches aren't leaving the park (0.54 HR/9). If we adjust for the run-scoring environment, the quality of the hitters he's faced, the parks he's pitched in, the pitch framing that Kevin Plawecki has brought to the table, and the umps who have balls and strikes, Matz has an 84 cFIP—another Baseball Prospectus metric—so far this season. He's tied with Max Scherzer, and cFIP is the most predictive publicly-available pitching stat. This bodes well for his future, to put it mildly.
Matz turns 25 on Sunday, and it's hard to believe that he's still a rookie and was a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball this offseason, considering he pitched a gem in Game 4 of the World Series last October. Yet here he is, settling in right behind Syndergaard in the rotation hierarchy. Syndergaard, deGrom, and Harvey will continue doing what they do and getting lots of attention. And there will be Steven Matz, quietly sawing his way through lineup after lineup. Happy early birthday, Steven. Hope you get something silver.