Coming off what was easily his worst major league season to date, Steven Matz has fared much better in his first three starts of 2018, at least judging by his 3.77 ERA. That’s not vintage Matz, the version of him that showed up in 2015 and lasted through several months of the 2016 season before his performance declined drastically as that season eventually came to an early end for him because of injury.
In three starts this year, Matz has thrown a total of just 14.1 innings, which isn’t ideal. His strikeout rate is great at 28.3 percent, well above average for a starting pitcher and higher than the marks he posted in those aforementioned ‘15 and ‘16 seasons. But his walk rate, too, is higher than ever, at 11.7 percent, and he has given up a staggering 2.51 home runs per nine. Almost every major league pitcher saw some sort of jump in home runs allowed last year, but Matz had allowed roughly one home run per nine innings before then.
In these starts, Matz’s velocity is nearly identical to last year, with his two-seam fastball averaging 93.76 miles per hour, per Brooks Baseball. Both last year and this year are down from his mid-94 averages in his first two major league seasons. But his changeup and curve are pretty much in line with what he’s always thrown in terms of velocity.
What’s most interesting about Matz this year is that he has yet to throw a slider, according to the data at Brooks. He had made a conscious effort to reduce his slider usage last year in an effort to keep him arm healthy, and so far this year, he’s leaned heavily on the fastball, throwing is 60.4 percent of the time, and used his curve 23.0 percent and his change 16.7 percent of the time.
And what’s really bizarre with all of this is that Matz hasn’t generated many swings and misses with any of his pitches. His curve has been the best, with a 9.84 percent swinging strike rate, but both the fastball and change are at roughly 6.8 percent. His overall rate is just 6.4 percent, the lowest mark of his career—and totally out of whack with his his strikeout rate. Of the top thirty starting pitchers in strikeout rate, with a minimum of 10 innings pitched, Matz’s swinging strike rate ranks last, with only a handful of his peers joining him below 10 percent.
Going forward, it’s anyone’s guess what Matz will do. He’s benefited from a very low .197 batting average on balls in play against him, and he’s done very well stranding baserunners, with an 80.7 percent rate. There are a lot of red flags here, but he’s been able to make things work. Here’s hoping that home run rate regresses to the mean quickly, especially if the K rate and BABIP do the same.