Lost in the shuffle of the Mets getting swept by the Cubs was Steven Matz’s impressive start. After an uneven beginning to the year, he’s put together a respectable string of starts and has begun to look like a viable number three starter behind Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. It was especially encouraging to see Matz make his latest start after leaving the one before that with a finger injury.
There were plenty of positives to take away from Sunday’s loss. Matz allowed five hits and two earned runs, and he generated 13 swinging strikes—his most in a start since August 14, 2016—and 12 ground balls, which is a season high. Overall, opponents are hitting .182 against Matz in his last three starts. He completed seven innings for the first time since July 3, 2017, against the Washington Nationals and has managed to lower his ERA from 4.98 at the end of April to 3.42, although his 5.11 FIP on the season is still far too high.
Matz was able to effectively navigate a talented Cubs lineup while keeping his pitch count down. He reached 100 pitches for the first time in 2018, but he was able to do so while averaging 14.3 pitches per inning, a season best. During a rough April, he was throwing close to 20 pitches per inning, but he improved on that in May with an average of 16.5. Last year, he averaged 17.5 pitchers per inning in 12 starts. Matz can save the team’s overworked and under-performing bullpen from further stress if he can succeed in lowering his pitch count.
Going deep into games has been an issue for Matz. He lasted four innings on average over his last eight starts of 2017 before an injury prematurely ended his season in August. His troubles extended into 2018, as he threw just over three-and-two-thirds innings on average over his first five starts. Since the beginning of May, however, he’s pitched at least six innings in three of his six starts. In those outings, he’s allowed one earned run or less four times.
Perhaps more encouraging than anything is that he has not allowed a home run in his last three starts. Matz has struggled with the long ball all season, allowing nine in his first 29.2 innings for an alarmingly high rate of 2.73 home runs per nine. He has since lowered that number to 1.77 home runs per nine, which is still higher than his 1.23 career mark but an encouraging trend.
Matz has brought his slider back into his repertoire, which has helped him keep his fly ball count down in the past month. After avoiding the pitch altogether in five April starts, he’s tossed 29 in his last six outings. The pitch has been responsible for swings and misses 20 percent of the time, which is a higher rate than any of his other pitches, and it’s led to an increase in ground balls put in play. His slider velocity, according to Brooks Baseball, is sitting at 88.51mph, which is his second-fastest pitch behind his sinker (94.04mph).
Matz will be tasked with containing the Yankees, one of baseball’s best offenses, in his next outing. The Yankees lead the league in home runs and feature a barrage of right-handed sluggers, which will challenge Matz to keep his recent run going. Righties are hitting .242 on the season against Matz and have accounted for eight of the nine home runs he’s allowed.
Going forward, Matz will need to focus on surrendering fewer walks. He is averaging 3.93 walks per nine, a career high by a healthy margin. He is also striking out batters at a lower rate than earlier in the season, as his K% has dipped from 27.4 in April to 21.6 today. The decline is not alarming as long, as he can continue to keep the ball in the park and work on generating more grounders, but it’s something to watch over the course of the season.
With the encouraging recent play of Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Amed Rosario, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the talent that’s on the roster. Matz’s recent performance has followed this trend of the team’s young talent showing what they’re capable of. If he were to establish himself as a dependable starter, it would be a significant development for a pitching staff that could really use it.