Who is Steven Matz? He is a left-handed starting pitcher for the New York Mets. He was born on Long Island and turned 28 on May 29. He debuted for the club during the 2015 season and was a part of their World Series run later that year, starting the NLCS-deciding Game 4 against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
This much everybody knows about the left-handed pitcher. The rest remains mostly a mystery. Matz followed up an inconsistent 2018 season with an equally-puzzling 2019, providing the team and its fans with glimpses of brilliance that were overshadowed by some head-scratching struggles. He experienced streaks when he was unhittable and spells when it seemed he couldn’t even get through an inning without a meltdown.
The first inning presented one of the greatest road blocks for Matz in 2019, specifically over the first three months. In his first 16 starts, he was tagged for 21 runs (17 earned) in the first inning (10.20 ERA). The low point came in his April 16th appearance at Citizens Bank Park, which came after three encouraging outings to begin the year. In what would go down as the worst start of his major league career, the lefty failed to record an out while being charged with eight runs (six earned) on four hits. He surrendered two home runs, with a Maikel Franco shot serving as the final blow. After posting a 1.65 ERA over his first three starts, he saw that number rise up to 4.96 in the blink of an eye. He did rebound in the second half and only all three earned runs in the first inning.
On top of his first inning troubles, Matz was a mess on the road. On the season, he made 15 starts at Citi Field and 15 starts away from Citi Field. In his 15 home starts, he posted a 2.31 ERA, a 3.46 FIP, a 1.15 WHIP, a 9.23 K/9, a 2.81 BB/9, and a 0.80 HR/9 in 89.2 innings. In his 15 road starts, his numbers were dreadful, as he finished with a 6.62 ERA, a 6.04 FIP, a 1.58 WHIP, a 7.77 K/9, a 3.06 BB/9, and a 2.42 HR/9 in 70.2 innings.
Including his catastrophic start in Philadelphia, he allowed at least five earned runs in six of 15 road starts. This included back-to-back June outings against the Atlanta Braves and the Phillies in which he was tattooed for 12 earned runs over 9.1 innings, included five home runs. Two of his most disappointing road appearances came in the second half against two of the worst teams in the National League. He kicked off August against the Pittsburgh Pirates and was brilliant through the first three innings before hitting a wall in the fourth and giving up five earned runs before he was removed mid-inning. In his third-to-last start against the Colorado Rockies, he got through three efficient innings before imploding and allowing six runs in the fourth without retiring a batter. Both outings offered more questions than answers, specifically with respect to how he could look so good for part of his road starts before falling apart in one particular inning.
The third problem Matz encountered in 2019 is a familiar one for the Long Island native. In 30 starts this year, he allowed a career-worst 27 home runs. His 1.53 HR/9 was the second-worst he’d put up in his career and was the fourth-worst mark and among National League starters who tossed at least 160 innings, trailing only Yu Darvish, Anthony DeSclafani, and Robbie Ray. June was his worst month, as he gave up eight long balls in his six starts, including a season-high three in Philadelphia on June 24. He tamed the issue a bit after the All Star break, as he gave up two-third of his homers (18) in the first half while dropping that number to nine in his 14 second half starts.
Matz’s shortcomings are easy to diagnose but difficult to solve. His problems pitching in the first inning could stem from an issue getting ready before a game, which could potentially be solved by honing his pre-game routine. His problems on the road don’t really have a logical solution and could just be a mental block. The increase in home runs is a league-wide problem and is something Matz can try to curb but difficult to eliminate altogether, especially with the current trends in the game.
Negatives aside, it wasn’t all bad for Matz in 2019, and he showed some legitimate potential, as he has at various points since making his debut in 2015. After a career-worst 8.9% walk rate in 2018, he was able to lower that to 7.5% this year. He also made 30 starts for the second straight season and made a career-high 32 appearances in total. He endured one brief stint on the injured list back in early May after experiencing forearm pain, but it only cost him two weeks. The biggest knock against the promising pitcher at the early stages of his career was that he couldn’t be relied upon to stay on the field, a stigma which he’s chipped away at over the last two years.
After an uneven first three months and with an ERA sitting at 4.95, Matz made two scoreless appearances out of the bullpen at home against the New York Yankees and the Phillies. With questions hanging over his head about whether he’d be inserted back into the rotation following the break, Matz returned as a starter and was generally solid aside from his hiccup in Pittsburgh. In his next 11 starts from July 16 through September 11, he threw 64.1 innings and posted a 2.52 ERA, a 3.17 FIP, a 1.10 WHIP, a 23.4% strikeout rate, a 6.1% walk rate, a 0.7 HR/9, and a .645 opposing OPS against him. In that run, he recorded his first career complete game, shutting out the Pirates at home on July 27 while scattering five hits, striking out seven, and discarding his opponent with just 99 pitches.
After getting blasted in Colorado and floundering at home by the Miami Marlins on September 23 (five innings, nine hits, six earned runs), Matz returned to his better form for the season finale. In defeating the Braves on September 28, he finished the year with a career-high eleven victories and helped secure his first year finishing above .500 since he went 9-8 in his 2016 rookie campaign. It was the second time in September that he tossed six shutout innings and the fourth time he kept his opponent scoreless while completing at least five innings of work.
All the above resulted in a 4.21 ERA, a 4.60 FIP, a 1.34 WHIP, and a 2.2 bWAR in 160.1 innings to finish the year. So to answer the original question, perhaps this is Matz: a back-of-the-rotation starter who, if healthy, can slot comfortably into the fourth or the fifth spot behind guys like Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and perhaps Zack Wheeler (or a free agent replacement). Once projected to be a part of the “five aces”, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the pitcher Matz has developed into, and if he can stay on the field he can still be a key contributor to a potential playoff contender in 2020 and beyond.