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A healthy, good Steven Matz would be huge for the 2019 Mets

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2018 was Matz’s healthiest season yet, but he’ll need to improve his performance in 2019.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Mets are heading into 2019 hoping that their starting rotation is at least as healthy as it was last year. There are two members of the current rotation that are huge injury risks, however, one of whom is Steven Matz.

In terms of sheer volume, 2018 was a banner year for Matz, as he set career highs for the major league regular season with 30 starts, 154 innings pitched, and 152 strikeouts. He made just one trip to the disabled list, missing the beginning of August with a strained muscle in his left forearm.

Staying healthy was good, but the rest of the season was less than that. If you care about pitcher win-loss record, his was 5-11. Looking at another conventional number, he had a 3.97 ERA, which translated to a 105 ERA-, five percent worse than league average. But he had a 4.62 FIP thanks to an 8.9 percent walk rate that ranked 20th-highest among starters with at least 150 innings pitched. He also allowed a troubling 1.46 home runs per nine innings, 10th-most among that same group of pitchers.

Add it all up, and he had just 0.8 fWAR and 0.2 bWAR. His WARP was 3.0, thanks to Baseball Prospectus metric DRA being kinder to him. DRA takes in a wide swath of information, adjusting for “park, opponent, and, when helpful, framing, temperature, and pitch as well.” While Matz’s FIP says that he should have fared much worse than he did, his 3.62 DRA says he may have been a touch unlucky.

Last season was Matz’s second mostly-healthy season of the four he’s spent with the Mets since making his major league debut in 2015. But it was worse than his other one, 2016, during which he had a 3.40 ERA and 3.39 FIP with 2.7 fWAR, 2.5 bWAR of 2.5, and 3.1 WARP.

Outside of those two seasons, he has pitched just 102.1 innings. He missed almost two months after partially tearing his left lat during his second career start. He made four more starts in September and three in the playoffs, including Game 4 of the World Series. He made 22 starts in 2017, but he missed the end of the season after irritating his left UCL. He had Tommy John surgery on the same elbow in 2010.

So there are seemingly three Matz’s to choose from when looking towards 2019: very good Matz (2016), somewhere between decent and good Matz (2018), or injured Matz (2015 and 2017). He’s theoretically a ticking time bomb, but he did just go a full season without dealing with any serious injury.

Steamer projections have Matz’s ERA going up but his walks and home runs coming down, though not to his 2016 levels. PECOTA, on the other hand, actually has his ERA going down drastically to 3.44, but expects his DRA to increase to 3.90. Projections are always a shaky game, but it looks like Matz is a particular enigma.

What it will come down to, ultimately, will be limiting walks and home runs, two things that are luckily within Matz’s control, unlike if he was dealing with miserable batted ball luck. Pinpointing what he would need to fix is a different dilemma.

It appears where things are going bad is with Matz’s bread-and-butter, his sinker. He gave up almost twice as many home runs on the pitch as he did in 2016, while his strike percentage was down about two percentage points. His average velocity on the pitch isn’t down much, but it is down some, from 94.2 miles per hour in 2016 mph to 93.4 last season, and the rest of his measurables, from release point to movement and the like, all seem to be about the same.

In other words, it’s hard to say what exactly went wrong in 2018. That will be a job for Dave Eiland and Mickey Callaway who, for their part, spoke optimistically about Matz’s 2018 season and the growth the expect to see. Callaway thinks Matz could replicate Zack Wheeler’s 2018 breakout with another healthy season, and while that is maybe aiming a little too high, he could replicate his 2016 season in 2019—if he remains healthy.

If I had to wager a guess, I think 2019 is the turning point for Matz. I think he pitches closer to his BP projections than Steamer, hits 30 starts for the second season in a row, and finds a way to deflate those rough walk and home run numbers. He’s a growing pitcher, and it should come to a head this season.

Of the Mets’ five starters, Matz and Wheeler are the most likely to miss time with injury. If Matz manages to stay healthy while also recapturing his 2016 success, he could help justify Brodie Van Wagenen’s confidence in the starting rotation.