A prevailing storyline going into this season, pre-COVID, was how the Mets pitching rotation was going to shake out. Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman were going to be the top 3, with Rick Porcello almost certainly going to be the number 4 starter. This left two pitchers for one spot—Michael Wacha and Steven Matz. The smart money was on Steven Matz, as he had been with the team longer and had a better track record of success as a starter (as well as being the only left-handed starting pitcher they had). But nothing was certain, and Matz headed into Spring Training intent on proving himself.
Fast forward three months of no baseball, and now, as the season starts to gear up again, it seems this problem has been solved. Noah Syndergaard is out until next season after having Tommy John surgery. Now Matz is guaranteed a spot in the rotation, and instead of worrying for his spot he can focus on improving on what was a mediocre season last year.
Steven Matz started off as a promising young prospect. He was billed as one of a potential vaunted rotation of Mets prospects, a hypothetical young ace who wasn’t just a Mets draftee, but a native New Yorker, growing up on Long Island a New York Mets fan. A dream come true for any Mets fan. And for his first season and a half, it seemed it might come true. From when he debuted in the second half 2015 through to the end of his first full season in 2016, he had an ERA of 2.84, a FIP of 3.50, a WHIP of 1.221, and he was worth 3.0 fWAR. He seemed like a future superstar pitcher.
Then the wheels started to come off. He dealt with injury problems in 2017, starting only 13 games with an awful ERA of 6.08, a FIP of 5.05, and a WHIP of 1.530 in only 66.2 innings pitched. In 2018 he had much less of an issue with injuries, starting 30 games and bringing his ERA down considerably to 3.97, his FIP to 4.62, and his WHIP to 1.247. Not as good as he once was, and not living up to the ace potential he has, but good enough to be a great choice as a number 3 or 4 pitcher. It seemed like 2017 might be an outlier and he was on his way back to where he once was. Then last season, he seemed to at least plateau, if not take a bit of a step back. His ERA rose again to 4.21, his FIP dropped slightly down to 4.60, and his WHIP went up to 1.341. Despite these less than sterling numbers, he was worth more fWAR last season than any of his other seasons (aside from his 2016 season).
If there’s anything Mets fans now about Steven Matz, it’s that he tends to be inconsistent. He has moments of being phenomenal, and moments of being just dreadful. Even his stats don’t show the full picture until you dig a little deeper. In just the first inning of games last year Matz had an ERA of 6.21, which is absolutely horrendous. But once you get past that, Matz would be fine until the 6th inning where he had an ERA of 6.11. As long as he got past that first inning he would typically give a pretty good start. But it was a toss up which Steven Matz you would get. Sometimes you’d get the awful Matz who gave up eight runs and got pulled in the first inning before he got a single out. But sometimes you’d get the fantastic Matz who threw a Greg Maddux-style complete game shutout in under 100 pitches. It was impossible to know which Matz was coming onto the match at the start of every game.
Matz needs to try and course correct this season back to where he once was, not just because without Syndergaard there’s less strength in the rotation, but also because there’s nowhere to hide in only 60 games.When you only get 12 starts in a season, you can’t brush off a horrendous first inning. Every game counts. Hopefully he keeps with how he was last year in terms of keeping his emotions under control when a play doesn’t go right, or when he throws a bad pitch. In years past, as soon as he’d give up a big hit or a home run, he’d have a visible meltdown on the mound. Last year, he seemed to be much better at keeping it under control, and at just moving on, which helped his game. If he can do that this season it’ll be monumental. He can’t afford to lose control when there’s such little margin for error.
Matz’s projections for this season (pre-COVID) were more of the same. Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections had him pegged for a 4.11 ERA, 4.31 FIP, and a 1.32 WHIP. This is not where Matz should be, and hopefully his numbers this season are much better than this. He doesn’t need to be outstanding for where he is in the rotation, but he needs to be good, and these numbers are bordering on bad. If he can tap into his earlier seasons, and his better moments over the past few seasons, and put together 12 good starts, the Mets will be put in a much better position.
Steven Matz was once a top pitching prospect, poised to make a huge impact on the Mets rotation. Now he’s a number three starter on his best day, and struggles to be a number 5 on his worst day. If he can pitch the way he did his first two years in the majors, the Mets will be put in a prime spot for contention. If not, the Mets may very well be stuck on the outside looking in.