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Struggling mightily in Mets’ rotation, Steven Matz could benefit from time in bullpen

Matz has a 9.00 ERA through five starts and might see his role change.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Following the Mets’ ugly loss to the Phillies on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, manager Luis Rojas understandably didn’t commit to keeping Steven Matz in the team’s rotation. After four good innings, things fell apart for Matz in a big way in the fifth, and the 29-year-old lefty now has a 9.00 ERA and 7.01 FIP through five starts.

While Matz has never recaptured the level of success he had in 2015 and 2016, his performance across the 2018 and 2019 seasons was pretty good. In 62 appearances, 60 of which were starts, Matz had a 4.09 ERA and 4.61 FIP in 314.1 innings of work. The knock on him had been that he regularly wouldn’t go deep into games and would have a meltdown inning a little too often during otherwise good starts—like the one on Saturday night.

On the surface, Matz seems to doing a lot of things the same as he had done them before. His velocity is right in line with his career norms, per Brooks Baseball, though it’s worth noting that Major League Baseball is using a new tracking system throughout the league this year. His 22.1 percent strikeout rate matches his career rate exactly, and his 5.8 percent walk rate is lower than his 7.2 percent rate for his career. And at .318, opposing hitters’ batting average on balls in play against Matz is higher than his .299 career average but a drastically different number.

Home runs, though, are a different story. While the home run Matz gave up on Saturday was merely a solo shot that took place three innings before his start went off the rails, he has given up 3.52 home runs per nine. That’s a massive jump from the 1.52 home runs per nine her allowed just last year and his 1.43 career average.

Statcast data has Matz’s exit velocity allowed at an average of 90.0 miles per hour this year, up from 88.9 last year and 88.8 for his career. Again, it’s worth noting that it’s possible that the difference lies in MLB’s tracking system. If the system is in line with the one that the league used in the past, he’s giving up harder contact than ever before. If it’s not, he’s probably sitting right around his career norm.

In terms of pitch usage, Matz is throwing his slider far less frequently than he did last year, while his fastball and curveball usage are slightly up and his changeup usage is up from 20 percent to 27 percent. He’s getting slightly more swings-and-misses on the fastball and changeup, fewer on his curve, and hasn’t gotten any on his slider yet. But when it comes to slugging percentage against, the numbers are ugly on all of his pitches with his slider, curve, and fastball, with the numbers ranging from .550 on the change to 1.333 on the slider.

Most starting pitchers have worsening splits the more times they go through an opposing batting order, but Matz’s are stark so far this year, at least in terms of average and on-base percentage. He’s allowed a .227/.244/.636 line the first time through, a .359/.395/.641 line the second time through, and a .462/.533/.692 line the third time through, though it’s only fair to point out that he has faced very few batters a third time. Over the course of his career, Matz’s times-through-the-order splits look pretty typical for a pitcher.

Given the Mets’ major rotation problems going forward in the 2020 season, this isn’t exactly the ideal time to figure out whether or not Matz could thrive in a relief role. But it’s also hard to imagine that any one of the Mets’ rotation alternatives would perform as poorly as or worse than Matz has in his starts. If Jacob deGrom, David Peterson, and perhaps Michael Wacha are good to make starts in the near future, that would help create some breathing room to remove Matz from the rotation, at least for the short term. And the team could turn to Franklyn Kilomé, Thomas Szapucki, or another young pitcher to make starts if it needed someone to fill the ones vacated by Matz.