With Steven Matz having been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, his eleven-year run in the Mets organization has come to an unceremonious end. Matz had his struggles in New York and was often frustrating, but he had many highlights in his decade-plus run that deserve to be looked back upon fondly.
Matz was the Mets’ second round draft pick in 2009 out of Ward-Melville High School on Long Island. Considered a first-round talent that fell to the Mets in the second round, the lefty received quite a bit of press at the time for being the team’s top pick in that year’s draft, while also being an endearing local kid.
Matz started his professional career by immediately going under the knife, receiving Tommy John Surgery in 2010 before he could even step on a professional mound. He battled elbow pain in his recovery throughout 2011 until he finally got healthy in 2012. Once he got going, he quickly worked his way up the Mets’ system over the next three seasons, pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA at every level that he saw significant time. Being a left-handed starter who could throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, Matz was considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball by 2015. Matz started that 2015 season in Double-A, but he was quickly promoted to Triple-A, clearing the path for a big league debut in June of that season.
Matz’s major league debut was one of the most memorable debuts in Mets history. In front of his friends and family, Matz put together a cartoonish performance on both sides of the ball. Not only did he have one of the best pitching debuts in franchise history, going 7.2 innings and allowing just two runs on five hits with six strikeouts, his day at the plate was even more ridiculous. He went 3-for-3 with a double a 4 RBIs, buoying a struggling Mets offense and becoming the first pitcher ever to drive in four in his debut. The third and final hit he recorded knocked in two runs, and spawned this tremendous reaction from his grandpa:
Matz continued to garner lots of local attention for his Long Island roots, even getting a sandwich named after him at a Suffolk County deli. The fact that he commuted to games from his parents’ house was a fun side story in his rookie season as well.
Matz’s 2015 season was interrupted by injury multiple times, limiting him to only five more starts after his debut, but he was healthy by the time the playoffs started. Matz’s performance in the postseason that year gets overlooked, but he was as steady as any of the other starters the Mets had, even if he wasn’t going as deep into games as others in the rotation were. In three playoff starts, he tossed 14.2 innings and put up a 3.68 ERA. The Mets only won one of those three games, but Matz was impressive even in the losses. He went toe-to-toe with prime Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the NLDS to keep the Mets in the game, and he left Game 4 of the World Series in the sixth inning with the lead. He absolutely showed up for the big games that year with very little major league experience to that point.
Matz then went on to have the best year of his career in 2016. In 22 starts, he posted a 3.40 ERA and a 3.39 FIP across 132.1 innings, but his season was cut short due to a bone spur in his elbow.
Matz started 2017 the same way he ended 2016: on the shelf. This time, it was with what the Mets were calling “left elbow irritation.” The injuries were starting to pile up for the southpaw. He didn’t make his season debut until June, and his performance after that was downright terrible, and he was back on the then-DL by August with irritation in his ulnar nerve that required an operation to fix. We later learned that Matz was pitching through pain that year and that his elbow would often swell to the size of a grapefruit between starts.
We obviously don’t know for sure why he came back mid-season just to pitch badly through pain, but it’s a tale not too unfamiliar with the Wilpon-era Mets. If Matz’s ulnar nerve condition had been treated properly from the start, maybe his career trajectory would’ve been different afterward.
He returned in 2018 and was able to stay healthy and pitch at a major-league quality from there, but was clearly diminished by that point. The curveball that made him dangerous throughout his career never fully came back after the injuries. It was no longer the effective weapon that made him a potential ace. We’d learn in 2019 that he could no longer throw it without feeling pain in his forearm.
He stayed mostly healthy in both 2018 and 2019, though, delivering 60 starts over the two seasons with a combined 4.09 ERA, 4.61 FIP, and an 8.73 K/9. The overall numbers were solid for a number four starter, but the performance was rarely consistent. In the 12 individual months he pitched across those two seasons, Matz had an ERA of 4.50 or higher in six of them while having an ERA under 3.50 in five of them. In fact, he was moved to the bullpen briefly in July 2019 while he was going through through a particularly rough stretch.
Then, last year, Matz looked good in spring training, but spring training did not last very long. The coronavirus put a pause on things for months. When the season finally started in July, Matz had a solid first start against the Braves, but the wheels fell off immediately after that. Suddenly, he looked like a pitcher who didn’t belong in the league anymore. He made just four more starts before being bumped to the bullpen, then placed on the IL. He returned in September for a start and got shellacked by the Braves for six runs. Matz made two more relief appearances after that, not looking any better in either of them.
It’s worth wondering if Matz, who’s a creature of routine even more than your average pitcher, was affected by his season prep being abruptly interrupted, then abruptly resumed months later. It seems much more likely the odd circumstances surrounding the 2020 season had an impact on Matz than him just completely falling apart at age 29.
Regardless, Matz now departs the franchise as a disappointing story, but far from a true bust. He started 107 games for the Mets and put up a 4.35 ERA and 5.2 fWAR in his six seasons with the team. He was, on the whole, a solid bottom of the rotation starter with real major league value. Maddening inconsistencies and injury issues held him back from the pitcher he could’ve been, but also clouded how useful of a pitcher he still was over the past few years. He wasn’t always easy to watch, but he leaves behind several positive memories while also having made an impact off the field with his generous charity work.