Steven Matz just had his second straight horrible Spring Training start, giving up five runs and recording just two outs against a Nationals lineup filled with mostly minor leaguers. For Matz, it’s picking up right where he left off at the end of last season.
The talented left-hander, drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLB Draft out of high school, didn’t start his professional career until three years later due to Tommy John surgery. Despite the delayed start, his career skyrocketed from there, as he posted sub-3 ERAs at every level in the minors and found himself called up for a highly anticipated MLB debut in 2015.
At this point, Matz was a guy who essentially had never failed. He had dealt with a major injury, but since his return from injury, he had had no problems dominating at every level.
Since stepping on a professional mound for the first time in 2012, he had put up a cumulative 2.24 ERA in the minors, had a historic Major League debut, and posted a 2.27 ERA in his first 35.2 innings at the highest level of baseball in the world. With so much continued success and so little failure, it would be hard not to feel superhuman, in a sense that you can do no wrong.
2016, however, would be a big test for Matz. It was his first full Major League season, and while he had dominated everywhere he had been, he was still yet to prove he could handle the grind and adversity that all Major Leaguers have to face. That season turned out to be an up-and-down battle for Matz, including implosions and injuries, but overall it was a solid season, with Matz putting up a 3.40 ERA in 132.1 innings (22 starts).
Matz went down for the season in mid-August, and didn’t return until June 10, 2017. He had a very encouraging first five starts back from injury with a 2.12 ERA, but after that his season completely fell apart as he limped to a 10.19 ERA in his final eight starts before again landing on the DL for the rest of the season. His final ERA was 6.08, which was territory that the southpaw had never entered before.
One of the essential qualities you need to have to be successful in the Majors is the ability to deal with failure and bounce back strong. As much as I hate to say it and as much as I hope he proves me wrong, I don’t see this quality in Matz. That’s why when he’s not pitching well, he tends to implode rather than bear down and have a solid outing even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
An example of someone who is great at that is the Mets very own Jacob deGrom. We have seen many occasions where he hasn’t had his best stuff or command, but he finds a way to win. Think back to Game 5 of the 2015 NLDS as just one of the many times deGrom has buckled down and given the Mets a chance to win.
Matz, on the other hand, tends to drop his shoulders when he has a poor start and things spiral out of control from there. All athletes know this feeling, and it is almost completely mental rather than physical.
You go out there thinking you’re amazing and you can do no wrong, and then as soon as one little thing goes wrong and your performance is no longer perfect, you think “Why bother trying anymore? This performance is already a failure” rather than “Okay, we’re still in this, I just have to finish this inning.”
This isn’t to say that Matz doesn’t care about winning or only cares about himself. But for his entire life, pitching has come naturally to him. From Little League up until his first taste of the Majors, he’s been able to mow down batters with ease.
Now, for the first time, he’s hit a bump in the road. And this is extremely common for young Major Leaguers because of just how hard it is to maintain success at the highest level of baseball in the world. But he needs to learn how to accept that there are going to be failures and hurdles along the way, that success isn’t going to come as easily as it did in the low minors.
Coming off a series of horrendous starts and an injury ending his season early, Matz has already had two implosions in Spring Training against lower caliber lineups. Now, you never want to make too much of Spring Training stats, and he still has plenty of chances to redeem himself, but the fact that he looked lost for over a month in the regular season, then got injured, and now has come back and continued to look lost suggests that he may have lost his confidence.
It’s easy to retain your confidence when you’re putting up sub-3 ERAs everywhere you go, but when you’re allowing more runs than innings pitched while also dealing with injuries, it’s not nearly as easy to retain that confidence and bulldog mentality.
So what should the Mets do with the former top prospect whose career seems to be entering a bit of a lull? Well, first off, they should continue to give him a good look this spring, and hopefully he can redeem himself with some quality outings.
Regardless of his performance in the rest of Spring Training, however, I think it would not be a bad idea for him to start the year in Triple-A Las Vegas.
My reasoning for this is that I think it would be beneficial for Matz to relax and regain his confidence by mowing down the lesser competition. He put up a 2.19 ERA in the hitter’s haven back in 2015, so briefly taking him out of the spotlight and bringing him back to where he has displayed dominance could help him to regain the confidence and stuff that he once had. When the Mets feel he’s ready, or if there is an injury or underperformance in the Majors, they can promote him back up whenever they want.
Assuming the demotion is brief, the Mets wouldn’t have much trouble replacing what he provides in the short-term, considering they have Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, all of whom are battling for spots in the rotation or even on the roster.
Harvey’s out of options, so they’re pretty much stuck with him in their quest to fix him. I believe Wheeler’s struggles had more to do with the rust from missing over two years, and he’s a solid bounceback candidate whether it’s in the rotation or out of the ‘pen.
Lugo and Gsellman could be candidates to be sent down as well, but neither were as bad as Matz was last year despite Matz having more talent (in my opinion and based on scouting reports). Therefore Matz’s struggles are a bigger issue.
As of now, finding a way to fix Matz should be of great concern to the Mets, and I believe sending him to Triple-A for the beginning of the season would be beneficial to his development.