During a year in which not much has gone right for the New York Mets, there’s at least one thing to feel somewhat optimistic about moving forward: the starting pitching.
The three obvious guys to be excited about with 2019 in mind include Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Zack Wheeler, but Steven Matz has also made some positive strides in his development. First and foremost, the most important one of all is remaining in the rotation on a consistent basis. The 27-year-old’s five innings on Friday night give him 133.2 for the season, which is officially a new single-season career high.
For a guy who’s seemingly been prone to injury most of his professional career, he’s managed to take the bump 26 times in 2018, a year that’s included just one stint on the disabled list (August 3-16 with a Flexor pronator strain in his left arm). Combine that with starting to not always completely unravel during a tough inning, and it’s been an encouraging year of progression for Matz.
A Trend that Hopefully Sticks
Although his first-half ERA (3.38 in 96 innings) looks a whole lot better than what he’s done thus far in the second half (6.21 ERA in 37.2 innings), his SIERA has actually decreased by more than a full run (4.33 to 3.27). That’s because his strikeout rate has shot up, while also cutting down his walk rate at the same time.
Here’s a quick look at how those two percentages, along with his swinging-strike rate, have changed from one half to the next.
The southpaw’s contact rate allowed has improved (81.1% to 74.5%), too. Getting ahead in the count early on probably helps — prior to the midsummer classic, he was throwing first-pitch strikes at a 55.8% clip, a number that’s risen to 60.4% once the second half got underway.
Watching his ability to make hitters swing and miss return is great because those first-half numbers looked similar to what happened in 2017. After trending up through his first two seasons, Matz produced career-lows in strikeout rate (16.1%) and swinging-strike rate (7.1%) in what was an injury-shortened year.
His second-half performance hasn’t looked great because the first four starts of this stretch were not good at all. Matz’s strikeout and walk rates weren’t much different than what he had done prior, but he lasted just 13.2 total innings and posted a 13.14 ERA during that span. The next four appearances have been much better, including a 34.4% strikeout rate, 5.6% walk rate, and a 2.25 ERA in 24 innings of work.
After getting past five innings just once at the start of the second half, he’s done it twice on this current run (seven innings completed in back-to-back starts) and has completed at least five every time. The only other time he’s done that consecutively this year was an eight-start stretch between June 3 and July 12, when he pitched into the sixth inning every time.
A Trend That Hopefully Doesn’t Stick
On the other hand, something that’s plagued him for the second consecutive year is his homers allowed per nine innings rate. After seeing that number settle in at 1.01 and 0.95 during his first two big-league seasons, it’s skyrocketed to 1.62 in 2017 and 1.48 so far in 2018.
Matz has forced hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone 22.6% of the time, which is on pace to decrease for the third season in a row and be a single-season career low. With a 16.9% usage thus far, Matz’s changeup is his second-most thrown pitch. The chase rate for that offering has quickly gone on a downturn. From 2015 through 2018, here’s how that number has changed: 34.3%, 44.4%, 47.4%, 34.6%. Hitters have laced five homers off that pitch this year, something they only did five times total in the three years prior.
It’s not that simple of a fix, of course. Matz also needs to get his sinker back in line to help the effectiveness of his other pitches, which is something that hasn’t happened for the last couple years — the PITCHf/x value of that offering hasn’t been positive since 2016, according to FanGraphs. Of the 22 homers he’s allowed this year, 11 have come off the sinker.
However, it is indeed encouraging to see the southpaw’s strikeout ability return, and then some. If he can continue this current solid stretch of play over the season’s final three weeks before packing his bags for the winter, there are plenty of positive things to talk over once preparation for 2019 gets underway.