One great mystery of the offseason has been answered. Even the most pessimistic of Cardinals fans knew they were signing at least one starter. Who will that starter be? Steven Matz, as it turns out. Ho hum. Nothing too exciting. Nothing too objectionable either. Onto the next great mystery: “Will they sign two starters (or trade for one of them) this offseason?”
Right Steven Matz is still worth delving into I think. Matz has had a bit of a strange career. I kind of still remember when he arrived on the scene when it looked like the Mets were just going to keep churning out great pitching prospects. It didn’t really work out like that of course. And Matz is part of the reason why.
Matz was drafted 72nd overall by the Mets in the 2009 - yes 2009 - MLB draft. He was a hometown kid, born in Stony Brook, New York and hoped to get drafted by the Mets. He fell to the Mets - to the Mets’ surprise - and ended up signing an $890,000 bonus with them. He signed in late August, late enough in the year that he didn’t pitch at all in 2009. That was long enough ago that the signing deadline was fairly late in the year.
In 2010, he started feeling elbow discomfort before he ever pitched a game while throwing in an instructional league. He needed Tommy John. In fact, he didn’t end up pitching a single game for the Mets until 2012. When he did finally arrive, he was 21-years-old in rookie level ball. He lasted all of six starts before he went back on the injured list. They were a pretty good six starts though, with a 28.6 K% and 1.55 ERA (he did walk 14% of batters though).
He finally had a healthy season in 2013 for the Low A Savannah Sand Gnats. He made 21 starts and had a 2.62 ERA/2.91 FIP/2.98 xFIP. He again struck out 28% of batters he faced, but this time he walked just 8.9%. It looks like the Mets were forced to add him to the 40 man roster at this point, which is a bit weird. But because of that, they were fairly aggressive with him - which he rewarded.
In 2014, he started the year in High A - and made just 12 starts - before getting promoted to AA. He pitched pretty good in High A - 2.21 ERA/2.73 FIP/3.35 xFIP - largely on the back of getting a lot of groundballs. But he pitched in even better in his 12 starts in AA. His K% went from 21.5% to 24%. His BB% fell from 7.3% to 4.9%. His GB% did fall a lot in the process but it led to from a 3.35 xFIP to 2.97 xFIP. Technically his ERA and FIP were virtually identical, but I’ll take the AA performance personally.
Matz was at this point a nationally known prospect. Shows what I knew at the time. I thought he was just a random pitcher who pitched well. But no, he was the #33 prospect by Baseball America at the time and according to John Sickels, the #2nd best prospect of the Mets behind Noah Syndergaard at the start of 2015. He started the season in AAA that year, made 14 really great starts again and got promoted to the majors.
He made two great starts - 14 Ks and 5 BBs in 15.2 IP with just two earned runs - and was immediately placed on the injured list. He was able to return in September and made four other pretty good starts. He had a 2.27 ERA and 3.61 FIP in his MLB debut season. And then he made three starts in the playoffs that year - 14.2 IP with a 3.68 ERA. Going into 2016, he was understandably an even better prospect, becoming the Mets best prospect with the graduation of Syndergaard. And he delivered on that promise with 22 good stats - 2.5 fWAR.
And pretty much nothing went right for him after that until recently. He got placed on the injured list at the start of the 2017 season, returned in June. He lasted a couple months and pitched badly in those months before returning to the injured list in late August, out for the rest of the year. He pitched 30 games in 2018, but wasn’t all that great thanks to a home run bug. He did have a 3.97 ERA, but a 4.62 FIP. So you know depends on how much you think the HR/FB% was unlucky or deserved.
He made 30 starts again in 2019. And again, he wasn’t really the same pitcher he showed in his first two seasons. And again he had an absurdly high HR/FB% which made him look like a worse pitcher than he was. Again goes back to the question - was it deserved or was he getting unlucky with the home run bombs?
He pitched his worst baseball in the shortened 2020 season - which I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to read into. His HR/FB% took on comical proportions at this point. In 30 innings of baseball, 37.8% of his flyballs turned into homers. And he also didn’t get many groundballs that year, his lowest of his career by far at 32.6%.
A year before free agency, the Mets traded him to the Blue Jays. And he went out and had the best season of his career, finally resembling the prospect he once was. It’s kind of funny. I know the Blue Jays had to play in one of the more homer friendly AAA stadiums for most of the year. At least allegedly. But uh... it didn’t affect any of their starters. Most of whom were very homer friendly before 2021! Robbie Ray saw his lowest HR/FB% in years. And with the exception of his first six starts, Steven Matz had his lowest HR/FB% of his career.
Steven Matz is being compared to Mike Leake and I got to be honest that’s a very weird comparison. We don’t need to compare every seemingly mediocre signing to Mike Leake. These guys aren’t all that alike to be honest. Leake had both less upside and more certainty than Matz does. Leake was a model of consistency with about as little upside as someone could possibly have. Matz does have upside - look at his prospect history - and more downside - look at his career. If you want to compare Matz to someone the Cardinals recently signed - and you would vastly prefer to the Leake comparison - look at Dexter Fowler.
Fowler was a mostly mediocre outfielder for most of his career, until suddenly he was the leadoff hitter on a World Series winning team that I’ll not mention. And he had a career year. He parlayed that into a five year deal. Matz doesn’t have the playoff history, but he had a career year right before free agency after years of being a mediocre player.
Of course there are significant differences between the two, with more reason for optimism than the comparison suggests. First off, the situation in outfield near immediately made signing Fowler look stupid. Tommy Pham emerged in the same year Fowler was signed and was a better defensive centerfielder - they never sign Fowler if they see Pham coming. Harrison Bader arrived soon after. Centerfield appeared to be a huge need and it was very much not a need very quickly.
This is not likely to happen at starting pitcher. If Matz is even mediocre, there will be a spot for him and he won’t be blocking anyone. We’ve seen the value of having mediocre pitchers last year - by not really having them and suffering for most of the year. It is unexciting. But it’s something the Cardinals very much need and are likely to need over the course of his four years.
There’s also the matter of the salary difference and this is really where the Leake and Fowler comparisons crumble. He’s getting paid essentially half of what those guys got. And this is five and four years afterwards. Obviously the market changed a bit in the intervening years, but the contract difference makes this immediately better. Matz is getting paid to be a 1.2 WAR pitcher per year. That’s... nothing.
One other thing that’s been confusing to me has been calling Matz a groundball pitcher. I guess this is one of those things that’s technically true, but Dakota Hudson this is not. Maybe I have too high of a standard when I think “groundball pitcher” but Matz got less groundballs last year than Adam Wainwright. And John Gant. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, he ranked 42nd. He’s more of a groundball pitcher than not granted. He did use to be more of a groundball pitcher as well. But I don’t know, as someone who didn’t really pay attention to Matz much, heard he was a groundball pitcher, and saw the 45.5% number - I was expecting 50%+ personally.
Matz is projected by Steamer to be worth 2.5 WAR next year. It’s a tiny bit optimistic on the innings, but not by much. They have him throwing 161 innings in 29 starts. In three of the past four years - excluding 2020 - Matz has thrown 154, 160 and 150.2 IP. He’s nobody’s idea of an innings eater, but keep in mind those numbers are roughly comparable to the 180 IP of years past - starting pitchers just throw less innings now.
Let’s knock off 0.2 WAR off that figure for the innings and see how his contract looks. Using my typical and imperfect “knock of 0.5 WAR for every subsequent season” - Matz is projected to be worth 6.2 WAR over the course of the contract. Which makes this contract a verifiable bargain. Over a four year contract, he “should” get a 4 year, $62.1 million deal.
Fangraphs Top 50 free agent pool - which I have referenced many times - had former VEB writer Ben Clemens seeing a 3 year, $42 million. Crowdsource number landed at 3 years, $38 million. I realize Matz is unexciting, but honestly this contract is way, way, way, way, way better than Mike Leake’s contract and that makes him nothing at all like Leake. In baseball, contracts or team control are everything. Matz is pretty unlikely to become an underwater contract and that doesn’t happen much with four year deals for free agents.
The next question is: are they done? I genuinely don’t know. John Mozeliak has emphasized they are focusing on pitching and his words certainly implied he was looking at more than one pitcher. But does that mean starting pitcher and sign a few relievers? That would in theory seem more likely, but at the same time - I did not at all get that vibe from Mozeliak’s comments. So here’s hoping there’s at least one other move - Nick Martinez would be a VERY Cardinals move that would not require committing to him to the rotation even though he would absolutely be needed for the rotation soon enough. He would also not be very expensive.
But I don’t know the budget, you don’t know the budget, and without knowing the budget, none of us can predict what the Cardinals will or will not do next. I’m just not going to get mad at a bargain contract for a pitcher the Cardinals absolutely needed.