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Matz vs. Stroman: Matz’s Contract Reveals the Cardinals Rotation Plans

Escalating incentives in Matz’s contract, along with a slew of other evidence, helps show the Cardinals’ plan for a “pitcher by matchup” approach to the rotation.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Yesterday, John LaRue offered a great analytical piece that compares the Cardinals’ newly acquired lefty starter, Steven Matz, with other top pitchers on the market. Go read it if you haven’t because it will help provide some performance projection context to the argument I am going to make today.

I – and many others here at Viva El Birdos – have argued for months that the Cardinals needed to solidify their starting rotation after the debacle that was 2021. My top target was Marcus Stroman, a reliable, proven, veteran, ground-ball getter with a strong health history and a production profile that perfectly fit Busch Stadium and the Cardinals’ elite defense.

The Cardinals, rightly fearing that there would be a run on starting pitchers before the lockout, jumped on Matz early. They agreed to a 4-year deal worth $44M total with incentives.

They did this with intriguing pitchers – including Stroman – still on the market. And that’s the question I want to wrestle with today: Why sign Matz over Stroman when Stroman was still available?

At the time the deal happened, I was pretty down on the Matz signing. It wasn’t because Matz would be a bad pitcher or a questionable fit. I think he’s perfectly acceptable as a starter and should perform at or near his peak in the playing environment offered at Busch. However, to lock him up to a discounted deal while other, more reliable, more productive, and healthier options were still on the market, seemed shortsighted to me.

Admittedly, I misjudged the urgency that the league had in locking up pitching. The November Hot Stove was a blazing inferno that I’m still trying to sort through. Nearly every free agent starting pitcher of note found gainful employment prior to the lockout and many of them for more than market projections indicated. It was the pitching run of all pitching runs and part of me just feels fortunate that the Cardinals were aggressive enough to land a fairly solid option. Other teams didn’t and are left staring into the dark void that is the work stoppage with major roster questions and no way to solve them.

So, speed, urgency, and security are certainly part of this equation and should factor into our evaluations of the Matz signing.

Stroman was one of the last pitchers to ink a deal before the lockout deadline hit. It’s likely – though this is speculation – that his delay was more about patience to maximize his contract than it was about lack of interest in him from clubs. His agent pushed his market to the end and then he took, presumably, the best offer remaining to him.

Perhaps – again, speculation – the Cardinals caught on to this strategy in talks with Stroman’s camp and moved on early, fearing they would be left with nothing but a “2nd place – Marcus Stroman Free Agency Competition” trophy to show for their patience. Honestly, if that’s why Matz is a Cardinal and Stroman a Cub, I don’t blame Mozeliak. The club absolutely had to have a quality starter and the market indicates that had to happen before the clock struck midnight on Dec. 1. It’s not usually a good idea to jump the market to acquire a lower-tier talent, but in this case, I can’t call it a bad decision. The market was that nuts.

I think, though, that there is more to the Cardinals’ decision to go with Matz over Stroman than just urgency. At least part of it is about strategic roster management. Matz’s somewhat unusual contract with the Cardinals is what suggests this to me. Here are the details from Cot’s Contracts:

Steven Matz lhp

4 years/$44M (2022-25)

  • signed by St. Louis as a free agent 11/29/21
  • $2M signing bonus
  • 22:$8M, 23:$10M, 24:$12M, 25:$12M
  • annual performance bonuses: $200,000 each for 130, 140, 150, 160, 170 innings pitched
  • award bonuses: $25,000 for LCS MVP. $50,000 each for All Star, World Series MVP, Cy Young ($25,000 for second-fifth in CY vote)

Nothing really strange there, right? It’s an escalating deal that gives the Cardinals a slight discount early and then climbs in value for the final two seasons. That’s typical considering the whole “value of money over time” debate that we often have about these contracts. Backloading deals a little is a good idea because that $12M in ’25 will mean less to the Cardinals than the same $12M would now.

What caught my attention, though, was the escalating performance bonuses. The Cardinals have long used performance bonuses to increase a player’s earning potential. It’s a neat little trick that allows them to save a little money and take a little risk by signing players with some baggage – either a history of sketchy performance or injury. Matz fits both categories here.

What’s a bit unusual is how low the markers are to reach his bonuses. Normally those bonuses would start around 150-175 innings and carry up to 200-225. That’s not the case here. They start at just 130 innings and max out at 170 innings – thirty innings below what we would have considered a full load for a starter just 5 years ago.

In every full season as a starter, Matz has landed within this 130-170 inning range. It seems likely that his agent wanted those incentive markers pushed lower than normal to make them easier for Matz to reach. Simple enough. Contract explained.

However, it doesn’t explain why the Cardinals targeted a pitcher who is a surefire lock for such a low innings total from a starter. Especially with Stroman available – a starter who has not pitched less than 170 innings in his full, healthy seasons, of which he has many.

More innings are more better, right? And Stroman himself is better. So, the club should have had double the incentive to wait out Stroman’s contract before sliding to Matz.

Unless the Cardinals don’t plan on their #3 starter throwing 170+ innings, even if he stays healthy.

Here’s what I realized after thinking about Matz’s contract for a few days: Maybe the Cardinals intentionally targeted Matz because they specifically wanted a starter who was comfortable with his innings limited to between 130-150 across a season’s worth of starts?

I’ll give you a second to do the math. 130 innings. 30 starts. That’s an average of 4 1/3 innings per start. It jumps to just 5 innings at 150 innings.

Now, this blows up all the historical models that we know about starters. Ol’ Abner knows that starters are supposed to be workhorses. They’re supposed to go as deep into games as possible. This is because everyone knows that starters have the best stuff and a baseball team wants their best arms on the mound for as many innings as possible. Running your starters this way also helps remove the volatility of a bullpen, letting a game go from starter to setup to closer with as little drama as possible.

That historical model is just that – historical. With expansion and the way the game has advanced analytically, there’s simply not more than a handful of starters around the league who can throw 200 or more innings effectively.

Last season only 20 starters threw over 180 innings league-wide. Rewind to 2011 and that number jumps to 73 starters. Starter usage throughout MLB has been dropping dramatically.

Plus, starters don’t have a monopoly on “stuff” anymore. In the modern game, your typical reliever probably has at least one dominant pitch. That probably comes along with other less-desirable traits – like command issues, a high walk rate, or limited viability on their secondary offerings. Still, those kinds of relievers – stuff throwers with flaws – can routinely get more than three outs. They can get a lot more than three outs when used in favorable matchups by smart managers who pay attention to the smart minds in their analytics departments.

Start adding it up and the contract they offered to Matz reveals at least part of their plan to take a “pitcher by matchup” approach to the rotation and bullpen.

As does Mozeliak’s continued insistence that players like Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks, who seem very ill-suited as 150+ inning starters, are preparing to be “starters” next season.

And their continued insistence that Jake Woodford is a viable option as a “starter”.

And their well-reported desire to add another low-level “starter” through free agency or trade, like a Wade LeBlanc.

And the additional stable of three to five major league-ready “starters” that the club has held at AAA, ranging from Johan Oviedo to Matthew Liberatore or even Zack Thompson late in 2022.

Add it up and the Cardinals could have at least thirteen arms who will be in play as “starters” next season. Those arms won’t necessarily filter down into established bullpen roles, since the club already has a relatively full stable of late-inning bullpen types, including Gallegos, Cabrera, Whitley, McFarland, and Helsley, and they’re expected to add to the bullpen in free agency or trade.

How can the team best use this wealth of arms?

By catching up with the more innovative teams around baseball when it comes to pitcher usage. That includes limiting starter usage and innings expectations, openers, using relievers for multiple inning outings, and playing matchup in the late innings with short-inning relievers.

Earlier when I suggested that starters can’t pitch 200 innings effectively, I did not mean that starters are effective for the first 150 innings of a season and less effective over the last 50. It means that starters are generally more effective for the first 3-5 innings of every start – the first and second time through the lineup – than they are for the last 2-3 – the third or fourth time through.

If you erase those last 2-3 innings from a starter and give them to a new pitcher over a full season – cutting a starter’s innings by 25-33% – a team maximizes the effectiveness of the starter AND the reliever.

We see this with a simple glance a Matz’s split stats by “times through the order”.

Steven Matz – 2021 Split Stats

1st time through the order – 23.8% K rate, 5.4% BB rate, 3.20 FIP, 2.53 ERA
2nd time through the order – 22.4% K rate, 7.1% BB rate, 3.41 FIP, 4.19 ERA
3rd time through the order – 7.94% K rate, 8.4% BB rate, 5.89 FIP, 6.04 ERA

Steven Matz – Career Split Stats

1st time through the order – 25% K rate, 8.0% BB rate, 4.45 FIP, 3.74 ERA
2nd time through the order – 21.5% K rate, 7.1% BB rate, 4.04 FIP, 4.09 ERA
3rd time through the order – 18.4% K rate, 5.8% BB rate, 4.64 FIP, 5.45 ERA

Pretty clear trends. Matz is better early in games than he is late. This is true for Matz and pretty much every other starter in the league.

What is unique about Matz, as opposed to someone like Stroman, is that he seems to have embraced that role as a low-inning starter and was willing to pursue a contract that paid him as such.

In St. Louis, Matz knew he would have elite defense behind him, a limited threat from home runs, a roster that was intentionally planning to limit his lineup exposure, and a new manager who was willing to play ball with that strategy.

It was an environment that would maximize his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

And Stroman? Stroman has earned trust as a more traditional innings-eater starter and desired to be paid as such. He would be worth it, too, if the Cards planned to use their starters that way. However, for the first 3-5 innings of a game, Stroman is probably not 2x time more valuable than Steven Matz. His salary would demand that kind of commitment and production.

On the other hand, Matz – along with Hudson and Mikolas – allows the Cardinals to move more toward a “pitcher by matchup” approach that I believe they’ve wanted to use for several years.

I thought that’s what Shildt was planning to do heading into 2021, with the lost 2020 season forcing him to limit exposure for his starters. It just never worked out. Shildt insisted on moving his multi-inning relief candidates into short-outing, high-leverage roles, and then injuries and ineffectiveness ravaged the rest of the roster.

Shildt’s gone now. And though I still don’t have any real proof of this, I remain convinced that his expectations of the pitching staff going forward were at least part of the “philosophical issues” that led to his ousting.

Marmol? He seems perfectly suited to institute this kind of pitching arrangement. I’m not 100% certain of this, but it seems very likely that Marmol would have had to do so while managing in the low minors.

I welcome the change. I think it’s the best way to use the stable of arms the team has. Matz fits perfectly with this environment. Now the team just has to execute the plan.

I would still rather have Stroman. But if the Cardinals do this right, I’m not sure that it would make much of a difference in the final standings.

If there are standings at all…

Enjoy your Saturday!