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A Deep Dive Into Steven Matz’s Last Start

The lefty brought the heat and got hurt. I break it all down and look at what it means for the future.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Assuming you read the title, I should clarify what I mean by “Steven Matz’s Last Start”. When I first began writing this article, when I said “last”, I meant Matz’s most recent start. But now, after the breaking of the news that Matz tore his MCL, I guess “last” could also mean his last start of the season. I’ll let you take it whichever way you want.

Regardless, it hasn’t been the best of starts to Matz’s Cardinals career after he signed a $44 million contract in the offseason. I mentioned it in one of my last articles, but I was hopeful that Matz could pitch like a 3 or 4 starter when he got healthy, and in his first start back from injury it looked like he might be able to fulfill that potential.

He wasn’t super efficient, but there were times where he simply looked unhittable. Granted, it’s the Reds, but don’t tell that to Adam Wainwright or Miles Mikolas.

In a series in which the Cardinals two best starters both pitched, Matz looked like the best of the three. I know it’s just one game, but it was a promising sign after a long injury. I was encouraged right up until his fielding mishap caused him to come up limping.

With how well the left-hander pitched, it’s worth diving into his last start and seeing what we can find. After that, I’ll discuss how his injury changes things for the team.

Final Line: W, 5 13 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 2 ER, 7 K, 38.5 GB%, 90 pitches (60 strikes)

The first thing that stood out about Matz’s performance was his strikeouts. This isn’t exactly a new thing for him this year, though. If we remove the start on May 22nd when he got removed for shoulder discomfort, then Matz has actually gone three consecutive games with 7 Ks. In those three games, he has a 3.70 ERA. That’s not a bad 3 or 4 starter.

Matz’s whiff rate was even more impressive than his strikeout count, though. He got a whopping 12 whiffs on his sinker, which, when divided by the 21 swings that hitters took against the pitch, gave him an incredible 57% whiff rate against a (generally considered) contact-oriented pitch.

It’s important to remember that Matz’s sinker isn’t like other sinkers. He elevates it and it doesn’t drop much, which means that he tends to get fewer groundballs and more whiffs than the usual sinker. It’s an odd choice, but it forms the foundation of Matz’s entire arsenal.

And, boy, did he have that working for him on Saturday. Of his 12 sinker whiffs, 7 came on sinkers up in the zone. When Matz can have that kind of success at the top of the zone, he’s hard to beat.

So, the high sinker was working, but after watching video of all the whiffs, that’s not the only thing that made a difference.

The first thing I noticed was velocity as 9 of his 12 sinker whiffs came on pitches faster than 95 mph. Matz didn’t just bring the heat when he got whiffs, though. 35 of his 49 sinkers were thrown at 95 mph or more. That’s a rate of 71%. So, the heat may have helped him get whiffs, but it sees more accurate to say that it simply made the pitch more effective overall.

That holds true according to the numbers. In 2021, Matz surrendered a .315 wOBA against sinkers thrown at 95 mph or harder. When he threw the pitch at 94 mph or slower, he yielded a .387 wOBA. That’s a huge difference!

It’s been said before, but Matz is much more effective when he throws the ball harder. And I would guess that’s especially true for him on pitches up in the zone.

On the season, his sinker is averaging 94.5 mph. He averaged 95.2 mph on Saturday. It’s not surprising that Saturday was one of his best starts of the season.

Matz wasn’t simply successful because of an uptick in velocity, though. He got 6 whiffs on sinkers outside the zone, and all but one of those came on a pitch that was only about a ball length or less away from the edge.

For instance, take a look at this pitch to Nick Senzel.

That’s a beauty. It’s both high and a bit out of the zone. Honestly, that’s perfectly placed. That’s a perfect pitch location when Matz wants a hitter to expand the zone. The arm side run makes it drift out of the zone and that location is super enticing to hitters, especially when they’re down in the count.

Here’s another pitch to Brandon Drury, who whiffed four times against Matz’s sinker, making up exactly one third of Matz’s sinker whiffs. Poor Brandon Drury.

Again, excellent command. That was a theme as I watched each of the whiffs against Matz’s sinker. The velocity gain was huge, but Matz did a great job of keeping the ball off the plate and around the edges and that was key.

For further proof, look no further than Matz’s average exit velocity allowed. Reds hitters didn’t have a single batted ball hit touch 90 mph against Matz’s sinker, and they averaged just a touch over 80 mph. He kept the ball dancing off the edge of the plate all night and that made it a tough pitch to square up.

Here’s that 95 mph sinker working up in the zone. He didn’t get a whiff this time, but he did get weak contact from Joey Votto.

I mentioned it earlier, but Matz is a pitcher who doesn’t really get a ton of groundballs despite being a heavy sinkerballer. A hard hit ground ball isn’t likely going to go for extra bases, but a hard hit fly ball may clear the fence so he needs to generate plenty of weak contact because he is perhaps a little more at risk to the long ball than most sinkerballers.

He has a career home run rate of 1.42 per 9 innings. In contrast, Dakota Hudson, an extreme groundball pitcher who doesn’t have particularly impressive peripherals, has a career HR/9 of 0.88. Obviously there’s many other variations in between these two arms, but the point stands that Matz is probably going to give up more home runs that other sinkerballers and that he in particular, with his flyball tendency, needs to be careful with the contact that he allows.

This is why velocity is so important for Matz. It’s hard to square up a pitch that moves. It’s even harder to square up when it’s moving really fast. His sinker is dependent on velocity, and it’s dependent on keeping that velocity out of the middle of the plate.

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing Matz’s sinker, but that’s by design. It’s a make-or-break pitch for the 31-year-old. If he has it working, then he should be okay, but if the velocity is down or he isn’t commanding it well, then he won’t survive very long.

Now that we’ve seen how Matz was able to carve up the Reds lineup with his sinker, we can move on to other things, such as changeups and strike throwing.

I’ll keep it brief on the subject of changeups because I don’t have much new information to add. So instead, let’s just enjoy some videos of perfectly placed changeups.

Here’s the first of three Stuart Fairchild changeup whiffs.

Again, notice the perfect placement here. Just for fun I’m going to embed a few more videos because Matz owned that exact spot with his changeup.

To be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure that I didn’t just watch the same pitch four times.

I think you can guess how well hitters fare against changeups thrown in that spot. If you guessed not very, then you would be correct. Hitters have just a .163 wOBA against changeups thrown in that location. When Matz lives there with his changeup, he’ll be just fine.

When he pairs that changeup with 95 mph sinkers on the black, he’s pretty tough to hit. I’m kinda surprised the Reds were able to muster two runs off him to be honest.

This was Matz at his best. He was living on the edge, pitching with velocity, and locating his pitches right where they belonged. There was one more piece to the puzzle, though.

Matz threw a lot of strikes, which is important for him, but he also showed resilience when behind in the count.

First pitch strikes are important for pitchers. It’s an obvious fact that pitchers fare better when they are ahead in the count, and one only needs to look at Matz’s stats last season to confirm that.

Matz allowed a wOBA 70 points higher after throwing a first pitch ball instead of a first pitch strike last season and honestly, I’ve seen some pitchers have much bigger swings than that. Yet Matz was effective when pitching from behind in the count.

On Saturday, he threw 10 first pitch balls. In those 10 plate appearances, Reds hitters combined to go 1-for-9 with a walk and three strikeouts. In 9 of those plate appearances, his second pitch was a strike.

That’s impressive resilience. For Matz last season, the difference between a hitter getting 1-0 and a hitter getting 2-0 was over 100 points of wOBA. That’s the danger zone.

Through 1-0 counts, hitters had a .341 wOBA. That’s high, but honestly, not terrible. When a hitter went 2-0, that wOBA rose to .443. When Matz countered the first pitch ball with a second pitch strike, his wOBA allowed dropped to .272. That’s one heck of a difference.

It’s important for Matz to not let at-bats get away. First pitch strikes are important, but not letting a hitter get 2-0 is crucial.

Steven Matz Injury - Torn MCL (may return this season)

In case you didn’t watch the game on Saturday and haven’t seen the video of Matz getting hurt, here it is.

Everything was going great until that happened. Matz pitched really well and he showed a lot of promise in his first start back from injury, but now he’s back on the shelf. Sometimes baseball is a cruel mistress.

I thought he could be a solid pitcher down the stretch, but his injury has derailed that. The Cardinals apparently have hope that Matz could return by September but it’s still too early for me to feel that way too. I’m basically thinking of his situation the same way as I’m thinking about Flaherty’s. It would be great if it happened but foolish to bank on it.

That’s why the Cardinals’ need for a starter just got a lot bigger. They already could have used an arm to fortify the rotation, but now they need two. The team can’t afford to scrape together a rotation until September and hope that Matz comes back.

The rotation has Mikolas and Wainwright entrenched as the 1 and 2, but that makes Pallante and Hudson the next two most reliable starters. That’s not great and I honestly don’t even know who the fifth starter will be. Liberatore? Thompson? Naughton? Jake Woodford is listed on the 40-man roster but I’m not entirely sure that he exists so I’m not ready to call him an option. There aren’t any other options on the 40-man and none of those sound appealing.

The point is that the need just went from one arm to two and that’s not really negotiable.

There is not a world in which this team should be relying on Pallante or Hudson to pitch like a number 3 starter. Even asking them to be a number 4 makes me feel uncomfortable. Imagine rolling one of them out in the playoffs in a series tied 1-1. How much confidence would you have? Because my answer would be not a lot.

Get two starters and push one of them to the bullpen. If Matz can come back later in the year, then a problem of too much pitching really isn’t a problem at all.

Those two starters can’t be two back-end arms either. No J.A. Happs or Jon Lesters. The team needs a true number 3 starter at least. Pallante and Hudson simply don’t provide enough stability. The team needs another arm to provide quality and length in the middle of the rotation.

The trade deadline is rapidly approaching and I don’t think there’s a playoff contender with a clearer need. Pitching, pitching, and more pitching should be the plan. I know everyone likes to dream about Juan Soto, but will the Cardinals really give up a bunch of promising prospects to get Soto and then trade even more prospects for pitching? Talk about Patrick Corbin all you want but the Cardinals need at least one sure thing and sure things cost a lot in July and August.

Maybe the Cards trade for Soto but I would be shocked. As Connor said in his last article “arms, arms, arms”. Juan Soto does indeed have an arm, but not the kind that the St. Louis Cardinals are looking for.

I’ve been wrong plenty of times before, but I think it’s important that this deadline isn’t seen as a failure if the Cards don’t get Soto. It’s mostly a fan-filled, fake-MLB-insider fueled narrative anyway. Soto or not, a deadline that sees the Cardinals fortify their rotation is a success.

The Matz injury made it a necessity. We should all be expecting arms, and probably arms only, now.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent an article analyzing a start before, so thanks to those of you who requested this. I hope you enjoyed the piece because I enjoyed writing it!