Steven Matz, on the hill Thursday afternoon against the Rockies, entered the 2018 season coming off an injury-shortened 2017 campaign in which he put up a brutal 6.08 ERA. Amid doubts of his ability to pitch in a major league rotation as well as health scares, he has surprised with a 3.31 ERA in his 13 starts -- the same number he made before being shut down last season.
But questions remain about his peripherals as well as his durability as the Mets consider what their pitching staff will look like in the second half and beyond.
The results for Matz could not be more different than they were last year. He has allowed just 24 earned runs over 65.1 innings, after allowing 45 over the same timeframe in 2017. Batters have hit just .221 against him, and his 52.5 percent ground ball rate is the best of his career.
But there are a number of red flags that point to the potential for Matz to regress. He is striking out just 7.9 batters per nine innings -- an improvement over a terrible 2017, but still below league average as well as below his career average. Even more worrisome is that his walk rate has leapt to 3.9 per nine innings, much higher than his mark last season, which was in line with his career numbers. His home run rate is well above average and has not improved meaningfully over his 2017.
In fact, Matz's peripherals are so similar to last year's that his FIP is identical -- 5.05. His only notable difference is in the batting average on balls in play. His .329 BABIP last season was unusually high, but his .244 so far this season is low enough to make him a prime candidate to start running into bad luck. His ground ball tendencies will help this, but that effect will be largely offset by the fact that he's giving up a fair amount of hard contact.
While he is almost certainly going to start giving up more hits sooner rather than later, there are other ways he can keep his ERA and his team on track. The biggest area of improvement for him is in his walk rate. He's not missing the zone more than he did previously, but he's not garnering as many swings on pitches outside, and his swinging strike rate is much too low. His velocity is solid, so this points to issues with deception and movement.
Working with the coaching staff and his catchers on location and changing planes will pay dividends for Matz in other regards, too. He's never going to be a strikeout machine -- and he shouldn't try to be -- but his current rate is low enough to be a real barrier to dominance.
If he can get up over eight strikeouts per nine innings, it would be good place for him. And a higher swinging strike rate is the key to getting there. It should also result in lower quality contact than what he's giving up currently, which will keep his BABIP from rebounding too badly when his luck runs out.
But the single best thing working for Matz right now is his health. Whether he regresses when hits start falling in, or he improves his peripherals and stays sharp, he needs to prove he's free of the aches and strains that have plagued his entire career. His ability this season to get out there every five days and pitch will ultimately make everything else possible.
Maggie Wiggin (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Archive Posts) has been a Mets fan since birth and a MetsBlog contributor since 2013. She loves throwing hard and hitting hard and hates the DH. When baseball is out of season, she fills her days with data analysis and evaluation and patiently waits for Spring