Mets LHP Steven Matz is a pivotal player for the Mets, which means the difference between making or missing the playoffs could hinge on how he performs in 2019.
Assuming each takes the mound 30 times this season, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard will again be among the league's elite pitchers. There's every reason to believe Zack Wheeler, in his walk year, will continue his terrific turn-around from 2018. Jason Vargas (and the pitchers behind him) should never be counted on to be a difference-maker at any point in the season.
This leaves Matz, who, at 27 years old, is at a make-or-break point in his career. And he could be poised for a breakout.
The fact is, as he enters what is historically considered a player's prime, he's had just one impact season out of the four he's thrown in the big leagues. Also at play are his total innings on the mound, during which a player gains experience and knowledge about how to pitch as opposed to just throwing.
At this point in the career of a left-handed starting pitcher like Matz, most guys have thrown 650 innings and made 120 starts. Matz has essentially half that work load under his belt, which means he has spent 50 percent less time learning and feeling out situations than many who have come before him.
Matz is up to the challenge, though. He may be quiet and one of the most friendly, nicest people in baseball. But, at his core, he's as competitive as deGrom and Syndergaard.
Health has been his big obstacle in his previous seasons. Matz began his professional life by having Tommy John surgery, which delayed the start of his career. Since then, he's dealt with and eventually had a bone spur removed from his elbow, he's had his ulnar nerve moved, he had an issue with his finger and has battled a variety of back issues, all of which were reportedly received with frustration by the organization.
"He needs to understand that pitchers pitch in pain, it's part of life," a clubhouse source told me in 2017, parroting a talking point that existed within the front office as well. "The great pitchers aren't just great because they're healthy. The difference is that they learned to prepare between starts, they've learned how to manage their body, pitch through whatever their issue is that day and allow themselves to be great."
Matz projects to have a low 4.00 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP and his typical low 90s fastball and traditional swinging-strike rate, according to a composite of all the major statistical systems.
The above is likely a 2.0 WAR season and perfectly fine for third or fourth starting pitcher. Matz and the Mets will enter this coming season in hopes of more production, though.
In 2018, he reached a career-high in starts (30) and innings pitched (154). According to his friends and family, after finally staying on the mound for a full season, Matz has been given a sense of relief never experienced during his first seven years as a professional baseball player.
In other words, if he's going to take the next step in his career, which would mean another 30 starts, closer to 200 innings, an ERA lower than 3.30 and at least 3.5 WAR while receiving national attention, this is it. This is the year to make it happen. And if it does, suddenly the Mets will have three aces (potentially four if Wheeler carries over his 2018 success) and without question the best rotation in MLB.
Hopefully, going 150 innings, pitching through pain and making 30 starts put his past frustrations to bed and gave Matz the experience and lessons needed to repeat his workload.
Because, when healthy and strong, Matz knows he can pitch on par with his best friend, deGrom.
"They room together, their families are close, they support each-other through good and bad, but they also have a healthy competition," former Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen told me during spring training, 2016. "I'd love to see them both at the top of their game and what that dynamic would be like for a full season."
In 2016, deGrom missed all of September to undergo surgery that decompressed and repositioned the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow. According to deGrom, this alleviated a significant amount of chronic pain, which in large part helped him throw 200 innings in 2017 and become the best pitcher in the National League in 2018.
Matz underwent the same surgery in late 2017. And, like deGrom the year after his surgery, Matz finished with a career-high in innings and starts in a season. Now, I'm not saying he will elevate his game and become the best pitcher in the National League in year two just because that's what his happened to his buddy deGrom. But, damn, wouldn't that be nice if it did happen...
Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen never discussed Matz in trade proposals with other teams this offseason, according to team sources. Van Wagenen, manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland believe Matz crossed a career threshold in 2018 that he's mentally and physically capable of building on in 2019.
"He's got a tremendous arm. I love the way he throws inside to righties, so he neutralizes that component that usually hurts a left-handed starting pitcher, and he's gonna continue to improve," Callaway said on WFAN earlier this winter. "He's a great worker, a great guy, and Eiland is gonna get him where he needs to be."
Eiland and Callaway are on record saying they spent a lot of time last season helping Matz break down his game pitch-by-pitch, looking at each moment as an isolated event with its own unique context. During games that he was not pitching, Eiland would encourage Matz to put himself in the mind of the pitcher and hitter to continue the task of thinking about each solitary moment.
My hope is that Matz continues using the same release point that he used after returning from the DL last summer. The adjustment ended up getting hitters to swing more at pitches inside the strike zone. The weak contact helped him throw fewer pitches each inning, which played a large role in him reaching 150 innings. To do this for a full season, especially if he uses his curveball more frequently than he has, Matz should have no trouble creating quick innings and pushing on 200 innings for the season.
In addition, it's important to keep Matz pitching every five days.
I've heard Eiland believes it is important for Matz to keep his body and mind moving and never allowing for downtime, which can tighten up muscles and allow doubt and bad habits to creep in.
From what I can gather, at the end of this past season, Eiland prepared a strength and conditioning and pitching program for Matz that will keep him loose and throwing every few days, including throwing multiple bullpen sessions between starts during the season. The plan, like it was for deGrom lat season, was to start the programs a few weeks after the end of this past season.
To date, Matz has been frequently described as having "good stuff," and a lot of "potential." He took a big step toward being the pitcher he hoped to be when the Mets drafted him out of Ward Melville High School in 2009.
Finally, the evidence, experience and stars are aligned for him to put all of the above behind him and add his name to the mix of pitchers considered to be among the best in baseball.
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Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!