As wish-list rankings go, Steven Matz may not be the starting pitcher you put at the top of your board. He may not be the pitcher you wanted. He may have gotten a bah-humbug kind of reaction from ya. I wish I could do a scientific poll, but I can’t.
Like many of you, I was dreaming of a Max Scherzer Thanksgiving. And if that didn’t happen, I was envisioning a fantasy of Marcus Stroman signing a big deal with the Cardinals close to spring training, after the owners and players drop their propaganda campaigns and agree to a new labor deal.
But with the news of a four-year, $44 million deal between the Cardinals and Matz, I’d be stunned by a subsequent STL move for a high-end starting pitcher. Other than making a depth addition, which they should do, the Cardinals appear set in their five-man rotation.
Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Matz, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson. It’s nice to see a lefty in the middle of that row of starters.
And while he may not be the consensus top choice of the BFIB, I’m confident Matz will help the Cardinals. Just because Matz ain’t Scherzer, it doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective starter for his new team. And if you’re frustrated by the Cardinals’ jumping in on a moderately-priced starter instead of Scherzer or Strorman or Kevin Gausman or Robbie Ray — that’s fine. But it’s also a separate issue. I’m here to explain why I believe Matz will be an asset.
1) Matz is a match for what the Cardinals are. He’s a match for their home ballpark. He will greatly benefit from their brilliant, award-winning defense. He’ll be snapping 95 mph sinkers that will skip in the grass and dirt to a Cardinal infielder who will throw to first for the out.
2) Do you think great defense will help Mr. Matz? Oh, yeah. He should benefit in a major way. He’s never had a defense behind him that’s as excellent as the St. Louis defense. Matz had a 45.5 percent ground ball rate last season and brings a career 47% GB rate to St. Louis. As a Met, hitters batted .250 against Matz on ground balls. Over the past three seasons St. Louis pitchers have allowed a .207 average on grounders. That Cardinal defense matters.
3) From 2015 through 2020 with the Mets, here’s what this noted ground-ball pitcher had to deal with: the Mets were minus 157 defensive runs saved overall, and a minus 163 defensive runs saved in the infield. (The outfield defense was generally decent, and that explains the discrepancy.) During Matz’s time with NYM, their defense had an average yearly ranking of 23rd among the 30 teams in defensive runs saved. And the Mets’ infield defense was near the bottom of the majors for ineptitude. The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays had a plus defense overall, and that played a role in Matz posting a lower ERA (3.82.) Even though the Jays had a plus rating for infield defense, much of that was due to exceptional play by one fielder, second baseman Marcus Semien.
4) When the sinkerball ain’t sinking, Matz is victimized by home runs. But some of that can be blamed on his poor — and outlier — 2020 pandemic-shortened season. Making roughly half his starts at friend-of-pitcher Busch Stadium will take some of the air out of the fly balls struck against Matz. It should be a very comfortable yard for him. This is crucial, because Matz has been vulnerable from a power standpoint when facing righthanded hitters. (It wasn’t too bad last season, though.) Key stat: over the past five seasons, RH batters have a weak .365 slugging percentage at Busch Stadium. That includes a .362 slug at Busch in 2021.
5) Martz isn’t one of the top innings-munchers in the majors, but he isn’t light in his IP volume. In his last three full seasons he’s averaged 155 innings and 29.6 starts. Last season Matz averaged 5.2 innings per start. Cardinals starting pitchers averaged 5.1 innings per outing in 2021. As for the quality of his pitching in his last full three seasons, Matz has a 4.00 ERA in front of mostly porous defenses.
His average Game Score in 2021 was an above-average 51.3. If we compare that to the 2021 Cardinals, only Wainwright and Flaherty had a higher average Game Score than Matz.
Like many starters in today’s game, Matz does just fine in his first two times facing a lineup during a game. But his pitching frequently deteriorates when he takes on a lineup for the third time through.
6) Matz isn’t a strikeout guy, per se. And he doesn’t have huge swing-and–whiff stuff, but he keeps his walks under control. He also fields his position well, and saved three runs defensively for the Jays in 2021.
7) Matz had injury issues early in his career as a heralded Mets prospect. But that seems to be behind him. His struggles in 2020 weren’t related to injuries. He had a bout with Covid last season and missed a couple of starts. But after the All-Star break he had a 2.91 ERA in 14 starts — including a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts over the final two months. Pitching against the best AL East teams isn’t easy; the NL Central won’t be as imposing.
8) Matz turns 31 in May, and he may be poised to give the Cardinals the best pitching of his career. I say that because of the new setting: the home ballpark, the defense, the NL Central and a chance to work for an organization that has a strong record of making pitchers better.
9) I cannot lie: during his career Matz has been beaten up by the better teams, and has a 4.30 ERA in opponents that have a winning percentage between .500 and .599. He thrives against the weaker teams, and the NL Central should be weaker in 2022.
10) Don’t go ga-ga over the 14 “wins” posted by Martz for Toronto last season. He had the best run support by an American League starter last season based on runs scored per 27 outs when he worked.
11) The Blue Jays didn’t make a qualifying offer to Matz, so the Cardinals won’t lose a compensatory draft pick for signing the lefty. That’s always a plus.
12) Finally, here’s an assessment from FanGraphs:
“Sentenced to the harsh and borderline cruel punishment of having to pitch in the AL East, Matz was a surprisingly positive and stable presence in the back of Toronto’s rotation, making 29 starts and throwing 150.2 innings of sub-4.00 ERA ball. And while the overall numbers weren’t anything special or pretty, they were both a massive improvement from his dreadful 2020 and in line with his better years on the Mets, suggesting that the pandemic-shortened season was more blip, or at least worst-case scenario, than ominous portent. Still, the upside here no longer feels very high. A sinker-first pitcher like Matz will always live or die with his defense, and the Jays’ piecemeal and sluggish infield did him no favors in that regard. Nor is there anything in his profile to suggest there’s another level to reach, barring a massive change in velocity, arsenal or approach. By this point, Matz is what he is: a mid-tier starter with good control who’ll toss a gem every now and again. You can do better, but you can also do far worse.”
I like Matz. I believe he will help and is a fit as a middle or back-end rotation piece. The 4-year, $44 million investment was reasonable.
But the Cardinals still must make their team better. And the front office still has plenty of work to do.
Thanks for reading, and I hope all of you have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.