Greetings.

I hope you had the best Christmas holiday weekend.

Time for another 2022-season report on a Cardinals pitcher. I’m still assessing the starters. It’s taken a lot of time to compile these babies, but I want to be thorough. And I use these look-backs to 2022 in a way that may help us set expectations for 2023.

NEXT UP: Lefty Steven Matz, who signed with St. Louis as a free agent before the 2022 season, securing a four-year deal for $44 million.

OVERVIEW: Matz had a strange and largely unfortunate first season for the Cardinals. His debut was blown up by two injuries, shoulder and knee, that limited him to 48 total innings. Though officially listed as making nine starts, the real number is eight. Martz was on the mound at Pittsburgh on May 22, warming up before the bottom of the first inning, but stopped throwing when his left shoulder flared with pain. (He never tossed a pitch in the game, so it seems ludicrous to count this as a start and I refuse to do so.)

After a lengthy shutdown, Matz returned at Cincinnati on July 23 and looked terrific, allowing two earned runs and striking out seven in 5.1 innings. But Matz tore the MLC in his left knee while attempting to field a tapper, and left the game for another IL stint that kept him sidelined until Sept. 17. The return was a bonus; when Matz damaged his knee the anticipation was that he’d miss the remainder of the season. He did a nice job out of the bullpen, pitching to a 1.69 ERA in five appearances.

THE STATS: I’ll go deeper into the performance later to mix in the proper context. But on the surface Martz was 5-3 with a 5.25 ERA in 14 games. And in his nine starts, the ERA was even worse at 5.70. I’m not trying to claim that his season was anything more than a significant disappointment, but he was better than his ERA indicated, and there were some definite positives that formed reasons for optimism in 2023. Obviously, the first challenge for Matz is staying healthy. Which brings us to the next section …

OMINOUS INJURY HISTORY: The Cardinals were aware of Matz’s injury history before offering him the four-year, $44 million deal. Including last season’s breakdowns, Martz has missed 390 in-season days in a MLB career that began in late June, 2015. The time lost includes 129 days lost to shoulder miseries, 103 days missed with elbow problems, and 56 days scratched due to the knee injury. In all, Matz has been paid $6.620 million over his 390 days out of service.

2022, THE BAD: Other than the injuries, the low innings count and the inflated ERA? That’s most of it. Here’s more: When Matz was physically able to make his starts, he was jarred for eight home runs, eight doubles and a .451 slugging percentage in 42.2 innings. The average exit velocity against Martz went up by 4.3 percent last season. He was in the bottom 22 percent of MLB pitchers in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone.

INCONSISTENT SINKER: Matz had extreme results with his favorite pitch, the sinker. In 76 at-bats against Matz’s sinking fastball opponents walloped three doubles and five homers, batted .303, and pounded out a .539 slugging percentage. Even if we go with the Statcast-generated adjustments, the expected average on the sinker was .285, with an expected slug of .420. And while it’s normal to expect a high ground-ball rate on the sinker, that didn’t happen for Matz in 2022. Despite using his sinker on 48.5 percent of his pitches, he finished the season with the lowest ground-ball rate (38.3%) of his career in a full season. On the encouraging side, Matz commanded an outstanding 34.5 percent strikeout rate on his sinker.

2022, THE GOOD: The St. Louis rotation is low on strikeout force, but that doesn’t apply to Matz. Last season, when used as a starter, he finished in the top 30 percent in the majors with a fine strikeout rate of 27.4%. His whiff (swing-miss) rate was in the top 35 percent of MLB pitchers, and his walk rate (4.8%) was in the top nine percent. Matz had a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.7.

I’ve addressed his erratic sinker, but Matz had very good results with his changeup, and Statcast rated his curveball and (seldom-used) slider as plus pitches.

Velocity wasn’t an issue; for the third consecutive season his fastball averaged 94.5 mph. That was fast enough to be in the top 34 percent of MLB pitchers.

In addition Matz in 2022 had an increase in strikeout rate, an increase in whiff rate, an increase in first-pitch strike percentage, and a decrease in walk rate.

PUTTING HIS NUMBERS IN CONTEXT: I’ve told you about the high ERA overall (5.25) and his ERA (5.70) as a starter. But in this case taking a closer look is helpful. Here are a few things that drew my attention:

Of the eight home runs blasted against Martz in his 42.2 innings as a starter, four came in two starts in which he lasted only five total innings. That means Matz gave up four home runs in his other 37.2 innings as a starter, and there’s nothing bad about that.

If you take away his two worst starts – vs. Pittsburgh in the season’s opening series, and then May 7 at San Francisco – Matz had a starter ERA of 2.86. And an overall ERA of 2.72.

Those terrible starts counted, so I’m not trying to pull a con job here. But Matz had an above-average game score in five of his eight starts, and was nicked for only one run in five relief appearances. His two worst starts were extreme in nature, and he had another clunker in his April 27 start against the Mets, allowing four earned runs in four innings.

Batted-ball luck matters, and Matz didn’t have much good luck in 2022. Among 194 MLB starting pitchers who worked at least 40 innings last season, Matz had the 12th highest batting average against on balls in play. Sometimes the ball doesn’t find a fielder’s glove – and finds holes instead.

The poor luck on batted balls in play explains why Matz had a much different ERA when we used Fielding Independent ERA. His standard ERA as a starter was 5.70. But his fielding independent ERA as a starter was 3.93. His expected ERA, per FanGraphs, was 3.64. That gave me a lot to think about.

Of course, this can also be said: Matz probably would have ended up with a better ERA than 5.70 if he’d gotten more ground balls for the excellent STL infield to dispose of. In 2022, per Fielding Bible, the Cardinals infield led the majors with 50 Defensive Runs Saved. The low GB rate meant more fly balls in the air. Pitching for Toronto in 2021, Matz had a 45.5 percent ground ball rate and a GB/FLY ratio of 1.40. In his first season with the Cardinals, the GB/FLY ratio dropped to 1.08 – his lowest rate in a full MLB season. And the increase in fly balls led to this: 16 percent of his fly balls went over the outfield barriers for home runs. That’s too high and could be classified as an outlier.

Busch Stadium offered Matz home-run protection last season. On the road he was smacked for an average of 1.7 homers per nine innings. At Busch, the HR rate was a much higher 1.2 per nine. On the road Matz was struck by opponents for a home run in 4.5 percent of the plate appearances; at Busch that HR rate was a much lower 3.05%. On the road 19.2 percent of the fly balls hit against Matz went for homers; at Busch that rate was a more reasonable 12.5%. Five of the eight home runs against Matz occurred on the road in 2022.

CONCLUSION: Other than Jack Flaherty, no Cardinal starter is more crucial to the rotation’s success in 2023. Matz will go back into the spot vacated by Jose Quintana, the splendid trade acquisition who came through in a big way for the Cardinals late last season, crafting a 1.85 ERA in 13 starts including his 5.1 shutout innings against the Phillies in Game 1 of the NL wild-card series. The Cardinals let Quintana move on as a free agent, and the Mets took advantage of the STL decision by signing Quintana to a two-year contract worth $26 million.

If Matz can stay healthy – big question – fix his sinker to entice more grounders, continue to pump strikeouts and experience enhanced batted-ball luck, he’ll be in line for a more impressive season. But let’s be realistic here. In his eight big-league seasons Martz has exceeded 2.0 WAR only two times: as a Met (2.8) in 2016, and as a Blue Jay (2.5) in 2021. Moreover, Matz has never pitched more than 160 innings in a season. The Steamer projections have him at 124 innings and a 1.5 WAR in 2023. That isn’t good enough. The pressure is on. Not for just Matz, either. The St. Louis front may have been too charmed by what Matz did for Toronto in ‘21. (A 14-7 record, 150.2 innings, 3.82 ERA.)

No one expects Steven Matz to pitch like a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. But the Cardinals obviously didn’t sign him to be the next Mike Leake, who lasted less than two years here (2016-2017) after the Cardinals gave him a free–agent deal worth $80 million over five seasons. The Cardinals had to eat $15 million of Leake’s contract to ship him to Seattle. In 56 starts for the Cardinals, Leake went 16-24 with a 4.46 ERA. The Cards won only 24 of his 56 starts.

Matz has more talent than Leake. He’s capable of pitching to a higher level. But potential only goes so far for a pitcher who turns 32 in May.

I don’t want to give Matz a grade for 2022 because the injuries took him down, and his ledger was incomplete. But if we want to take a less charitable view and go by the cost of his contract, the expectations, and the modest first-year benefit, Matz would be a D minus. His 2022 wasn’t a total washout; the Cardinals were 5-3 in his starts and 9-5 in all of his appearances.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.