It was only a few weeks ago that I legitimately began to wonder if Steven Matz was done.
Call it the symptoms of being a Mets fan, but after an injury-plagued and otherwise generally brutal 2017 season, Matz’s first two spring starts had me thinking he wouldn’t even break camp with the team. He was pulled in the second inning of his first start without recording an out, and he failed to pitch through the first inning of his second start. But the Stony Brook native’s next few Spring Training starts saw him turn a corner, as he threw four scoreless innings against the Tigers followed by two runs in 4.1 against the Marlins.
Matz’s breaking ball looked like it had a sharper break, his fastball had more life, and his control had improved. He followed this up with nine strikeouts in six innings against the reigning champion Astros, a lineup that was almost identical to their lineup for Game 7 of the World Series. It’s pretty clear Matz has figured something out, but what is it?
According to Mets manager Mickey Callaway, his “conviction” is the difference. Kristie Ackert of The Daily News implied that may have meant that Matz wasn’t finishing his pitches, a bad habit he picked up while he was dealing with elbow issues last year. This would certainly explain the lack of sharpness on the curve and fastball. Pitching coach Dave Eiland also mentioned that Matz was dragging his arm behind him in his delivery, something that could potentially cause control issues. Matz’s K/BB rate dropped from 4.16 in 2016 to 2.53 in 2017, while his WHIP ballooned from 1.21 to 1.53, so location was definitely an issue.
Let’s see if we can notice these mechanical differences in Matz’s delivery. Below are two gifs for comparison. The first is from a Sunday Night Baseball game this past August, Matz’s third to last start before his season was cut short for elbow surgery.
The second is from his most recent Spring Training start. Bear in mind that in this case, although both pitches result in a strikeout, we’re strictly concerned with his delivery. It’s also worth noting that any difference we mind will definitely be subtle.
A few things stuck out in the 5,000 times I watched these side-by-side. Regarding Matz “finishing his pitches,” we can notice him tailing off a little bit toward third base right at the end of the first GIF. This isn’t his left leg kicking around on his follow-through; he just does that on occasion, probably much to the chagrin of Dave Eiland. In driving toward the plate however, his body weight drifts off to the right a bit, when ideally he would rather continue his motion toward the plate.
If I were to venture a guess, I’d say this is a result of Matz’s overcompensating for his elbow discomfort by rotating the rest of his body more, which may help a bit with maintaining velocity but doesn’t allow him to finish his pitches the way he normally does. In the second gif, we see him driving forward and finishing forward, which could not only return him to his 2016 form, but also prevent any potential hip or oblique injuries from twisting the way he was.
Even more subtle is the arm drag mentioned by Eiland. In GIF 1, Matz opens his hips, followed shortly by the arm. To compare, GIF 2 shows Matz’s hips, shoulder, and arm all directed toward the plate at around the same time, which is much closer to ideal than gif one. To generate the most power and consistency, a pitcher should have each individual body part working together. Last season, likely due to his elbow problems, Matz was opening his hips just a little early, which not only lost him some power, but also caused accuracy issues and maybe even contributed to his arm trouble. As you can see in GIF 2, it seems like Eiland helped him iron out these mechanical issues, and the result was nine strikeouts against one of the best offenses in baseball.
It’s always difficult to tell if mechanics tweaks will help or hurt a player. Every pitcher is built differently, and therefore everyone’s delivery is unique. But if early indicators are any sign, this kid who played beer pong with my best friend’s Mom once could be back on track. There are still some minor issues with his delivery (his release point has varied a great deal over his Major League career, as discussed here), but let’s take the small victories where we can get them. Eiland and Callaway may have fixed Steven Matz, and this is great news for Mets fans.