Deeper Dive: Steven Matz to the Cardinals

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Much to the chagrin (at the time, anyway) of Mets owner Steve Cohen, Steven Matz inked a four-year, $44 million contract with the Cardinals in late November following a nice season with the Blue Jays.

It was the Mets who dealt Matz to Toronto just under a year ago in a trade which basically amounted to a salary dump. In hindsight, the Mets probably wish they could’ve had that one back after the left-hander put together a nice year in Toronto and his former club battled injuries and inconsistency in their rotation.

In 29 starts for the Blue Jays last season, Matz posted a 3.82 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 144/43 K/BB ratio over 150 2/3 innings. That includes a 2.91 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 14 outings after the All-Star break, although his strikeout rate dipped to 7.5 K/9 during that time.

The 94.5 mph Matz averaged with his fastball in 2021 matched his 2020 mark and is the hardest he’s ever thrown the pitch over a full season, up a tick from his career average of 93.7 mph. It’s good velocity, particularly for a left-hander.

The pitch is a bit unusual, as Matz throws a sinker but often tries to spot it at the top of the zone. It’s surely a big reason why he’s had issues with the home run ball during his career even though he induces ground balls at an above-average rate. Matz did limit dingers in 2021, though, surrendering only 18. Amazingly, he gave up just four fewer than that in 2020 in only 30 2/3 innings.

The great news for Matz is that his new home, Busch Stadium, is a good cure for gopheritis. Per Baseball Savant’s Park Factors, Busch ranked 29th out of 30parks for home runs and it also ranked 29th in overall Park Factors. Over the last three years, it ranks 26th out of 29 parks for homers.

Also working in Matz’s favor will be the defense behind him. The Cardinals became the first team in major league history to have five Gold Glove winners in 2021, and they led the National League with 81 Defensive Runs Saved (only the Rangers had more in all of MLB). As things stand right now, St. Louis looks to have the same projected starters at each position, so the defense should be elite again in 2022.

Between the pitcher-friendly park and the slick defense behind him, Matz is already off to a good start in terms of projected runs suppression. Getting to work with Yadier Molina can’t hurt, either.

On the downside, Matz almost surely isn’t going to have nearly the same run support in 2022 that he had in 2021. His runs support per inning (RS/IP) last season was 7.5, which was easily the highest in the American League. Matz picked up half of his career-high 14 wins in games where he failed to record a quality start. The Blue Jays ranked third in baseball in runs in 2021, while the Cardinals came in at 20th. Yes, wins are fickle, but odds are Matz probably won’t be as lucky in 2022.

Matz has always been extremely consistent from a walks and strikeouts perspective. He’s never struck out a batter per inning over a full season, but he’s also never dipped below 8.6 K/9. His walk rate has also stayed in the 2.1-2.9 BB/9 range outside of 2018, when he had a 3.4 BB/9 mark. Among 55 pitchers who reached 150 innings in 2021, Matz was essentially right in the middle of the pack at 31 with a 3.35 K/BB rate.

Could Matz benefit from a change in pitch mix? Perhaps. He’s been throwing his sinker less the last three seasons than he did in his first few years in the league. However, it’s still easily his most-used pitch and the numbers say he should probably drop its usage further. Matz’s changeup was his most successful offering in 2021 and he has been utilizing it more in recent years.

Durability has been an issue with Matz in the past, but he has made at least 29 starts in each of the last three full seasons. His career high in innings is just 160 1/3, though, as he doesn’t typically pitch all that deep into games. Matz’s managers no doubt have noticed that the opposition usually tees off against him when he faces them a third time, which was particularly the case in 2021 when they hit .303/.366/.504 with seven homers in 131 plate appearances.

All told, the profile with Matz looks pretty ho-hum. That said, he also doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses aside from occasional home run issues, and that aspect should be helped greatly with his new situation. From a fantasy perspective, I suspect he’ll be a solid investment, albeit one lacking upside.

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