There's no doubting the top of the New York Mets' starting rotation. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard pack enough firepower to flash "No mas" on a radar gun, and some pretty good numbers, too.
But what of Steven Matz? As the left-hander prepares for his first full major league season, our inner pitching junkie can't help but wonder if he could turn the Mets' vaunted trio into a vaunted foursome.
Duh, say the Mets. Or so we can presume, anyway. Though Matz has only made a total of nine major league starts, the reigning National League champs have slotted the 24-year-old into the No. 4 spot in their 2016 rotation. And as far as his skipper is concerned, Matz could be a No. 4 starter in name only.
According to Mike Gavin of Newsday, Mets manager Terry Collins said in December:
If you can get him out there, let’s just say 28 times, he’s going to win a lot of games. I talked to a number of people that came up and have seen him in the minor leagues. There are those guys who think as he gets better, as he gets a little more under his belt, he’ll be as good, if not better, than anyone on this staff. Those are big statements.
The big prospect rankings are also big fans of Matz. MLB.com pegs him as the No. 15 prospect in baseball, noting that he has "frontline starter potential." Baseball America likes him even better at No. 13. Baseball Prospectus likes Matz the most, putting him at No. 9.
Trouble is, hype and reality can agree about as well as two guys in a Monty Python routine. That puts us in a position where we actually need to, you know, think for ourselves about how well Matz is equipped to live up to the hype.
If nothing else, it bodes well that you don't need a microscope to see where the hype is coming from.
Matz had to fight hard to get over a 2010 Tommy John operation, and he's been successful ever since. He posted a 2.25 ERA and struck out over a batter per inning in parts of four minor league seasons, and he kept it up with a 2.69 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 50.1 big league innings last year.
Even better, though, is how obvious it is that certain elements of Matz's game are big league-ready.
Matz is universally regarded as having a plus fastball and a plus changeup, and that could actually be underselling his heater. Matz sat in the 94-95 mph range with his four-seamer, and Baseball Prospectus tells us it also featured elite arm-side run:
|Top Four-Seam Horizontal Movement in 2015|
|Rank||Player||Team||Velo (mph)||H Mov (In)|
|1||Chris Sale||White Sox||95.6||11.3|
|4||Rich Hill||Red Sox||90.8||9.1|
With movement like that, it's understandable that Matz's fastball is often referred to as a sinker. And because he and Chris Sale are the only pitchers here whose four-seamers featured both elite movement and mid-90s velocity, Baseball America may be right in thinking that Matz's heater is actually a double-plus pitch.
Matz's changeup, meanwhile, also showed off elite arm-side run in 2015. Between that and how its average of 83.6 miles per hour created a sizable velocity differential from his fastball, you can't blame right-handed batters for struggling with it. Per Brooks Baseball, they hit just .158 against it with zero extra-base hits.
What makes life even more difficult for opposing hitters is Matz's control. Albeit in a limited sample size, he found the strike zone at a Phil Hughes-ian rate of 55 percent in 2015. It's unlikely that he'll be able to do that again, but it speaks to how smooth and easy to repeat his pitching mechanics are.
With an above-average fastball and changeup and above-average control, one is left looking for nits to pick with Matz's talent. In the past, the easy one has been his "meh" breaking ball. But now, Matz spins curveballs about as well as he spins literally everything else.
Eno Sarris of FanGraphs highlighted last October how hard Matz has had to work on his curveball, and it paid off in the majors. Matz's curve accounted for 20 percent of his pitches, and opposing batters hit just .222 with one extra-base hit against it.
“I feel really comfortable with the curveball now,” Matz told Sarris.
The thinking now is that Matz's curveball is at least a solid pitch, and it really doesn't take a leap of faith to think that it could be better than solid. As The Pitcher List can show us in GIF form, Matz's hook was occasionally good enough last season to cause actual pain:
If the progress Matz made with his curveball last year goes nowhere in 2016, he may not necessarily be reduced to a mere fastball-changeup pitcher. Sarris noted in another article that Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen has had great success teaching the team's top pitchers a particularly nasty slider, and Matz could be next on the list if he needs a new breaking ball in a pinch.
Of course, the real test Matz is facing in 2016 may have nothing to do with what he can do when he's on the mound. It could have a lot more to do with how often he's even able to get on the mound.
Matz's talent has gotten him far, but he and the injury bug have been way too tight with one another. Matz's 2010 Tommy John operation wasn't the end of his hurts, as he's also dealt with knee, back, lat and shoulder woes. No thanks to these, his modest 155.2 innings in 2015 represent his career high.
This may not be a deal-breaker for other prospect gurus, but it is for ESPN.com's Keith Law. He only put Matz as high as No. 37 in his top 100, with Matz's injury history being the key reason why.
Law told Joe Giglio of NJ Advanced Media:
He just has no history of staying healthy. That's why he's below the other three currently in their rotation. Yes, deGrom and Harvey have had their Tommy John moments, but they have been durable otherwise. With Matz, it's always something. He's never gone past 150, 160 innings in a year, so it's hard to say he'll be able to become that 200-inning ace so many think he already is.
Still, the fact that Matz's innings have at least gone up every year he's been in the pros provides one excuse for optimism. And there are more!
The Mets aren't expecting too much from Matz in 2016. In speaking to Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com, Collins set Matz's bar at 190 innings. He's the right guy to get him there, too. Collins gained plenty of experience and had plenty of success with keeping the club's young guns healthy throughout 2015, so it's no wonder he isn't sweating the prospect of more heading into 2016.
“We went into the second half of the season with pitching issues that had to be handled and had to be dealt with,” Collins told Rubin. “Hopefully next year, with what these guys have gone through this year, that won’t be the case. It might be, ‘Hey, look, we want to skip a guy here.’”
This shouldn't be taken as a full-blown guarantee that Matz's body is going to cooperate. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger can erase Matz's injury history. But even if trouble does occur, Matz might still be able to give the Mets their 28 starts and 190 innings. That's only three more starts and about 35 more innings than he pitched last year.
This is to say, there's actually a decent chance of Matz living up to the hype. His durability is a red flag, but the Mets are just the team to deal with it. If that goes well, Matz's sheer talent will do the rest.
And then, the rest of Major League Baseball will have another reason to envy the Mets' starting rotation.