Steven Matz is the newest St. Louis Cardinal. He was signed just prior to Thanksgiving of 2021 for the 2022 season. Let's just get out of the way that I am not a fan of this move. I honestly think that Matz would have been the fallback option we needed in late February if everyone else fell through. I initially said that I thought that this combined the idea behind the deal for Marcell Ozuna (an area of need but finding a guy with really one good season in his career happening in the prior year) and the idea behind the Mike Leake deal (feeling that they needed to pay big-ish money to an established pitcher, but just picking the wrong one). They did avoid two major pitfalls of those deals, though. The price point for Matz is one year shorter and half the money of the Leake deal, although Mike Leake was a better pitcher at the time than Steven Matz is now.
Now, this opinion could change if the Cardinals add an actual 1-3 starter rather than just Steven Matz. That all said, I do hope the best for Matz, just as I do for everyone who wears a Cardinals uniform. I hope that what he found in Toronto, away from the dumpster fire known as the New York Mets (at least when Matz was there), is sustainable and keeps Matz going through his age 34 season with the Cardinals - as the deal that he signed was a 4-year deal worth $44M (and up to $48M if he meets incentives).
Why down on Matz?
First I want to explain my position on Matz. Steven Matz had a quite decent 2021 season. In 2021, he was 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.334 WHIP in 29 starts. He threw 150 2/3 innings in that time. Matz has thrown in parts of 7 seasons with the Mets and the Blue Jays. He has been healthy enough to make 29 or more starts three times. He also has made 22 or less starts four times. In the three seasons in which he made 29 or 30 starts, he averaged just 155 innings. So let's get this straight. If Matz is at his absolute best for four straight seasons, aged 31-34, the Cardinals should hope to get about 120 starts and about 620 innings out of him. That's it.
Matz's career ERA is 4.24. In the three full seasons in which he averaged 155 innings, he averaged a 4.00 ERA. Matz's career ERA is backed up by a career FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching ERA estimator) of 4.34 - showing that he has been ever so slightly lucky to get the ERA that he did. However, his 4.00 xFIP (which regresses FIP with a HR rate against that is league average) shows that he might have been ever so slightly unlucky instead. He also has an xERA (expected ERA based on launch angle and exit velocity of all balls put into play plus the expected stats from walks and hit by pitches and strikeouts) of 4.26 - nearly exactly his career ERA.
So what's that compared to league average? Matz's ERA is 4% worse than league average for his career and so is his FIP. Matz's xFIP is actually 6% better than league average. There's really nothing there at all to show that Matz has been better than his ERA says he is for his career. However, pitchers change.
But all he has to do is be better than what we had last year!
One push back that I kept getting on my stance is that he'll just be better than last year's motley crew. I certainly hope so. He's replacing three lefties in Wade LeBlanc, JA Happ, and Jon Lester that were absolutely horrendous before coming to St. Louis. They were less bad in St. Louis. Let's look at what they did when they came over, combined.
31 starts (would be a career high for Matz)
161 2/3 innings (would be a career high for Matz)
4.05 ERA (would beat Matz's career ERA)
75 runs allowed on 699 total batters faced (better than Matz's 83 per 699 for his career)
8.4% BB rate (Matz has been better than that all but one year in his career)
15.5% K rate (Matz has been much better than that every year of his career)
1.38 WHIP (Matz's career 1.32 WHIP is better)
36.4% hard hit rate (would beat Matz's career HH% - Matz hasn't matched since 2018)
13.6% HR per fly ball hit (Matz's 16.4% career rate is worse than this)
Steven Matz could very well be better in 2022 than Lester, LeBlanc, and Happ were in 2021. However, using career norms, it is unlikely that Matz will be better than St. Louis' replacements. It seems quite likely that he can just about replicate their totals, though.
Dispelling a Myth
Yes, Steven Matz is a ground ball pitcher - much moreso than the three guys I see him replacing, at least. Steven Matz is barely able to be considered a ground ball pitcher, however. In 2020-2021, Steven Matz has produced 1% more ground balls on balls in play than league average starting pitchers. For his career he's produced 8% more ground balls on balls in play than league average starting pitchers. Matz's career GB% is 47.1%. Matz's 2020-21 GB% is 43.2%. Here are the career averages of the other pitchers expected to be in the rotation mix for the St. Louis Cardinals this year (in parenthesis are their 2020-21 totals):
Jordan Hicks - 63% (70.8%)
Dakota Hudson - 57.6% (58.5%)
Adam Wainwright - 48.1% (46.5%)
Miles Mikolas - 47.6% (49.3%)
Jake Woodford - 42.3% (42.3%)
Jack Flaherty - 40.9% (40.1%)
Alex Reyes - 38.9% (37%)
Matz's ground ball rate is significantly lower than Dakota Hudson's (and Jordan Hicks' if you think he's got a viable shot at starting), a bit higher than Jack Flaherty's (and Alex Reyes' if you think he's got a viable shot at starting), and a bit lower than Adam Wainwright's and Miles Mikolas' while being about even with Jake Woodford's the last two seasons.
Did Matz pitch differently in 2021? Is that why he was better?
Earlier this week, I wrote about Jake Woodford transforming himself mid-season so that he could start at the major league level and have success. He changed his repertoire's usage in order to be more successful. Did Steven Matz do the same thing?
Steven Matz had a similar split as Jake Woodford (if you've read that article) in that from April through July he was absolutely miserable (18 starts, 4.58 ERA but a 4.02 FIP, .776 OPS allowed) and was fantastic from August 1st to the end of the year (11 starts, 2.69 ERA but a 3.44 FIP, .646 OPS allowed). If you read the Woodford article, you know there are some key difference betwen the two. 1) Woodford was MUCH worse at the beginning of the year and better at the end of the year, and 2) Woodford had a much smaller sample size on both ends as he was a reliever to start the year and only made 5 starts in 6 games in September after spending August in the minors. With around 250 plate appearances against Matz in August and September, his second half could be characterized simply as noise in a small sample. Woodford had only a portion of THAT sample in both halves of his season in 2021, so it was even a smaller of small samples.
Prior to the 2021 season, all with the New York Mets, Steven Matz had had this distribution of his pitch mix (and the velocity and spin of each pitch):
Sinker - 57.5%, 93.7 mph, 2086 rpm
Changeup - 16.2%, 84.2 mph, 2251 rpm
Curve - 16.8%, 78.4 mph, 2411 rpm
Slider - 9.3%, 88.6 mph, 2088 rpm
With the Toronto Blue Jays last season, he started the year with a pitch mix far different from that. He threw far less sinkers, a few less curves, a few more sliders, and far more changeups. He threw his sinker and change up a little more than 1 mph harder than he had previously in his career as well - with the other two pitches showing fairly similar velocity to his normal. He also threw the sinker with a higher spin rate but the other three pitches with a lower spin rate.
Sinker - 49.4%, 94.9 mph, 2171 rpm
Changeup - 23.5%, 85.6 mph, 2241 rpm
Curve - 15.9%, 77.8 mph, 2329 rpm
Slider - 11.1%, 88.9 mph, 2078 rpm
In the second part of the year from August to September, when Matz pitched much better, he changed his pitch mix again. I will include how much different the pitch mix was compared to the first four months of the season below:
Sinker - 55.7% (a 13% gain), 94 mph (0.9 mph slower), 2202 rpm (1% more)
Chanegup - 23.1% (a 2% loss), 84.2 mph (1.4 mph slower), 2288 rpm (2% more)
Curve - 17.7% (an 11% gain), 77.4 mph (0.4 mph slower), 2345 rpm (1% more)
Slider - 3.5% (a 68% drop), 89 mph, 2086 rpm (essentially no change to velo or spin)
You can see that he basically dropped most of his sliders for more sinkers and a few more curves. The results were absolutely stunning. His sinker saw the opponents xwOBA drop by 5% (7% drop in xBA and 12% drop in xSLG). He saw larger gains on the changeup, with an xwOBA drop by 18% (10% in xBA and 12% in xSLG). However, his curve and slider seemed to get worse as the season went on. His ground ball rate jumped by a 5% change and so did his fly ball rate, but line drives against him dropped by 15%. There was harder contact made against him in the final two months, but it must have been at the right launch angles, because there was much less actual damage AND much less expected damage in that second part of the season.
As for now, after the deeper dive, I think I'm standing by my original assessment that I am completely underwhelmed by this move. If this is the big addition to the pitching staff this offseason, then I believe the Cardinals faltered in their assessment of their needs. Again, I hope to be wrong on both accounts.