Last week, the Mets tendered a contract to Steven Matz. The two sides quickly agreed on a one year $5.2 million deal. This led to an interesting debate. Some argued that Alderson should have non-tendered Matz and let him become a free agent. They claimed that he isn’t worth the money nor roster spot.
The disappointment in Matz is legit. He was selected in 2009 as a high school kid from Long Island with the Mets top draft pick. It took him six years to reach the majors as the early stages of his career were beset by injuries. This included Tommy John surgery. However, by the time he reached the majors in 2015, his stock was on the rise. While a muscle injury caused him to miss two months, Matz pitched well in September and the postseason. This success continued in 2016. By the end of his first two seasons, Matz had shown that he was a very good pitcher. Between the first two seasons in the majors, Matz had pitched the equivalent of one full season and the numbers were impressive.
Unfortunately, it was downhill from here. Sadly, Matz is plagued with a twofold problem. The main problem has been that he is very injury prone, and the second is that Matz has never been that good since his early days. From 2017-2020 Matz has not been particularly effective. The early comparisons to Jerry Koosman quickly went out the door. Here are his post-2016 numbers:
With all of this said, the Mets did make the right move by holding onto Matz. Here are the 10 reasons why:
When Steve Cohen bought the Mets, he made it clear that they will not be acting like a small market team anymore. One of the things that small market teams have to do is cut arbitration eligible players to make salary space. Big market teams cut players who have no value. Matz is making just $5.2 million this season. That is not a lot of money by Cohen standards. The 2019 Mets cut Wilmer Flores over a similar amount. Those days are over. Decisions are now being made that are value driven.
The #5 starter
Matz is not a frontline starter. He is currently the Mets 4 or 5 starter. Barring injuries, he will not move up that list before the season. This is important to remember since the last pitcher in any rotation is generally quite bad. In fact many are downright terrible. This has gotten so extreme that some teams don’t even bother with five starters. After running an analysis on 27 guys were defined as a #5 starter in Baseball Reference from 2019, I found that the average one made just 20 starts. They combined for an ERA of 5.10, a FIP or 5.15 and a WHIP of 1.421 during the season. They typically only toss about five innings. There were a handful who were actually good pitchers like Rich Hill of the Dodgers and Alex Young of the D-backs. However, most were like Jason Vargas, Tanner Roark and Kevin Gausman. Only a third of the #5 starters had an ERA+ of 100 or above. Another third has one that ranged from 78-99 and a third below that. All in all, Matz doesn’t have to be that good to be an effective #5 guy.
Take 2020 with a grain of salt
Matz was horrendous in 2020. With an ERA of 9.68, an ERA+ of 44 and WAR of -1.0, it would have been better if he just didn’t show up. However, 2020 cannot be the season used to judge a pitcher. It was a short season without any real spring training. Let’s give him a pass on this one.
2018 & 2019
With the previous point in mind, have a look at his 2018 and 2019 stats. He started 30 games in both seasons, so his past injury issues were not a factor. Did he dominate? No. Was he an average major league pitcher? Pretty much. Do we want him in the middle of the rotation? Not at all. Are his numbers good enough to be an above average #5 guy? Absolutely. This is the realistic hope for Matz. He will reliably toss 5 decent innings every five days. Everyone wants him to dominate, but this is a realistic goal.
Currently, the Mets have three solid guys in the rotation. Leading the way is Jacob deGrom, followed by Marcus Stroman and David Peterson. Syndergaard is expected back around the all-star break. While the Mets are in the hunt for Trevor Bauer and Jake Odorizzi, they may not land either. There needs to be depth. Good teams go into spring training with lots of options. Even if the Mets end up acquiring two more starters, you want a guy like Matz to be the sixth man just in case of injury.
The is a make or break year for Matz and he knows it. He will turn 30 in May. His career has been turbulent. Matz knows that if he puts up good numbers in 2020, he will get a big payday. Teams pay a premium for starting pitching. So far, Matz has earned roughly $10 million playing profession baseball. While that is a nice chunk of change, he knows that a season along the lines of 2018/2019 will likely get him around 3 years of $30 million. Teams are willing to pay if they feel he is worth it. Have a look at those #5 starters mentioned earlier. Jason Vargas has made $40 million from 2015-2019. Kevin Gausman had a solid 2020 and got a qualifying offer from the Giants, which he took. Tanner Roark signed a 2-year $24 million deal with Toronto prior to 2020. Matz knows that this is the time.
Keeps Lugo in the bullpen
Matz in the rotation, likely means that Lugo is a relief pitcher. This is a must for the Mets. Lugo is fantastic out of the pen. In 2017, Lugo was primarily a starter and struggled. He pitched a few innings in relief and was fine. In 2018, he had 5 starts and 49 relief appearances. It was clear that Lugo was better in relief. In 2019, Lugo was the Mets best bullpen arm all season and was even the closer for a while. In 2020, Lugo was excellent in relief, but the Mets mistakenly used him as a starter late in the season and it did not go well. By keeping holding onto Matz, we are more likely to see Lugo in the bullpen.
Lefty in the pen
While Matz is really a backend of the rotation kind of guy, he has been used several times out of the bullpen. Currently, the Mets do not have any lefty relievers. In addition, the concept of a situational lefty is not much of a thing anymore as there is a three-batter minimum. Therefore, it could make sense to use Matz as a reliever who can give the team multiple innings.
Just because the Mets tendered Matz a contract, doesn’t guarantee he will be on the opening day roster. The Mets could trade him. As established above, Matz has some value. Don’t be surprised if a team is willing to part with a mid-level prospect or two for Matz.
The reason that no one ever seems to give up on Matz is because he has ‘stuff‘. Simply put, Matz has the potential to be a good pitcher. He has a good repertoire of pitches and doesn’t just try to blow people away. Often he seems to get overly frustrated on the mound and with the right coaching, could end up being a very solid pitcher.
(David Weiss is a lifelong Mets fan. He has lived in Israel since 2008 and runs the Facebook page Jewish Mets Fans.)