AL WestAnalysis

Phil Maton And One Of Baseball’s Weirdest Pitches

Phil Maton’s been in the league since 2017, having made his debut with the San Diego Padres. However, I don’t think most fans had heard of him until he was moved last year by the Cleveland Guardians in a deal with the Houston Astros, where he was traded for outfielder Myles Straw. He took on a prominent role out of the Astros’ bullpen immediately and finished the year with 66.2 innings pitched and a 4.73 ERA. Yet, he had better underlying numbers, including a 3.68 xERA and a 3.50 FIP. That’s certainly a noticeable gap and it’s a trend that’s held consistent over his career. He’s held a 4.76 ERA for his career yet a 3.90 FIP to go with that. Let’s dive into his results and what comprises them.

What He’s Done And How He’s Done It

Phil Maton’s Career Stats

Right above is a quick summary of Maton’s career stats. 2020 was his best year by far, albeit in a smaller sample of innings due to the nature of the season, but nonetheless it was very encouraging, especially after a disappointing 2019. Other than that, he’s underperformed his expected metrics most years and seems to fall on the wrong side of luck each and every year. Some of that can be attributed to an abnormal BABIP, which is at .333 for his career, but more noticeably was .351 in 2021. That’s a very high number that ideally regresses to the mean, but I’m not so sure it does given how it’s held up over the first five years in his career.

One of the reasons Maton’s underlying metrics view him so highly is his ability to generate whiffs and limit hard contact. He has a career 30.7 HardHit% and was in the 89th percentile last year. Additionally, he generated whiffs at the 95th percentile last year, a lot of which came from his curveball. His curve has fantastic shape to it, as it moves 6.1 more inches horizontally than the average curveball and had a 40.1 Whiff% last year. It also has 92% spin efficiency, which gives one the inclination that it’s more of a sweeping curve or sidespin slider, which adds up with the insane amount of horizontal movement it garners. Yet, his curveball is only one pitch in his fascinating mix, which we’ll take a look at next.

Credit: Baseball Savant

Maton’s typically been a fastball-first guy while varying his offspeed offerings. Last year, he made the change to drastically decrease how much he threw his cutter and introduce a slider, which was likely something Houston asked him to do once they traded for him. Funny enough, his slider has less horizontal and vertical break than his curveball, but it was still a solid offering as it had a .269 xwOBA to its name. He’s ditched the changeup and sinker, focusing on his four-seam, curve, slider, and changeup. For a guy who generated whiffs at the 95th percentile, surely you would think he has at least one elite offering. Well, he does: his fastball. But not for any of the typical reasons.

What Is His Fastball?

Maton doesn’t throw hard. At all. His fastball velocity was in the 20th percentile last year and averaged 91.5 miles per hour. However, he still maintains a great gap between his 76 mph curve and 82 mph slider and gets to the 92nd percentile in fastball spin so he doesn’t have to worry too much about the velocity on his fastball. It’s still good, trust me. This becomes abundantly clear when we look into his fastball’s other traits.

Let’s start with the movement. Maton’s fastball 19.1 inches of drop and 0.8 inches of break last year. The drop corresponds to vertical movement and the break to his horizontal movement. Sure, his fastball drops a little more than the norm, but what really shocks me is the lack of horizontal movement. Compared to the average, Maton has 7.9 less inches of run on his fastball. It’s almost like he’s throwing it straight, which seems impossible in a day where spin and movement is all the rage. There’s got to be more to this.

A couple more key things to note about his fastball include the fact that it only had 63% spin efficiency last year and had a 45 degree deviation in its spin-based movement and observed movement, which you can see below.

Credit: Baseball Savant

That’s noticeable! Typically, we see fastballs maintain 90% and higher spin efficiencies and almost no deviation in movement. His fastball is way different than the usual and I think I know what we can attribute it to. Recently, the topics of seam-shifted wake and gyro spin have picked up much more in the pitching community. SSW usually comes from the seams on the ball manipulating the pitch and generating unexpected movement whereas gyro spin is gravity affecting the ball’s path and reducing the forces acting on it. Combine the extra drop in his fastball, the lack of arm-side run, and the low spin efficiency, and I’m convinced that our friend, Phil Maton, throws a gyro fastball.

Stick with me here, I’m almost done with his fastball. Gyro spin works in weird ways. At some point during the ball’s flight path, some of that gyro spin is converted into transverse run, or glove-side run. Think of a righty throwing a cutter. Things will start to add up here, as we already covered that Maton basically doesn’t generate horizontal movement on his fastball. Well, this is possible because of the fact that the cutting action created by the transverse spin cancels out the natural arm-side run of a fastball, leading to almost no movement. Essentially, the gyro spin offsets the natural run of a fastball, leading to no horizontal movement. However, the extra drop in his fastball can be explained by the gyro spin, as gyro spin is gravity acting on the ball, and gravity is a force that pulls objects down.

So we’ve established that Maton’s fastball is likely that of gyro spin, explaining the lack of spin efficiency and abnormal movement numbers. Yet, if he doesn’t have a normal fastball, why does he throw it like he does?

Credit: Baseball Savant

He targets the top of the zone even though he has low velocity and more drop than normal fastballs. That’s weird! But I won’t leave you without an explanation, and I think the appropriate one here is the extension in his delivery. Maton got around 7.1 feet of extension on his fastball last year, meaning he’s able to shorten the distance between the mound and the plate due to his delivery. This deceives hitters and makes them think balls are coming in faster than they really are. In Maton’s case, a 91 mph fastball may look like a 94 mph fastball. A 93 mph fastball becomes a 96 mph fastball. This allows for Maton to still be effective working up in the zone with his fastball. It’s really a funky pitch, but i see no reason it won’t continue to succeed. When you can produce clips like the following, you’ve got to be doing something right.

Credit: @PitchingNinja

That’s filth. Also, it’s pretty neat that the trail highlights the drop in his fastball. Anyways, in terms of the future, I don’t think much needs to change for Maton. Perhaps Houston toys with his pitch mix a little more. I could see them scrapping the cutter and honing in on his three ++ offerings in the fastball and his two breaking pitches. His walk rate should also come down a little from it’s high clip last year (10.8%). I’d easily pencil him in to be an under 4 ERA guy next year, as with better luck and one of the weirdest fastballs in baseball, good fortune is bound to head our friend’s way.

Main photo credit: @Astros

Ajay Patel

Heavily invested in sports analytics and a whole lot of other things. Yankees fan, Jazz Chisholm stan, and a statistical man. Follow me on Twitter: @ajaypatell8

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