With five starts in Double-A to his credit, is lefthanded pitching prospect Seven Matz just one pitch away from the big leagues? Yes, or, sort of. That pitch? His curveball. In a larger sense, it will take more than one throw to improve the offering.
Just how close is Matz?
“We pushed him to Double-A because we feel like he’s within striking distance probably at some point next year if he gets on a roll,” Mets Farm Director Dick Scott said. “I think he’s right on time.”
In his first five starts with Double-A Binghamton, Matz is 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA with 29 strikeouts against seven walks in 29 innings. That’s a strikeout rate of 24 percent and a walk rate of 5.8 percent. Those numbers are improvements on his FSL rates, where he had a 2.21 ERA and a 21.5 percent strikeout rate and a 7.3 percent walk rate.
Matz has the heat – he uses a 6’2″ frame to pump fastballs that are regularly in the 93-94 mph range, and can get up to 95 or 96. His changeup comes out with good armspeed and at its best, enough sink to generate swings and misses or groundballs.
But that curveball? The 23-year-old Matz discussed the offering this week, saying it “is the pitch I need to improve the most.”
“My fastball command has been the best it’s been and I feel really comfortable with the fastball changeup. The curveball is a lot better, I’m feeling more comfortable with it, but I still need to develop it more. It’s a pitch that will help me a lot down in the future. I’ve talked with [Binghamton pitching coach Glen Abbott] about that a lot. Because I’ll throw some really good ones, but it’s just finding the consistency, but that’s what it lacks right now,” Matz said.
Scott sees a little improvement in that area from Matz, too.
“His breaking ball is getting more consistent,” Scott said. “I think he has a chance to have a really power curveball. It’s sharp bite, it’s hard. It’s just getting the feel for it: it’s being able to throw it for strike one – a get-more-over curveball, and also having the power curveball that’s a strikeout pitch. I think he has a feel for both. He just needs the reps to do that.”
This creates a very simple goal for Matz, he said, for the duration of the 2014 season: “I just want to continue to develop this curveball.”
Matz left the 2013 season feeling “comfortable” with his changeup and his fastball command and took that right into the 2014 season. He wants to achieve the same feel with his hook in 2014.
“By the end of this year, I’d like to feel like I did last year — with three pitches versus just two of them — and then just carry that into the following year,” Matz said.
The idea is that he simply needs to throw it more. Abbott pointed out to Matz that even in his work outside of games, he might only throw four curves in a bullpen and six to eight in a side session between starts. Abbott, who has spend more than two decades as a pitching coach, asked Matz, “How’s that supposed to get any better?” given that light usage.
True enough, Double-A hitters can pounce on mistakes Matz makes with the pitch.
“I’ll get in grooves where I’ll find it, and I’ll get in grooves where I’ll lose it and that’s when I usually get hurt,” the lefty pitcher said. “All the times I’ve been hurt up here in Double-A is on breaking balls. I just leave a breaking ball up and they just unload on it.”
Matz has made another tweak to his his arsenal, relying more heavily on a two-seam fastball. In 2013, he threw his four-seamer nearly exclusively.
“I threw it a little bit last year, but this year, it’s been a really good pitch for me,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot of ground balls early. I love it too. Same [velo as four-seamer.] When I throw down and away, it starts middle, and then it runs, just kinda keeps on going — keeps running — and it freezes guys, especially early in the count.”
Does the increased reliance on his two-seamer show up statistically? In 2013, he ran a ground ball rate of 50 percent in Savannah. That ticked up to 53.7 percent in advanced Single-A St. Lucie. Through his starts, he owned a 40.6 percent ground ball rate in Double-A.
The addition of the two-seamer was a more permanent addition than another tweak Matz attempted in April and May. He began sending his hands over his head in his delivery, but found that after some early good returns, the extra movement messed with his timing and made his hands late.
“I just need to stick with one thing and repeat it,” he said of going back to his simpler windup, where his hands never travel above his torso before breaking.
Timing in a delivery is especially important for Matz, who is now over four years removed from his 2010 Tommy John surgery. As Will Carroll pointed out on last week’s Mostly Mets Podcast, stride length, which remains, Matz’s primary mechanical focus, is a vital component of an on-time delivery.
“When I overstride, it’s hard to repeat my delivery because I’m kind of jumping out, versus getting my foot down and getting on top of the ball,” Matz said.
While the Mets are well-stocked with young right-handed arms, including the rehabbing Matt Harvey, the promising Zack Wheeler, the emergent Jacob deGrom, the steady reliability of Dillon Gee, and the mythical Thor, a.k.a. Noah Syndergaard, outside of Jon Niese, Matz is the only left-handed arm in Single-A or above, who projects as a MLB starter.
In fact, if he makes progress with his curveball, and learns to throw more good ones than bad ones, he could well be a middle of the rotation piece a No. 2 or a No. 3 on a playoff team relatively soon.