If you don’t follow the Padres, this might be the first time you’ve heard of Phil Maton. For that reason, we’ll start with the pronunciation of his name — it’s “May-tawn” — and the fact that he’s a 24-year-old right-hander whom San Diego drafted 597th overall in 2015 out of Louisiana Tech. Since being called up from Triple-A last month, he’s made 12 relief appearances, 11 of which have been scoreless.
And then there’s his calling card. Over 10.1 big-league innings, Maton’s four-seam spin rate has been 2,446 rpm, which is well above the MLB average of 2,222 rpm. For him, it’s actually lower than usual. According to Padres beat writer Dennis Lin, Maton’s spin rate was 2,572 in the minors last year, which would have ranked second to Matt Bush among big-league pitchers who threw at least 500 four-seam fastballs.
I saw the pitch in action, in Cleveland, on July 5. Facing the Indians, Maton threw 22 fastballs and three sliders while retiring five of the six batters he faced. He fanned three, with all of the strikeouts coming on his four-seam. Per usual, the pitch sat around 93 mph.
I talked to Maton prior to the game. Later, I spoke both with his pitching coach, Darren Balsley, and San Diego’s primary catcher, Austin Hedges. Those conversations centered around Maton’s explosive fastball and his work-in-progress slider. I also touched base with three of the Cleveland batters he faced — Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Bradley Zimmer — to get their first impressions of the up-and-coming right-hander.
Phil Maton: “I didn’t find out about [the spin rate] until I got drafted. When I was in short-season ball, the video guys told me that my spin rate was one of the highest they’d ever seen. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it. I was like, ‘Alright, cool, but I don’t really know how that helps me out.’ As I’ve progressed, I’ve realized that is what allows me to pitch up in the zone. My four-seam carries a little better, carries longer, than the average person’s four-seam.
“In college, I liked to work up in the zone with two strikes — it was my punch-out pitch — and I also threw some two-seams. As a starter, you kind of have to mix it up a little more than throwing just two pitches. But once I transitioned to pro ball, I threw the two-seam out the window and have stuck with the four-seam and my slider. Now I pitch up in the zone to every hitter, with the exception of a few.”
Austin Hedges: “He’s got a special fastball. Spin rate, extension metric, all that stuff. I’m assuming it’s very real, because he’s got a fastball that’s got a lot of swing-and-miss in it. He can throw it in situations where you know it’s coming, and if he executes it where he wants it, it’s still a tough pitch to hit.”
Darren Balsley: “He’s got the high spin rate on his fastball. That’s real. Ever since he got into the organization, he’s been good at pitching up in the zone. He knows where his outs are. He throws strikes and attacks. He’s developed a breaking ball that’s usable in the major leagues, but his bread and butter, by far, is a good high heater.”
Francisco Lindor: “I watched video on him, so I knew that he had a good fastball. I knew he had a slider. Besides that… he had good stuff. He looked like a good pitcher. His fastball was located, and his slider was effective last night. I think he might have tried to elevate against me, but I didn’t chase the high fastball. He mostly worked me away.”
Darren Balsley: “He has the capability of throwing his fastball low, as well. Spin rate is usually talked about as throwing high fastballs by guys, but spin rate also plays low. You throw pitches that appear as though they’re going to go below the zone, and they stay in the zone. The ones that look like they’re going to be waist high end up letter high. Again, he knows where his outs are. He knows how to play that game as far as his spin rate goes.”
Jason Kipnis: “I saw four pitches from him, and he threw fastballs. He got ahead with a strike — I was taking one — and then I fouled one off. The next two pitches were fastballs up. One was an easy take. The other was at the top of the zone, and I decided too late to swing, and took a bad path at it. He had good life to his fastball.”
Bradley Zimmer: “I didn’t know a lot about him, to be honest. I saw him warm up, and that was about it. He has a pretty good arm, although nothing special. I don’t know that he was necessarily working me up, but it does seem like he’s one of those guys who likes to [elevate]. Pretty good fastball, and a slider.”
Phil Maton: “For the most part, I like to kind of tunnel my slider out of that high fastball. I like to have it look like it’s coming out of the same spot, but then dip down at the last second, hopefully for a swing and miss.
“Tunneling is really just a vocab word for what people have been doing forever — trying to disguise pitches — but you’re obviously going to have more success if you can make your pitches look similar. If I go up in the zone with the four-seam, I want to make sure I throw my slider out of the same spot.”
Austin Hedges: “Last year, his slider was more of a get-me-over pitch. This year, it’s a lot tighter and a pitch he can put guys away with. It’s more like a slurve, kind of 10 to 4. That’s if you’re looking at it from behind the plate, or if you’re the batter.”
Phil Maton: “Lately it’s been a little slower, around 80 mph, and also more of a lateral pitch than, say, your traditional slider with depth. I’d like to get it back to where it was last year, with more [depth]. It kind of changes for me, depending on how I feel — how fresh I am — plus the ball is different here than in Triple-A. The big-league ball is wound a little tighter, and it’s a little harder to make it break.
“When I first got drafted, my slider was a lot different than the one I have now. It’s gotten a little tighter, and a little sharper. But the idea is the same. I want to throw it as hard as I can and mask it — make it look as much like a fastball as possible.”
Darren Balsley: “It’s not a power slider. He throws a 93-mph fastball, so it doesn’t match up as far as velocity goes. Most power sliders are maybe 6 to 7 mph off the fastball, and his breaking ball is 80-82 — somewhere in there — so it’s kind of a slurve-type, heavy-spin-type slider. I don’t know what the spin rate is on his breaking ball, but I don’t really care. The hitters will tell you how good your breaking ball is.
“It’s better than it was this spring. He was basically just a fastball pitcher in spring training, which is fine — there are a lot of guys who are almost one-pitch pitchers out of the pen. His (slider) is a hybrid. It’s between a curveball and a slider. Hitters don’t seem to get a good look at it, maybe because they’re just sitting on a fastball, because he’s so fastball dominant.”
Phil Maton: “From our scouting reports, I know who I can elevate to, in and out — I know where it needs to be to have the most success. I like to show at least one pitch up in the zone to every hitter, to see how they react to it. That tells me a lot.
“It is (my best pitch), but it’s also something where you just kind of roll the dice. You can’t really work on spin rate. To be honest, it’s something I got lucky with.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.