Phil Maton Revisits Spin (and Comes to Terms With Cut)

Phil Maton
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Maton can spin a baseball. His four-seamer averaged 2,563 rpm this season, and his signature curveball was an even-more-rotational 3,154. These weren’t new developments. The 30-year-old Houston Astros reliever has long been known for that attribute, with a July 2017 interview with the then-San Diego Padres rookie having served as its first detailed mention here at FanGraphs.

He’s also had a career-best year. In 68 regular-season appearances out of the Houston bullpen, Maton augmented his 4–3 record and one save with a 3.00 ERA, a 3.74 FIP, 74 strikeouts, and just 49 hits allowed in 66 innings. Moreover, October has once again been his friend. Thanks to a pair of scoreless outings in the ALDS, the righty boasts a 1.04 ERA over 16 career playoff appearances.

Maton revisited the importance of spin and discussed a meaningful change to the movement profile of his fastball when the Astros visited Fenway Park at the end of August.

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David Laurila: Your spin rate was the primary topic when we first spoke six years ago. Now pure spin isn’t considered nearly as important. Do you agree?

Phil Maton: “I think that’s right. Over the years, organizations have figured out that it doesn’t tell the whole picture. There are guys with big breaking balls and hoppy heaters who don’t spin the ball particularly well. That’s where things like spin efficiencies come into play. We’ve identified guys where it’s the entry angle. There are so many different factors in what creates ‘a good pitch.’ Back in 2017, when the spin-rate phase was going on, everyone thought that was the answer. It’s much more complex than that.”

Laurila: Which pitch qualities do you possess besides high spin?

Maton: “Something we found in Cleveland [where Maton pitched from 2019 to ’21] and here is that my entry angle is really low. That helps the perceived rise on the ball. I was actually hopping the ball better in previous years, I was getting more like 15–20 [inches] on my vertical, whereas this year, 15 would be top. I’m cutting the ball a lot more than I did in those years. So again, there are a lot of different factors. I’d say that right now the low entry angle probably helps my deception – my extension, as well — more than the actual spin.”

Laurila: Is cutting the ball a good thing or a bad thing for you?

Maton: “Early in the year we didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. But I was having a lot of success with the fastball, not a lot of guys were on barrel with it, so I didn’t really worry too much about the shape. I kind of just kept throwing it. The velocity was maybe bothering me a little bit.

“Because I was cutting the ball so much, a lot of the fastballs I was throwing were almost grading out as sliders. But if I’m throwing 88 [mph] and getting six, seven, eight inches of cut and it’s still hopping around 10, I’m totally fine with that. I think that grades out better than a 92-mph fastball that is more around a league-average shape.”

Laurila: That said, why are you cutting the ball?

Maton: “I think that’s just kind of the way I’ve progressed this year. I’m finishing more over the top of the ball as opposed to what you’d call blocking it, where you get your hand completely behind the baseball. I’m still around it at release and then pulling down. So yeah, it’s been a little bit different for me. I’ve had to adjust my sight lines for it to be more in the zone, but it’s one of those things where our computers actually like it more than my other fastball.”

Laurila: You’re not consciously trying to get the ball to cut.

Maton: “No. I’m just I’m trying to throw it straight, and that’s what it’s doing.”

Laurila: How is that impacting you from a location standpoint?

Maton: “It’s actually been really tough. The first three months I felt like I was dialed in to where I was almost just aiming middle with the fastball, knowing that it was going to cut to the edge. I was pretty consistently able to do that. But then July [a 9.64 ERA] was really rough for me. I had poor feel for the fastball. It was moving so much that I was having a hard time getting it in zone, and that was kind of leaking into my other pitches. It’s kind of like playing a game of darts. I’ve had to creep my sights over more and more to compensate for the shape of the pitch.”

Laurila: Intent and location aside, are you basically throwing your fastball like a cutter?

Maton: “I’ve always had a funky four-seam grip. I kind of hook all of my pitches with my middle finger and hold everything really tight. I think that helps my spin, but it also gets me more around the baseball, which is naturally going to make the ball cut more than run. The grip has been the same my whole career, so the way that I’ve been finishing pitches is what is making the shape more pronounced.”

Laurila: In a nutshell, your fastball is different this year.

Maton: “Oh yeah, it’s significantly different. Last year it was probably more like 15–18 vert with five run, whereas this year I’m probably averaging five cut and 8–12 vert. The spin is still high, though. Breaking balls are normally going to have more spin, so I figured that I wouldn’t lose any spin by having that cut shape.”

Laurila: Has your curveball changed at all?

Maton: “No. Early in the year I had really good feel for it, because, again, I was around all of my pitches. My curveball naturally has a lot of horizontal. With that pitch… the way I hold it is really funky. It’s hooked around the ball. It’s also spiked. If it’s not on, it’s just really hard to find it some days.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on hooked around it?

Maton: “I’m kind of rolling my middle finger. basically putting as much force on the right half of the baseball as possible, through the tip of my middle finger as much as possible. I’m also kind of holding my release as late as possible, creating that snap at the end. And again, my pointer is spiked. There is no pressure on it. Everything is on the middle finger and through the palm to the thumb. The pointer is just kind of there for the ride.”

Laurila: What else are you throwing this year?

Maton: “I have what everyone is calling a sweeper. When I got traded over here in [July] 2021, they identified that as something I could maybe do. In their minds, the thought was ‘If he can do that with his curveball, he can probably do this with a slightly different grip and throw it harder.’ So I used it in ’21, then a lot last year, and this year we’ve increased the usage a little bit by showing it to lefties more often.

“It’s just a different look than my curveball. It’s a little harder. It has similar horizontal but a lot more vertical. It’s probably zero to three, whereas the curveball is anywhere from five to 15 depending on what what I’m trying to do with it. And then the horizontal on my sweeper is anywhere from 15 to 20.”

Laurila: Would it be accurate to say that you’ve become a bit of a pitching nerd?

Maton: “Yeah. 100%. Unless you have 80-grade stuff, you almost need to be. You have to understand the trends in baseball, what pitches do, what constitutes a good pitch. I mean, if you can gain a little edge by understanding the ins and outs of what is metrically a good pitch… that’s something that can extend your career. Obviously it’s going to make you a better pitcher.”





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.

9 Comments
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Ivan_Grushenkomember
6 months ago

It’s interesting that he added sweeper as another flattish glove side movement pitch rather than something with run. I wonder why he thought that would be better for him. It seems to have worked to a degree

Joe Joemember
6 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

My guess is that the Astros thought the sweeper would be really easy to add and perform well against RHPs while the curve works better on LHBs.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
6 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

So a run side pitch is more difficult for him so he didn’t bother?

Joe Joemember
6 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Correct. Doing something easy that will likely work should be done before before things that are difficult and unlikely to work.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
6 months ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

His FIP vs RHH plunged to 2.11 in 2023 from mostly 3.xx in previous years and BABIP to .225 vs .3xx and .4xx in prior years. GB% rose to 46% from high 30s the previous 2 years. Hard hit doesn’t seem to have changed much. I can see why he thinks it made a difference.

mariodegenzgz
6 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Maton is such an extreme supinator that he’d have a very difficult time throwing something hard with armside, and his cutter-curveball pairing is very good to handle lefties anyway. They wanted that sweeper for RHH, I’d guess.

mariodegenzgz
6 months ago
Reply to  David Laurila

Definitely. He could also hurt himself by making his body do something it doesn’t naturally lean towards. See: Márquez, Germán, post 2018 (and 2023 for the “hurting yourself” part).

Last edited 6 months ago by mariodegenzgz