Steven Matz on Learning the Curve

When Steven Matz takes the bump against the Dodgers tonight, he’ll probably throw a curve once out of every five pitches. He’ll probably throw it more often than his changeup, even. And that will be remarkable for those of those who have watched Matz on his uneven path through the minor leagues.

It might even be remarkable to Matz, who talked to me about the pitch earlier this year. “I’ve really struggled with the curveball,” he admitted.

Coming up, the fastball velocity was usually there, even as Matz struggled through a Tommy John surgery that took him off the field for two years. And the changeup? “It’s always in my back pocket,” smiled Matz.

But read any scouting report on the way up, and it mentions an inconsistent breaking ball of one kind or another. Jeffrey Paternostro thought Matz was the best minor league arm he saw in the Mets system back in 2013, and yet the best he could speak of the breaking ball was that it had “some potential.” A year later, a couple strikeouts on the curve was enough to spark a congratulatory story.

Ask Matz about what happened between 2013 and 2014, and the answer is twofold. That might not be surprising, as he had three close advisors that helped him improve, and each had a role.

Ron Romanick, the minor league pitching coordinator, told him to scrap the slider because it was too close to the curve. “They wanted me to focus on developing the curveball,” Matz remembered, and they felt the slider was an easier pitch to add later. (He’s since started to throw a few Warthen Sliders at 87 mph.)

Romanick played the role of the supervisor here, and left the day-to-day improvements largely to Frank Viola and Phil Regan in 2014. Matz told Toby Hyde at Mets Minor League Blog that Viola would admit that “he’s not the most mechanical guy” and that Regan was the man guiding the technical changes.

Viola, known mostly for his change when he was pitching his way to 2836 major league innings, helped Matz with his approach on the curve, much like he did with Jake deGrom before. “It’s a feel pitch,” Matz told me of the curveball, matching what most people say as they struggle to find their feel for the changeup. Viola told him to throw the curve “with conviction,” and eventually the pitch began to come around.

Viola discussed Matz’s developing use of the curve with Newsday’s Will Sammon last August:

“His first thought would’ve been fastball because that’s all he’s needed to put guys away,” Viola said. “He didn’t have enough confidence to throw the curveball in a key spot. But I knew it was just a matter of time before that would change.”

Phil Regan had the pitcher come over the top a little more, which helped him keep the ball down. A more consistent release point helped him make the movement more consistent, too. “I was hanging them. It would be different shapes, it would run more or less,” Matz said of the curves that he threw before Regan and Viola got to him.

Though Noah Syndergaard said that Las Vegas was good for his changeup because that tough park was bad for his curveball, Matz said he didn’t notice his curve suffering in the altitude or thin air. He kept throwing it anyway. When he really saw a difference was when he first threw a curve at Citi Field. “When I got here, my first day throwing it, I was like ‘Wow.’ It snapped out of my hand,” said Matz incredulously.

Whatever we struggle with we always struggle with, to some extent, and so some of what Matz went through in the minors is playing its way out in the majors. Though he’s thrown an average of 19 curves per start, there has been a little change to the shape and release on the pitch.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-35

The average release point for Matz, across all his pitches, has been fairly steady. But you still see him trying to get on top of the curveball. In his first game, in June, he averaged 6.9 inches of drop on the curve. In his last game, once again facing the Reds but in late September this time, Matz averaged five inches of drop on the pitch, and that’s also consistent with a pitcher struggling to stay on top of his curve.

But he’s not going to stop throwing the pitch, even if the version of the pitch with less drop has only gotten one whiff from lefties since that first game in June. He needs the pitch against lefties. “I’ve been pitching better against righties than lefties” agreed Matz, and he registered a full strikeout per nine more against righties than lefties in the minors, “but this year I feel like I’ve been pretty good against lefties, even if all of my walks have come to lefties.”

The ratios still show a pitcher that struggles a bit against same-handed batters. Matz has walked three righties (109 faced) this year against seven lefties (40 faced). A 7% whiff rate against lefties with the curve is below average (11% is average), so he’s not quite there yet. A team might be savvy to stack the lineup with lefties to avoid the changeup some, but they’d still have to contend with Matz’s best pitch compared to league averages.

Steven Matz’s Adjusted Pitch Type Rates
Pitch Type Count Whiff+ GB%+
Fourseam 393 143 130
Change 57 90 97
Slider 11 0 0
Curve 114 100 96
SOURCE: BrooksBaseball.net
Whiff+ = pitch whiff rate (whiffs/pitches) divided by league average pitch type whiff rate * 100
GB%+ = pitch ground-ball rate (whiffs/pitches) divided by league average pitch type GB rate * 100

If a team does try to stack lefties, Matz isn’t worried. “I feel really comfortable with the curveball now,” he said. And there isn’t any better proof than the fact that he’s never thrown the changeup more than the curve this year. All it took was some conviction and a little tinkering.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Matz has a striking resemblance to a young Joe Dimaggio. Great insight on his curveball story.