The Rays Can’t Keep Getting Away With This, Can They?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve seen this movie a million times. The Rays make some innocuous transaction, adding a reliever you’ve heard of but perhaps forgotten about in trade or free agency. You remember that guy – but now? Him? Surely they can’t be serious. But of course, they are serious, and it ends up working out better than anyone expected, and next thing you know that guy is getting key outs against great hitters.

You might think the team’s most recent reliever transaction fits both parts of this trope: an obscure(ish) pitcher who will no doubt become good. But you’d only be half right about Phil Maton, who has reportedly agreed to a one-year deal for $6.5 million, with a $7.5 million team option for 2025, per Mark Feinsand and Robert Murray. A physical is still pending, and the contract isn’t expected to become official until next week, per Marc Topkin. Will Maton lock down key innings for Tampa Bay this year? I’d bet on it. But where you’d go wrong is in thinking that Maton came to the Rays to get better. While you weren’t looking, he’s already become a great reliever, and the Rays are in fact engaging in another of their favorite offseason pastimes: seeing a great performance before the rest of the league and capitalizing.

I can hear your skepticism, and that’s perfectly okay. Phil Maton is a great reliever? How come our Depth Charts project him for a 4.10 ERA next year? How come his best season produced a 3.00 ERA and peripherals on either side of four? How come he signed this deal in February? Am I thinking, perhaps, of a different Phil Maton?

I’m not, and as it so happens, I have a lot of evidence for my assertion. Let’s start with a spectacular David Laurila interview from last September. In it, Maton discussed how the shape of his fastball has changed from traditional to cut over the years. It wasn’t so much on purpose, to hear Maton tell it. When Laurila asked him if the cut was by design, he hardly hesitated in his answer: “No. I’m just trying to throw it straight, and that’s what it’s doing.”

Maton is very much a data-driven player; I liked that interview when I read it without having paid much attention to Maton’s season, and it wasn’t that I was just so fascinated by the inner workings of the middle of Houston’s bullpen. He seemed to have a phenomenal grasp of exactly what he was doing to the ball, and yet he had changed the shape of his fastball completely. In his words: “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.”

How different did Maton’s fastball look? Outrageously so. Statcast categorized his fastball as a four-seamer in both 2022 and 2023, but the two iterations of the pitch were about as alike as oil and water:

Not the Same Old Fastball
Year Velo (mph) HMov (in) VMov (in) Spin (rpm) Transverse Spin%
2022 91.1 -1.2 9.9 2487 66
2023 89.0 2.0 5.5 2565 50

That’s an overwhelming change. Before, his fastball was fairly standard. It didn’t boast huge velocity or movement, but the shape coupled with his drop and drive delivery, which features huge extension and yet a mostly over-the-top release point, made it an interesting pitch nonetheless. Now it’s more or less off the map. Only two pitchers in baseball imparted more movement both vertically and horizontally on their cutters: Tyler Wells and Shawn Armstrong. Corbin Burnes was close, and probably would have qualified if he didn’t throw so hard that the pitch didn’t have much time to break.

That’s a pretty spectacular group of comparables. Wells isn’t a household name, but his cutter bamboozled hitters in 2023 (at least when he kept it in the park). Armstrong’s cutter would have gotten him convicted of witchcraft for the majority of history. Burnes is one of the best pitchers on the planet, partially because of his fastball (though again, he throws a lot harder). And Maton just started throwing his cutter in 2023, which means there’s a decent chance that the pitch will improve as he gets used to it. In fact, he closed the season on a tear. After some unsightly numbers in July (20% walk rate, 12 runs in 9.1 innings), he returned from injury at the end of August and then set the league on fire in September: 0.77 ERA, .249 wOBA allowed, 27.7% strikeout rate and 6.4% walk rate. He backed that up with six outrageous innings in the playoffs that saw him notch seven strikeouts while allowing one hit, one walk, and no runs.

Maton has always been a breaking ball first pitcher. His curveball is a phenomenal pitch and he knows it, using it 40% of the time. He broke out a new sweeper in 2023, and it looks excellent; huge horizontal movement, no vertical break to speak of, and wonderful separation from his primary fastball (now a cutter). Both of our stuff models love both breaking balls. They’re just nasty pitches; it’s easy to see why.

The PitchingBot model, though, thinks that neither of those is as good as Maton’s cutter. It gave that pitch a 75 out of 80 and scored it higher than any other pitch thrown by an Astros pitcher in 2023. Overall, that model thought Maton had one of the best curveballs in the game (seventh) and one of the best fastballs (somewhere in the top 15 depending on how you group different types of fastballs). That’s the kind of arsenal you’d expect from an elite closer, not some dude signing in February to no fanfare.

Our other stuff model, Stuff+, hated Maton’s fastball. It gave it a 51, where 100 is league average. The only pitch that graded out worse among the Astros — all the Astros, including every minor league call-up — was Maton’s sinker, a pitch he threw just 43 times. That’s an outrageous amount of disagreement between two models that agree far more frequently than not.

The reason boils down to classification, in my opinion. Statcast still calls Maton’s fastball a four-seamer, and if you’re looking for the principal features of a four-seamer, Maton’s offering is wildly lacking. It doesn’t have much velocity. It doesn’t have much vertical movement. The two best things you can add to your four-seamer are velo and vertical break, and his pitch is almost off the scales in how bad it is at those two things. He was already below average at both in 2022, and he lost 2.5 mph and 2.5 inches of relative vertical movement by switching to a cutter. Compare his pitch to the essential features of four-seamers, and it’s lacking.

But it’s just not a four-seamer. It looks a lot like Zack Wheeler’s hard cutter, or like a baby version of Jacob deGrom’s slider. Stuff+ is at its weakest when it can’t figure out what a pitcher’s primary option is, with cutter-primary guys giving the system fits over the years. Maton is an extreme version of that. He might not throw a single true “fastball” in 2024; nothing straight, nothing over 90 mph.

Despite that, he’s going to have plenty of options against batters on both sides of the plate. Lefties? He’s more or less cutter/curveball; he threw a handful of sweeping sliders to lefties in 2023, but the Rays tend to nip plans like that in the bud. And righties face an impossible dilemma; he throws each of his three best pitches roughly a third of the time, and they play off of each other phenomenally well. Maton might be the toughest at-bat for righty hitters facing the Rays right now, and they’re not exactly short on good pitching.

If this all sounds too good to be true, well, it might be. There’s one obvious pitfall to building your entire arsenal out of breaking balls: walks. Bendy stuff doesn’t hit the strike zone as much, and it’s harder to climb back into counts with cutters and curves than with fastballs. Great cutter-dominant pitchers can do it, but cutters simply aren’t that easy to command. Maton’s bumpy July was a perfect example of that. He told Laurila that he had poor feel for the fastball that month, which then crept into his other pitches.

That’s a scary downside; Maton was unplayable that month, and if he can’t land cutters consistently, hitters will just be able to wait him out. But when it’s hitting the zone, what are they supposed to do? Everything moves a lot, the cutter garners a ton of popups, the curveball is essentially unhittable, and particularly against righties, he attacks more parts of the zone than they can credibly defend.

Want to make some unrealistic comparisons? Great! Me too! I think that Maton could be a relief ace right away. I think he could be Shane Bieber, the reliever version; all impeccable breaking balls to the point where there’s no need for a fastball anymore. I think he could be the most important pitcher in the best bullpen in the league. We all know the Rays love different looks from their relievers; this is a very different look.

Imagine facing Maton in one trip to the plate and then Pete Fairbanks and his 99-mph gas the next time up. Imagine going from Maton to Jason Adam, or Colin Poche’s funky fastball, or Chris Devenski’s all-changeup diet. I don’t know for sure that Maton is going to be incredible, of course, but I have a feeling that this one is going to work out really well. Tampa Bay is one of the best teams in baseball at getting the most out of pitchers. Maton’s pitch mix was already overwhelming in 2023 without his having a perfect grasp of his new primary pitch. It’s a match made in heaven for the erstwhile Devil Rays, and I think he’s going to give the rest of the league fits right away.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 months ago

Maton is going straight on to my end of draft RP list, thanks!