The Surprising Intrigue of Phil Maton

See if this story is familiar. A pitcher’s fastball appears so-so using traditional metrics but is revealed to possess off-the-chart spin rates. The pitcher then succeeds by locating up in the zone, taking advantage of that trait. At first glance, Astros reliever Phil Maton fits the bill. Here’s what he usually does with his four-seamer:

Maton’s fastball velocity is in the 20th percentile, but that doesn’t matter too much, because its spin rate is in the 92nd percentile. It’s what makes him big league viable — well, at least that’s the popular narrative. What isn’t as commonly known is this: Maton might have the league’s zaniest fastball. Zaniest? Trust me, this is an appropriate use of that word.

The anatomy of a fastball is complex, but let’s start with movement. Using our site’s pitch type splits, we see that Maton’s fastball has averaged 6.5 inches of ride (vertical movement) and 0.5 inches of run (horizontal movement) in 2021. The lack of vertical movement is strange, but hardly outlandish; plenty of major league fastballs are similarly deficient. What stands out is the absence of arm-side run. Consider Gerrit Cole’s fastball, the gold standard for righties, which features around seven inches of run and 10 inches of ride. There’s ample movement in both directions with an emphasis on the upward, bat-missing variety. Maton’s fastball is different; it’s as straight as an arrow and sinks like a stone. What gives?

Before that, here’s some necessary context. Research has shown that four-seam fastballs are most influenced by the Magnus effect, which contributes to a pitch’s movement. It’s why a majority of them have a high percentage of active, or transverse, spin. If you consider how a four-seamer is typically gripped and then released, it would seem impossible to disrupt its seam orientation in such a way that produces jarring movement. Maton is probably shying away from convention, then, because his four-seamer produces the following data:

Maton Spin Direction Data
Pitch Type Active Spin % Spin-Based Dir. Observed Dir. Deviation
FF 63 12:30 11:45 45
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This is not a drill. Maton achieves a greater axis shift on his heater than Jonathan Loaisiga, renowned sinker-baller; heck, it’s the most of any four-seamer thrown at least 100 times this season. That, combined with the low percentage of active spin, leads me to believe he throws what many refer to as a ‘gyro’ fastball – a four-seamer with the sort of tumbling spin associated with a football. What’s intriguing is that unlike transverse spin, gyro spin doesn’t contribute to a pitch’s movement. No wonder Maton’s fastball behaves like it does! In this example, we can see how much the pitch drops, almost straight down:

How we might have perceived and valued this movement profile has changed over time. While it’s technically true that gyro spin itself doesn’t affect movement, it’s now known that a certain amount of gyro spin is converted to transverse spin during the ball’s flight. In the case of four-seamers, the result is a few extra inches of glove-side run from a righty’s perspective and a minimal loss of ride. And unlike most pitchers, Maton’s fastball is heavy on gyro enough for this effect to shine. Without that secret ingredient, we’d expect the pitch to draft toward his right. But a late, unexpected break in the opposite direction cancels that out — hence the mere 0.5 inches of horizontal movement. In other words, Maton’s fastball behaves like a cutter, but one whose movement is obscured by traditional, spin-based projected movement. In a way, its absence is proof of its presence.

Still, this doesn’t explain why Maton locates his fastball as if it plays up. I suppose the mantra of “fastballs up, breakers down” is universal, but with a less-than-average ride, it makes sense to explore the bottom third of the strike zone. The GIF from earlier isn’t a one-off instance; Maton’s fastballs really do end up there most of the time. But let’s give him, and to an extent his team, the benefit of the doubt. What does he accomplish that would aid him in pitching up in the zone?

For one, the release height on his fastball is 5.4 feet, much lower than this season’s league average of 5.9 feet. That likely helps Maton achieve a flat approach angle, with his fastball crossing home plate in a manner that gives off the illusion of ride and somewhat mitigating the lack of raw vertical movement. In addition, he is able to generate around seven feet of extension, making his typical velocity range of 91–93 mph appear a tick or two faster to opposing hitters, who then have less time to adjust. Add in a vertical arm slot as the cherry on top, and there’s a delivery bound to confuse and deceive:

But something can definitely be said about his non-fastballs, too. In any case, a pitcher’s fastball is the foundation of his repertoire, and the effectiveness of his secondaries is partially tied to how they play off the heater. The unique shape of Maton’s four-seamer grants him a distinct advantage in this regard. Below are his four main offerings, plotted in terms of vertical and horizontal movement:

It’s like a descending staircase, with each pitch a step. Owing to how straight the four-seamer is, Maton is able to create four distinct ranges of vertical and horizontal movement, albeit with some overlap. This isn’t common; had his fastball possessed a normal amount of run, the points representing it would have been positioned above the cutters. That doesn’t spell doom for a pitcher; there’s just less variety overall. Maton achieves the same effect with velocity, with his four-seamer sitting at 91–93 mph, cutter at 86–88, slider at 81–83, and curveball at 75–77.

The movement graph left me with a mystery, though. Compared to an average player — nothing about Maton is average, it seems — the range of horizontal and vertical movement associated with his fastball is extremely wide. Part of that, I think, is the difficulty in measuring a pitch that operates with a hefty amount of gyro spin. If you look at Kenta Maeda’s movement plot, for example, his ultra-gyro slider spans over 10 inches of horizontal movement. But I did begin to wonder if Maton could tap into different areas on the movement spectrum, similar to how Bryan Shaw elects to rely on a four-seam variant of his cutter with two strikes. The results were underwhelming: There’s no statistically significant difference in the amount of ride Maton generates by count. Horizontal movement did fare a little better, but not by much.

All these numbers are cool, but what do they mean for Maton? The answer is straightforward. Movement, release height, extension, velocity differential — all these factors have combined forces to create a fastball that generates whiffs at an astronomical rate:

Four-Seam Whiff% Leaders, 2021
Player Pitch% Whiff/Swing%
Alex Vesia 74.3% 40.5%
Phil Maton 50.1% 38.4%
Joe Ross 16.0% 37.7%
Yu Darvish 20.0% 36.6%
Sam Howard 46.4% 37.5%

Even here, Maton stands out. Darvish, Howard, and Vesia’s offerings are all vertical break heavyweights. Ross, not so much, but his four-seam fastballs account for just 16% of all pitches. Maton maintains a similar whiff rate with a much higher usage and the second-lowest run value of the bunch, at +2.

Despite this, however, the baseball gods haven’t been too kind to him. From 2020 through this season, Maton has tossed 72.2 innings with a strikeout rate of 31.9% and a 3.08 FIP but also a 4.33 ERA. Cruel, BABIP can be. And sure, he could strive to lower his high-ish walk rate, but it’s clear the results have yet to reflect his stuff. Perhaps that’s why the Astros picked him up at the deadline, hoping to benefit from an underperforming oddity. They also acquired Yimi García, whose own fastball is characterized by gyro spin, but to a lesser extent. Could it be that the team is experimenting with gyro heaters and their efficacy? I don’t know, but I do know it’s fun to imagine.

Don’t underestimate Maton; he may look and act like an ordinary reliever next door, but he’s anything but. In reality, he relies on one of the weirdest fastballs in existence, and he gets results, too, with room for improvement. It took a while for us to fully appreciate it. But as they say, it’s better late than never.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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Left of Centerfield
2 years ago

As a Cleveland fan, I was quite happy that they traded surprising intrigue (Maton) for actual production (Myles Straw). Granted, I don’t expect Straw to continue playing at the level he has since the trade, but even if he drops back a bit, he’s the best Cleveland OFer since they let Brantley go.

BTW, looking at Maton’s splits, he pitches a lot better with no one on base than when there are runners on base:

Bases empty: .234/.303/.387
Runners on: .277/.364/.479

No idea why that is but that definitely limits his value since you have to be careful how you use him.

Travis Lmember
2 years ago

FWIW, Maton’s splits are based on ~200 IP (his whole career), and he carries a 3.63 xFIP with the bases empty, but ~4.6 xFIP with men on base. (In general, I think most pitchers are worse with men on base – but not by this much).

I am not so confident that this is his true talent level, but given the IPs and the size of the delta, there may be something to it. If he truly is doing something different or less effective from the stretch, I think that could be coachable.

You bring up a good point, it’s something to watch for. But I don’t think I’d reduce his value by too much.

Joe Joemember
2 years ago

As an Astros fan, I think Cleveland should be very happy with the deal. Even if Maton’s ERA is a fluke, it is tough for a reliever with less control to match the value of a 2nd division starter (I think Straw likely regresses a good amount, but still is a starter going forward). I get why the Astros traded Straw, but I’m a little surprised by the return.