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Phil Maton could be a key reliever for the Astros, so long as his bad luck stays in Cleveland

The newest addition to the Astros’ relief corps could thrive if the Baseball Gods decide to stop screwing with him.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros entered Friday with a trio of newly acquired relievers and came out the other side of yesterday’s deadline with a quartet, adding Indians reliever Phil Maton in a deal that sent starting center fielder Myles Straw to Cleveland.

Maton, a 28-year-old right-handed pitcher, solidifies the Astros’ middle-relief personnel and could be one of the bridges to All-Star closer Ryan Pressly. He is also under team control for two more years.

On the surface, it’s a trade of questionable validity, as Maton’s career ERA in four-plus seasons is 4.74, but beneath it, general manager James Click acquired a reliever who has quietly been good the past two years.

After the Indians traded for Maton in July 2019, the former 20th-round pick became a strikeout fiend, punching out 34.3 percent of the batters he faced in the 75 innings he logged for Cleveland.

2020 is when everything came together for Maton. Although his 4.57 ERA would suggest otherwise, he was in the Top 10 percent in terms of hard-hit rate, barrel rate, whiff rate and strikeout rate, and was 78th percentile in walk rate. Moreover, he finished the season with an Expected ERA (xERA) of 2.68 and a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 2.22.

In 2021, Maton hasn’t excelled in every aspect of pitching — something that is hard to do and even harder to replicate — but there’s reason to believe he can and should be a highly effective bullpen arm, despite his ERA again sitting at 4.57.

According to ERA estimators such as FIP and Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA), Maton has been a victim of fairly excessive bad luck this year, as he was in 2020. His 3.13 FIP and 3.13 SIERA indicate that the Astros’ new reliever has not only been pitching well — per the descriptive metric FIP — but projects favorably going forward — per the predictive metric SIERA.

Maton is armed with a four-pitch mix but his bread and butter is his low-90s four-seam fastball and mid-70s curveball. Surprise, surprise, each possesses an elite spin rate.

Although the Kentucky native’s exit velocities have gone in the wrong direction this year, he’s still retained the ability to miss a ton of bats, as evidenced by a 98th percentile whiff rate. He’s accomplished this by doing what is commonplace for pitchers nowadays — four-seamers up, breaking balls down.

via Baseball Savant

Despite the downgraded batted ball data, which is primarily due to a barrel rate that’s almost double his career figure, Maton’s peripherals remain strong. Comprehensive metrics like Expected wOBA (xwOBA) place him in the Top 30 percent among all pitchers, and that could wind up being light.

Another key facet of Maton’s game that’s notably regressed this season is his walk rate — it’s increased from 6.3 percent to 11.2 percent. That being said, the metric Deserved Walk rate (dBB%), which is available via RotoGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard, has the righty’s walk rate at 7.4 percent.

The seemingly resilient bad luck notwithstanding, what’s especially odd about Maton’s profile is his four-seamer. Even though he’s lost a couple ticks of velocity in 2021, hitters still struggle mightily with making contact against it. It’s difficult to fathom how a fastball that averages just 91.7 mph can miss bats at a rate that’s higher than relief aces Josh Hader and Craig Kimbrel’s upper-90s heaters.

One explanation is perceived velocity. Thanks to the extension Maton generates in his delivery, his fastball’s perceived velocity is 93.6 mph. Only three relievers have a better discrepancy between their four-seamer’s recorded velocity and perceived velocity.

Per his Baseball Savant page, Maton does a decent job of mirroring the spin on his fastball and curveball — which pertains to pitch tunneling — but there could be something else at work here. The fastball’s lack of movement, vertical or horizontal, certainly adds to the mystery.

Whatever the methodology might be, Maton’s results are nonetheless impressive. Click paid a fairly steep price to acquire him, but his attributes align seamlessly with how the organization optimizes its pitchers. If all goes according to plan, Maton could prove to be an excellent high-leverage reliever. He, along with the rest of the Astros’ reformed bullpen, could ultimately determine the club’s fate in October.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant, FanGraphs and Pitch Leaderboard