When the Astros traded Myles Straw to the now-Cleveland Guardians during last season’s trade deadline, I honestly thought a more significant trade was in the works. Perhaps for Byron Buxton? We may never know. Little did we also know the faith that James Click would have in Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and Jose Siri in center field, but the Straw trade felt like a setup for the baseball equivalent of a volleyball strike.
Lo and behold, the Astros let the pretend volleyball simply glide over the net as they were ultimately content in walking away with reliever Phil Maton and a promising minor league catcher in Yainer Diaz. While the latter deserves more attention, the former is my focus point for today. After all, Maton will likely assume a rather important role in Houston’s bullpen in 2022 if his usage in 2021 was any indication.
For a club looking for relief help last season but who didn’t want to break the tax threshold, it is clear why the Astros would take an interest in Maton’s services. Before his trade to Houston, Maton was primarily utilized in a middle relief role with the occasional late-inning assignment in Cleveland with an attention-grabbing 34.3 percent strikeout rate in 41 1⁄3 innings. By July 31, only four qualified relievers possessed a higher swinging strike rate than Maton’s 17.2 percent (Raisel Iglesias, Josh Hader, Liam Hendriks, and Craig Kimbrel). Only nine qualified relievers had a higher Called Strike Plus Whiff Rate (CSW) than Maton’s 34 percent through that same date.
Alas, Maton isn’t without his flaws, which is why he was likely available last season. For one, the right-hander’s fastball velocity isn’t incredible, as it ranked in the 20th percentile last season. The spin rate mitigates this issue, though. He also has a bit of a walk problem, as evidenced by his 11.2 percent with Cleveland. There was only a marginal improvement with the Astros following the trade with a 10.1 percent walk rate. His strikeout rate also dropped following the trade to 20.2 percent. Between those issues and a BABIP that ran somewhere between .346 to .356 between his two clubs, it is understandable why his ERA would look unimpressive in the mid-to-high-four range as it did with both Cleveland and Houston.
But something interesting happened in the postseason, albeit it occurred in a small sample: The strikeouts returned, the walks were limited, and his BABIP dropped. Of course, when we’re discussing BABIP, it takes quite a lengthy amount of time before the metric stabilizes. I would caution against even pointing to his strikeout and walk numbers without noting that we’re talking about a limited sample here. That said, Maton’s postseason performance (0.73 ERA, 2.68 FIP in 12 1⁄3 innings) does demonstrate what he could be if the stars aligned for him. Interestingly, Maton’s fastball usage in the regular season decreased from 47.7 percent in Cleveland to 40.9 percent in Houston; that usage rebounded to 49.4 percent in the postseason.
With Kendall Graveman now a member of the White Sox, there is an opportunity for Maton to assume a more prominent role in 2022. Suppose he can carry over some of that postseason production. In that case, the Astros have another reliable option to turn to in crucial situations in addition to Ryan Pressly and Ryne Stanek. Let’s see what happens.