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It may be time to start worrying about Phil Maton

A strength in recent years, the veteran reliever is struggling to miss bats and record strikeouts in 2022.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When the Astros bullpen carried the starting rotation in last year’s postseason, Phil Maton was instrumental in the middle innings, acting as the relief staff’s fireman.

He produced a 0.73 ERA in 12 13 innings while striking out almost 29 percent of the batters he faced, minimizing walks and limiting opposing hitters to a .196 batting average in the process.

It was an incredible run for Maton that featured his peak form, which he’s understandably and perhaps predictably failed to replicate in 2022.

The sample size is relatively small, but the decrease in quality has been fairly severe.

Entering Monday, the 29-year-old righty has a 4.35 ERA across 10 13 innings. Though it compares favorably to his career figure of 4.75, Maton’s underlying data is rather troubling, signified by a 6.66 xERA. It’s a strangely inverse earned-run profile, as the former 20th-round pick has historically posted superior peripherals to mediocre ERA marks. But it is befitting of the accrued data.

What stands out the most is a substantially lower strikeout rate via a steep decline in whiffs.

In five-plus seasons, Maton’s strikeout rate is 25.9 percent. In 2022, it’s 14.9 percent.

In general, this is an ominous development for any pitcher, but it’s particularly damaging for Maton, as much of his past success was hinged on his ability to miss bats and generate strikeouts.

Despite possessing below-average velocity, Maton’s four-seam fastball has induced a good number of whiffs throughout his career, especially the last two years. Not only has an elite spin rate helped compensate for the lack of velo, but in 2021, an average perceived velocity of 93.4 mph was roughly two ticks higher than his fastball’s standard average velocity of 91.5 mph.

In 2022, both figures have noticeably dipped, and it’s ostensibly affected the viability of the pitch, which in turn seems to have greatly impacted the effectiveness of Maton’s overall repertoire.

Additionally, there is a marked change in fastball location, with 2022 displaying a healthy concentration comfortably inside the strike zone:

While throwing more strikes is typically a good thing, the quality of strikes might be lesser compared to 2021, when Maton’s heater was aimed primarily at the upper edges of the zone:

The difference isn’t exactly emblematic of Maton’s struggles, but it may be a contributing factor nonetheless.

What could be equally problematic for Maton has been his inability to consistently get ahead in the count, which is paramount for pitchers.

In 2021, his True F-Strike rate was 50.8 percent (league average = 49.9 percent), including a 54.2 percent clip in the postseason. In 2022, it’s fallen drastically to 44.7 percent.

For context, many of the game’s premier arms such as Gerrit Cole, Julio Urías, Chris Sale, Zack Wheeler and Brandon Woodruff were at or near the top of the True F-Strike leaderboard in 2021.

As far as positives go, there are a few for Maton. He’s in the Top 3 percent in the league in hard-hit rate, he’s almost cut his 2021 walk rate by half, and his fastball has gained a notable amount of vertical movement, per Brooks Baseball. On that front, however, it’s worth noting that his slider — the only pitch that has missed bats this year — has lost significant vertical movement, according to both Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.

It’s another indication that Maton could still be in the process of building up arm strength and refining the sharpness of his arsenal after a shortened spring training. For the time being, it might be wise for the Astros to limit his high-leverage work until he rediscovers the form he showed late last year.