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Phil Maton’s ‘Walk Year’ Off To A Fine Start

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Like plenty of relievers, Phil Maton’s career has been, let’s say, volatile. There have been stretches when the right-hander looked utterly fantastic (see: 2021 postseason). Then there were instances when at least one or two wheels fell off (see: 2021 and 2022 regular seasons). Thanks to an ill-timed locker punch, he never had a chance to throw during the Astros’ postseason run to another World Series title last fall.

Acquired from Cleveland at the 2021 trade deadline, it has been a bit of a guess how the Astros could utilize him, especially once Héctor Neris and Bryan Abreu joined the relief corps. Regardless of his role, Maton has had to rely upon other means to acquire outs without overwhelming velocity. One manner of this is his ability to generate spin on his pitches, which has consistently placed in the higher percentile ranks. Two of his most used pitches — curveball and four-seam fastball — are currently in the 94th and 98th percentile, respectively. The spin rate on his four-seam in particular allows him to challenge hitters higher in the zone. He rarely throws his four-seam much in the lower half of the zone, especially this season. Look familiar?

The primary issue for Maton over the years, however, stems from inconsistent results. Following his arrival in Houston in 2021, Maton finished his partial stint that season with a 4.97 ERA/4.08 FIP following a 4.57 ERA/3.15 FIP during his time in Cleveland that season. Alas, when acquired, Maton’s walk rate only slightly improved while his strikeout rate dropped by roughly 14%. Small sample size alert right here, but still not a great trend. While his results in 2022 were generally solid, yet unspectacular (3.84 ERA/4.33 FIP), we did see Maton’s strikeout rate increase back to around 26% while his walk rate dipped below 10%, finishing at 8.5% on the season. At least it was progress, right?

The question was always around about when Maton would take that next step forward in his career. He has mostly had favorable Statcast numbers even if the traditional results weren’t always up to par. It always felt as if he was on the precipice of taking that next step, especially as he traversed his arbitration years leading up to free agency next winter. For 2023, at least to start the campaign, I think it is fair to state that this is the case based on the results (0.77 ERA/2.33 FIP) and Maton’s Statcast data to date.

That is a lot of red, minus the obvious fastball velocity ranking. Maton’s strikeout rate is now flirting with 30%, but more importantly, his walk rate has plummeted to a minuscule 2.4%. Only 12 pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched last season and this season have lowered their walk rates more than Maton. This development has been one of the key reasons why his performance has taken off this season, primarily by keeping the ball in the zone more often. While maintaining a 2.4% walk rate is probably unrealistic, I’d expect some regression to occur. Hopefully, that regression, if it occurs, doesn’t swing too much the other way, but the reduction is encouraging.

As with teammate Rafael Montero before him last season, Maton’s performance has been a positive development for Houston and he will likely get a large sum of money because of it, from the Astros or someone else. For this season, Maton’s re-emergence, if I can even call it that, only gives Dusty Baker another reliever for higher leverage situations. With Montero struggling in May, I wonder if we’ll see Maton absorb more of those later innings in the future. Regardless, at this rate, Maton is setting himself up nicely for a substantial payday this upcoming winter.