A season like 2020 can be unfair to a relief pitcher. With their already reduced workload, one or two bad outings can have an outsize impact on the final season numbers, making us think they’re worse than they actually are. I’m not going to sit here and say Joe Borowski was necessarily good in 2007, but I think the league-leading 45 saves was more descriptive of his quality than the 5.07 ERA, if only marginally. Relievers are susceptible to ebbs and flows though, good luck and bad, and the smaller outcomes — whiffs, strikeouts, walks — often matter more than what we think of as traditional “success”.
That’s why you should ignore your own thoughts when you look at Phil Maton’s season ERA at 4.87 and start thinking that he wasn’t that good. Here’s a guy who strikes out a third of all hitters and walks just 6.7%. Does that ERA really mean that much? Maybe, maybe not. He wasn’t perfect, that’s for sure. Maton was a nice surprise though, and certainly had a tale of two halves kind of season, even if it was barely more than two months.
In July and August, Maton looked like a hidden gem, yet another coup of a trade return from the Padres for Cleveland, this time for international bonus slot money. Maton is your classic Spin Rate Guy if that’s a thing that can be classic since we just started measuring it like five years ago. While his fastball isn’t that flashy on the radar gun for a reliever at 94 mph, it comes whirling out of his hand like a frisbee.
He rated in the 97th percentile in fastball and cutter spin and the 92nd percentile in curve spin. This resulted in a cutter with a top-5 in all of baseball horizontal movement of 10.3 inches — basically a slider without the funky arm action — and a curve that broke horizontally 17.9 inches (48% better than average) with 57.6 inches of drop which was still a decent 6% better than the average reliever’s curveball. Spin rate matters, and between Maton, Aaron Civale, and a couple other younger of the newer guys on the team, we’re seeing Cleveland see this, know this, and take advantage of it.
It really worked for Maton, at least for a while. In fact, from his first appearance on July 31 against the Twins, where he struck out two and gave up two hits in an innings’ work, through Sept. 2, Maton held a 0.73 ERA. He had struck out 17 of the 48 batters he’d faced, walked just one, and of the nine hits he allowed, only a home run off the bat of Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward scored a run. He was excellent, and with James Karinchak making himself known and Emmanuel Clase waiting in the wings next year you could already see a new triumvirate to rival the Allen/Miller/Shaw combo falling into place.
Relievers have bad outings. So maybe when he lasted just a third of an inning against the Brewers on Sept. 4, coughing up two hits, a walk, and three earned runs that saw his ERA skyrocket to 2.85, that’s all that was. For the month of September though, as Cleveland fought direly to keep in the race and maybe even earn a division crown, Maton pitched 10.1 innings, opponents posted an .844 OPS against him, and he allowed 16 runs (10 earned) with a 16/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He just fell apart. It was terrible to watch.
It could have just been one of those swoons that decent but not amazing relievers go through. Some of us maybe got a little excited about how great he was to start the year, and by all rights there was evidence of it being real. Maton posted a .273 BABIP in July and August, and even with the bad September a 44.7% ground ball rate is at least decent. In September that BABIP bounced to .500, so he was blatantly unlucky to a degree. If he’d had a full season to work it out and get the numbers to normalize a bit more, figure another 15 or 20 appearances, maybe we’d see an ERA in the mid to high 2.00’s or low 3.00’s. Maton didn’t have the opportunity to do that, so now he’s stuck with a bad ERA, even if the 2.22 FIP makes real Mato heats know what’s up.
It could be that he was a bit overused, especially down the stretch. Interim manager Sandy Alomar seemed to fall in love with him, as any manager does with one reliever or another. Maton was effective though, and for most of the year outside of really just four appearances, that works. Those four appearances accounted for 11 of the 13 runs he allowed all season. We talked a lot before the season about how this was going to be a year of wild numbers and big swings one way or another, and Maton is just a victim of that. I expect him to be a mainstay in the bullpen for a few years though.
His stuff is good, he gets a ton of movement, and even if the velocity isn’t anything approaching elite, everything else is. That’s a good recipe for success.