Outside of Cleveland, Phil Maton isn’t exactly a household name. He isn’t in Cleveland really, either. If anything, he’s one of those “not Karinchak” relievers that come in between the starter and Brad Hand’s Wild Ride that makes our eyes unfocus unconsciously as outs get recorded.
Between him, Cam Hill, and probably someone I’m forgetting, there are a lot of “those guys” in the bullpen. It’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s not as far as numbers go with only playing a couple of games, but how can you be mad about a 1.59 ERA and a 34.8% strikeout rate without a walk allowed? It might not be a sample size thing though, not all the way anyway. If anything, Phil Maton is exactly the reliever Cleveland is looking for.
Every team wants an entire bullpen full of James Karinchaks and Liam Hendrikses and Jordan Hickses. Not every team can afford to have that much sheer velocity though. Cleveland did try to put that together, pairing Karinchak with Emmanuel Clase, but that cost a 3-time Cy Young winner. Maton, meanwhile, showed up in Cleveland in exchange for international slot money. It’s about as unheralded and forgettable a trade as you can put together.
At first glance, he shouldn’t be that good anyway, averaging a below average 91 mph on his fastball in an era where a bullpen arm basically has to be a firebreather. The thing about Maton though, he’s elite when it comes to spinning the ball, and it leads to results. Literally nobody in the entire game gets as much horizontal movement on his cutter as Maton does, and his curve drops 4.3 inches better than average and moves horizontally 6.4 inches better than average. That second mark is 51% better than the average curve. Even with a middling fastball, that can be dangerous.
Honestly, it’s more a slider almost, and pairs so nicely with the curve. Velocity is always nice. Again though, that’s expensive, whether for trade or in actual dollar amounts. It cost the Cubs Gleyber Torres to get Aroldis Chapman for like three months, and it cost the Yankees $86 million to get Chapman back. Neither of these things are expenses the Indians can regularly afford for a top flight reliever. So they look for other things, things like spin rate.
Maton clocks super high in that, ranking third in cutter spin rate at 2822 rpm and 18th in curve spin rate at 2942 rpm. Just like Aaron Civale, who I’ve written about before. Even Cam Hill is doing it, ranking in the top 50 of all of baseball with his curve spin and gets 7.7 more inches of drop on it than average.
Spin on its own isn’t always helpful — Adam Plutko has like the 9th highest spin rate on his curve, but its break is average at best — but Maton, like Civale and Hill, has found the way to spin it to great effect. Cleveland saw that, told him to throw more cutters, and the results speak for themselves.
The elite fastball helps paper over any issues or not having a pitch or two for most relievers. That Cleveland has to go to battle with a corps of pitchers that will almost certainly won’t throw harder than the starter they’re coming into relieve is a bit of a problem, but it’s one that they have to deal with right now. Doing that by having pitches that pair well with that middling fastball, pitches like a tight-breaking curve or a maskable cutter, makes that four-seamer much more impactful. Nearly the entire staff, and really that entire 2016 class of Plesac, Bieber, and Civale are more than the sum of their individual pitches, and the front office has to find things that work, that maybe aren’t so obvious and readily available.
It’s players like Maton, who wasn’t really that amazing in San Diego but also wasn’t being used correctly (barely even threw his cutter, 2.4% in 2018 to 37.5% now), that make it hard to not trust Cleveland’s scouting, development and overall organizational construct. They’re not perfect, they certainly make it hard to be a fan sometimes with the incredible lack of resources, but they find what works, and lean right on it. Maybe some day they can figure out how to find arms like the White Sox have for their bullpen, but at the end of the day, results matter. If this tact of theirs works — and Clase come back effective — then who cares?
Baffling a hitter is more fun than overpowering him, anyway.