How Blue Jays' Steven Matz overcame rough patches to thrive in August

Mike Petriello Talks about how Steven Matz has played in the second half, Robbie Ray’s strikeouts and Blue Jays needing defence in the outfield.

Between the consistent dominance of Robbie Ray, the ascension of Alek Manoah and the roller-coaster of José Berríos’s Toronto Blue Jays tenure, it’s been pretty easy to miss what Steven Matz has been up to lately.

While Matz has experienced a few rough patches this season — and looked like a candidate to lose his rotation job after Berríos came aboard — the southpaw enters Wednesday’s start coming off the best month of his career by ERA (1.30).

In his five August starts, the 30-year-old conceded just four runs, and now his ERA for season (3.81) is just 0.01 higher than Yu Darvish and his FIP (3.79) is 0.03 off the pace of German Marquez. FanGraphs estimates his value at $15.7 million — more than three times what the Blue Jays are paying him.

While it can be unwise to overreact to a handful of starts, Matz has made some tweaks that could help him in the season’s finishing stretch, and possibly into 2022. The first is an increased reliance on fastballs resulting in a drop in slider usage, a positive development considering hitters are slugging .571 against Matz’s slider this year.

More important than the southpaw’s increased fastball usage, is how he’s wielding the pitch, particularly against right-handed hitters. Because of his solid changeup, Matz has rarely run extreme splits, but during the first four months of the season, righties were teeing off on him to the tune of a .277/.334/.451 line — approximately the production level of Bo Bichette.

If every guy you face is hitting like Bichette, you might need to revisit your approach, and Matz’s was attacking right-handers with fastballs up and away.

In August, though, he seemed to make a concerted effort to pound the inside part of the plate as a way to jam them.

That pounding of the inside corner, particularly up-and-in, seemed to work wonders as righties managed a meagre .226/.273/.312 line against him, similar to Joe Panik’s 2021 line. When you’re turning Bichette into Panik, you’re doing something right — and in Matz’s case, he created plenty of harmless popups, like this mortar shot off the bat of Miguel Cabrera.

Matz’s August has been one of the best five-start spans of his career in terms of generating popups.

And that's helped drive a career-best stretch when it comes to suppressing home runs on a per-flyball basis.

While it’s tough to tell the sustainability of contact-suppression numbers over such a short period of time, the way Matz has changed the shape of the contact against him recently is impressive.

In recent starts, the left-hander has consistently succeeded at forcing higher, more harmless balls in the air. While it would be unfair to crown him the next Marco Estrada just yet, it’s a notable change of pace for a guy who struggled with the long ball for much of the season, and put up truly atrocious contact-management numbers in 2020.

If Matz had a breakout month by doing his best Ray impression and missing every bat in sight, it would be easy to have confidence that he’s found a new gear. Instead, he’s actually run an extremely low strikeout rate (6.51 K/9) in August while showing off an unfamiliar contact-management skillset that’s tougher to completely believe in — even if it is backed by some tweaks to his approach.

Whether Matz’s hot August is the harbinger of things to come or not, he’s more than done his part to keep the club’s fading playoff hopes alive. That deserves some recognition, and if he’s able to maintain his pace — or anything close to it — the question of whether the Blue Jays want to invest in lengthening his time with the club will become far more interesting than it looked for most of the season.

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