Astros: Phil Maton, a potential high-ceiling worth waiting on

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /
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After a win over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, the Houston Astros saw success from their starter, Luis Garcia, on a limited pitch count, as well as, from their bullpen. While new acquisitions changed the overall face and production of the late-game arms, Phil Maton has displayed a few inconsistencies, but his potential could be worth Myles Straw.

Potential

Fanbases obsess over it. This phenomenon has been going on in sports for decades and has really intensified now in the Internet /Twitter era of sport. Fans like us get giddy about players who are drafted or acquired by teams we love, and then speculate about their future impact on the team.

Fans can now watch YouTube mixtapes, get measurables at draft combines or from scout notes, and then speculate whether a certain player will be a star in the league.  And often times, these guys never meet these unfair expectations fans put on them.

Year in and year out, NFL fans fall in love with upsides on third-round picks that look great in training camp and preseason, but then that end up amounting to nothing and being out of the league in two years. The NBA has summer league, a two-week ESPN event in Las Vegas where fans watch draft picks play sloppy basketball — how many of those guys end up playing meaningful minutes in the NBA? Less than you think.

Baseball might be the biggest trap of potential obsession, based on the number of players that are drafted each year and the structure of the minor league system. Players can rake in AA and AAA ball for years, climb up the team pipeline ranks and gave fans false long-term hope.

All teams and their fanbases are guilty of this, and the Houston Astros are not any different. For every Carlos Correa, there’s a Mark Appel. For every Kyle Tucker, there’s a Jon Singleton. Sometimes potential is all it is – potential. These players with insane God-given gifts and measurables sometimes just cannot translate that to production on the field and never make it.

So, let’s look at current Astro players with a high ceiling and ask ourselves: Will they reach that potential?

Phil Maton might not be the high-leverage arm needed just yet, but the Astros could soon find potential.

Subject: Phil Maton

The Potential

The first player we’ll analyze is one of the newer additions to the Astros franchise. Phil Maton is a fascinating prospect when you look at his numbers and how he looks on the field. The Kentucky native was a pitcher who played some good college baseball in Louisiana Tech, but was never considered an elite talent at the time. So how does a projected relief pitcher who went in the 20th round of the 2015 MLB draft qualify as a “high ceiling player”? Two words: Spin Rate.

Maton developed his pitching skillset to match his uncanny ability to spin the ball. Now Maton has an incredible 4-seam fastball/curveball/cutter combo with some of the highest spin rates you’ll ever see. Since coming into the league he is averaging higher than 2500 RPMs on his fastballs and higher than 2800 RPMs on his curveball. Since 2017, he’s in the 95th percentile in fastball spin, curveball spin, and whiff rate. Maton is only average with his velocity, but he makes up for it by making the ball a blur to read coming across the plate.

It was clear rather early after being drafted by the Padres in 2015 that he was a Major League pitcher. Maton destroyed A, AA and AAA hitters with a 13K+ per nine rate  throughout the minors and made it up to the big show in less than two years. Maton generated spin rates at Trevor Bauer-levels and was compared to having a skillset similar to someone like Chris Bassitt. Here are the pitchers that most closely match his numbers, spin rates and velocity: Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Bassitt, Johnny Cueto, Rick Porcello – pretty solid company.

…So, what has been the issue?

Maton’s talent is undeniable, but he’s had an issue of putting it together for consistent production. He’s the guy that averages 11.8 K/9 for his career, but also is a -0.6 WAR guy. Maton ranks in the 95th percentile in both WHIFF rates and K percentage but is also in the lower 20th percentile in barrels. He’s a classic case of feast or famine. He’s lights out – one way or the other.

He posted a 4.28 ERA with the San Diego Padres from 2017 through 2019, before getting traded to the Cleveland Indians. With the Indians it was more of the same – Maton generated a bloated 5.00 ERA with a lot of good relief appearances getting weighed down by some horrific outings.

His play in April and May 2021 is a perfect example of Maton’s career thus far. Maton started the season strong, putting together a string of good performances – including striking out the side in a home game against New York Yankees. He followed that up with a May to forget – 9.02 ERA in 10 appearances despite posting an absurd 17.1 SO/9.

It seems like Cleveland got tired of his inconsistent play as well, as he was traded away at the trade deadline. Perhaps this is an example of baseball guys falling in love of the idea or what film it on can be compared to what he is. At age 28, Maton has been a guy with that as demonstrated incredible stuff but is also a guy that two separate teams have given up on. He’s shown the ability to get guys out in bunches and be in elite closer, but his game log suggests he’s a too streaky to ever be able to rely on in high leverage situations.

How are the Astros using him?

Since joining the Astros last month, Maton has been used primarily as a middle inning guy in low-leverage situations. Maton is posting a 5.23 ERA with Houston and What is most interesting is that the right-hander has only generated eight strikeouts in 10 innings pitched for the Astros – that 7.8 strikeout per nine inning rate is the lowest in his career.

However, if you exclude his latest appearance (he gave up three runs to the Royals on Monday), he’s posting a 2.79 ERA with Houston with a solid 1.22 WHIP. Compared to some of the play Houston was getting from the bullpen earlier in the year, that isn’t so bad.

Dusty Baker and Brent Strom appear to be tweaking around with his pitch selection – he’s dropped his fastball usage rate from 52% to 44% with Houston and has also increased his curveball usage (24% to 31%). Maton has also adjusted with his initial pitch – he’s now using an even mix of fastball/curveball/cutter instead of primarily throwing a first-pitch fastball like he was in Cleveland. And when he gets ahead of the count, he’s been leaning on his curveball more and to serious effect – batters are hitting .111 against the curveball and he’s generating a 44% whiff rate.

The sample size is only 10 innings, but there’s some evidence that Houston has a specific vision for Maton on the mound, which has generated some good early results.

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Boom or Bust?

The age ol’ question: will he ever put it together? You could fill hours talking about pitchers with incredible stuff that ultimately did not become an impact player, and Maton might very well fit that mold.  Maton is an analytic darling among “smart” baseball guys who love spin rates and weak contact. But I get worried when two teams have given up on him before he’s even turned 30.

Maton is so gifted and skilled that it’s hard for me not to see him pitch another 8 years in the league. But can Brent Strom reach Maton’s very high ceiling? Can he turn him from a low-leverage arm to a high-leverage shutdown inning star? He’ll never have the velocity of a power closer like Liam Hendriks or Craig Kimbrel, but the movement and deception he possesses makes you feel he could reach some elite heights – think someone like Chris Devenski at his 2017, or a lesser-version of Devin Williams.

Maton is arbitration-eligible this offseason and will be a free agent in 2024, so Houston should have ample time to evaluate his long-term fit.  I may be a sucker like all those Padre and Guardian fans were before, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Phil Maton. Strom usually can get the best out of pitchers, and getting the best out of Maton would be huge for Houston – and would be a problem for the rest of the AL West.

Verdict: Boom

dark. Next. Alex Bregman’s return could be imminent

The Astros look to win the series on Wednesday at 1:10 p.m. with Lance McCullers Jr. countering left-hander Mike Minor. The game will be broadcasted on YouTube, while Alex Bregman will also be activated tomorrow.

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