Phil Maton: Drifting Toward Success?

Phil Maton is entering his fourth major league season. A righty reliever, he was drafted by the Padres in the 20th round in 2015. His accelerated ascension to San Diego (two years) was inspired by an impressive professional start in the minor leagues. He spent the summer of his draft year with the Padres’ short-season A affiliate where the 597th overall pick dominated. He was easily the Tri-City Dust Devils’ best pitcher. He led pitchers with more than six innings pitched in strikeouts, strikeout rate, ERA and xFIP, placing second in walk rate and WHIP. His success even came with a .365 BABIP. He was unstoppable, a man among boys.

The following season, he started in full A before climbing to A advanced and skipping AA to finish up in AAA, continuing to tear through batters at all levels, in some respects, getting better amid his escalation. Come 2017, Maton was back in AAA, a step away from the big leagues. He wasn’t able to match his previous success but that expectation would be unreasonable. Instead, he pitched to a very productive 2.84 ERA or 2.78 FIP with a .229 opponent’s average, 29.8% strikeout rate, all good for a 1.18 WHIP. 

It was in June that Maton received his inevitable call to join San Diego. After making his major league debut on the 11th, he stuck around through the season as a solid piece of the Padres’ bullpen, ultimately throwing 43 innings, surrendering a 4.19 ERA/5.09 FIP and maintaining a strong strikeout rate of 25.6%. What went wrong was the home runs. Among pitchers with 40 innings pitched in 2017, Phil’s HR/FB rate of 26.3% ranked third, a hair below 2% away from the lead. His xFIP offers insight into what a less home run plagued season may have looked like for Maton: 3.64.

After showing signs of promise in his rookie campaign, Phil broke camp with the Padres in 2018. Despite spending some time on the then disabled list and embarking on a brief minor league assignment he logged 47 and one-third major league innings. A very superficial look may suggest Maton’s 2018 season was similar to his previous performance, when in fact, quite the opposite is true. Dropping his home run to flyball rate over 20% was monumental in some under the hood changes – considering his ground ball rate also plummeted, by 10%, this was necessary. But after allowing more batters to reach base – his WHIP jumping .26, H/IP by .10 and walk rate by 3% – he allowed virtually as many runners to cross the plate.

Those extra hits came without extra batted balls. A disproportionate number of the batted balls Maton surrendered dropped for hits. His .359 BABIP ranked seventh among pitchers with 40 innings in 2018. This is what allowed him to attain a respectable 3.25 FIP. It’s also worth noting his strikeout rate increased a meaningless tenth of a percent, thus he didn’t overcompensate (in FIP) for his increased walk rate with strikeouts. Now allowing far fewer home runs, his fielding independent outcomes were well under control. However, the new issue restricting Phil’s productivity was batted balls.

Cred. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

2019 involved a great deal of travel for Maton. Playing for four teams in two organizations he collected 66 innings. While he did spend more time in the Major Leagues, both with San Diego and, after a trade, Cleveland, he was shuttled back to AAA (Columbus and El Paso) on numerous occasions. The time he did spend with his big league clubs wasn’t quite as successful as in previous seasons. His HR/FB rate jumped again to 20% and his BABIP settled at .284. As a result, all of his ERA (6.14), FIP (5.04) and xFIP (4.46) climbed to far less than ideal numbers. His strikeout rate also sunk to 20.3% – the lowest of his career at any level.

The numbers were ugly, however that was all before he was dealt to Cleveland in mid-July. It’s a small sample size, just 12 and a third innings over 9 appearances, but Maton was much better after that change of scenery. His HR/FB rate dropped to 12.5% and he rediscovered his strikeout rate (27.1%) however he also saw a decline in his BABIP to a minuscule .111. Thus, he improved, however many of his numbers were inflated. That’s why his 2.92 ERA in Cleveland rose to a 3.86 FIP or 4.64 xFIP. Nonetheless, it was a successful stretch. A glimpse into what the 27-year-old can offer. But what can he change to make that success stick?

Digging deeper into his previous accomplishments and failures reveals one especially interesting detail. Back in 2018, when Phil’s batted balls seemed to find gaps, much of the damage was done on singles. Despite his aforementioned inflated BABIP, his wOBACON was just .309 with a .307 expected slugging percentage. Not only are these numbers impressive on their own, but their proximity also emphasizes just how few extra-base hits Phil surrendered. For context, 2019’s xSLG and xwOBA leader was Gerrit Cole. About 42% of Cole’s surrendered hits were extra base hits compared to Maton’s 32%. While this shouldn’t be an indicator of performance, as it doesn’t consider the distribution of those hits, it does highlight just how few extra-base hits Phil Maton gave up in 2018. If that’s not clear, consider his xOBP (.297) and his xSLG (.307). Ultimately, because Maton gave up more hits on batted balls than can be expected, verified by the scarcity of extra-base hits (fringe hits, the hits inflating BABIP, are less likely to go for extra bases) much of his 2018 season can be attributed to bad luck. 

With this information, we can build a template based on 2018. A strong strikeout and HR/FB rate should allow his BABIP to settle. A look at his Baseball Savant profile reveals just how truly impressive the 2018 season was. His velocity and spin rates were very effective, leading to elite expected stats. He also limited hard hits and barrels. His pitch execution was a feat itself. Phil did an excellent job of implementing his curveball and fastball to achieve whiffs. His four-seamer was a deadly weapon at the top of the zone, while his curve split the zone to sit deep down and away to a righty. 

Again, all this begs the question where did this success come from, or what went wrong in 2019? His pitches have remained roughly the same despite the contrast in how hitters have squared them up. Obviously, 2019 saw more barrels meet balls. The most noticeable change was Maton’s curveball, which saw a 72 point jump in xwOBA from .211 to .283 and a significant shift in putaway rate going from 27.5 to 20.8%. His fastball’s xBA also spiked from .284 to .329. Fastball velocity stayed the same, however, his curveball’s velocity did slip by just .8 to 77.4 MPH in 2019, a subtle change. As for movement, like velocity, only subtle changes were detected.

With pitch attributes not offering enough evidence for the dramatic variations in Phil’s productivity over the last few years, I’ll propose another idea. And while it certainly doesn’t explain what he did right in 2018, perhaps it offers some insight into his success late in 2019. During 2019 Maton’s release point abruptly drifted to his armside. While the change in release point comes on June 15th and Phil continued to suffer until leaving San Diego (July 12th, five appearances later), devaluing the modification’s impact, it’s certainly possible he honed the change in AAA with the Clippers where he reported after the trade. Regardless, it’s a prominent alteration. 

Whether it’s a change of scenery, some pitch alterations or change in release point all will be present for 2020. Thus, Phil Maton is in a good place. Improving his consistency and putting it all together he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a middle relief role in Cleveland’s pen. So long as he can pick up where he left off last year with the Tribe, he’ll be an impact reliever.

All data sourced from baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.