Last Wednesday in Cleveland, Phil Maton made his usual entrance from the bullpen, unceremoniously striding in from somewhere behind the outfield wall in the middle of a sixth inning jam.
At first blush, Maton is your ordinary reliever; at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he was taken in the 20th round of the 2015 draft out of Louisiana Tech to little fanfare. He signed with the Padres for an undisclosed amount under $100,000 and didn’t even receive a draft scouting report from Baseball America. Maton rolled through the minors, however, feasting on younger, less experienced hitters with a typical relief pitcher arsenal, a fastball and slider. He reached the big leagues after just two full minor leagues seasons.
To the naked eye, Maton’s first pitch on Wednesday night, a 94 mile-per-hour heater to Jason Kipnis, taken for a strike right near the outside edge, looked pretty darned ordinary itself.
Maton came back with two more fastballs, one low, fouled off for strike two, and one high, taken for a ball. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Maton showed Kipnis another fastball at 94, and this one he swung through.
Maton then threw three more fastballs up in the zone to the next batter, Erik Gonzalez, inducing back-to-back-to-back whiffs to end the inning. In the seventh, it was more of the same, with Bradley Zimmer swinging through this 93 mph fastball.
Turns out, Maton’s fastball isn’t so ordinary; it spins more than the usual major-league fastball. Using Baseball Savant’s search tool, Maton’s four-seam fastball spin rate of 2,482 rpm is 23rd in the majors out of 381 pitchers with at least 100 fastballs thrown. Among that group of pitchers, the average spin rate is around 2,250, and 61 percent have a spin rate under 2,300.
A fastball with a lot of spin will end up higher than a fastball of similar speed with average spin; the high-spin pitch will drop less from the effect of gravity. If you want to get technical, it’s a Magnus force thing, and it’s perhaps best explained through a video clip, like this one from an excellent post from Driveline Baseball on the subject:
A hitter sees over a thousand fastballs in a year, and so they’re trained to react to one with a spin rate close to average, where most of them sit. The narrow difference from the high-spin heater, almost indiscernible to the eye, makes it a more effective pitch because the hitter is expecting it to come in slightly lower. This chart from FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman shows that high-spin fastballs get more whiffs than their average-spin counterparts; for example, a 93 mph fastball with average spin gets a 6.7 percent swinging strike rate whereas a 93 mph fastball with elite spin gets a 9.6 percent swinging strike rate. Hitters consistently swing under the high-spin fastball, as they’re fooled by its ultimate location.
Maton, himself, has a 15.4 percent swinging strike rate on his fastball so far this season, which ranks 27th in the league (out of 381). He’s within a percentage point in fastball swinging strike rate of pitchers like Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Trevor Rosenthal, three guys who average between 98 and 100 mph with their respective fastballs. Of course, there’s more to getting whiffs than spin rate or velocity, and Maton has an interesting combination of characteristics that help make his fastball play up beyond just the spin rate.
For one, he has a high-spin fastball combined with relatively slow velocity. Spin rate correlates well with velocity; of the 22 pitchers with a higher spin rate than Maton, 20 have a higher fastball speed than the Padres right hander. This means that Maton’s fastball will actually spin more on its way to the plate than the speedier ones from a Chapman or Betances. In this sense, the effect of spin should be magnified on Maton’s heater.
Further, Maton’s 6.82 feet release extension ranks 17th in the group with at least 100 fastballs thrown. That means that his perceived velocity—which is calculated using a pitcher’s release point—jumps from 92.8 mph all the way up to 93.92 mph. This means that Maton’s fastball plays slightly faster than its velo, without even considering the spin, which partially explains why hitters are tardy reacting to it despite the pedestrian speed.
Finally, Maton does a good job disguising his fastball and breaking pitch, as he discussed in a recent conversation with FanGraphs’ David Laurila.
“For the most part, I like to kind of tunnel my slider out of that high fastball. I like to have it look like it’s coming out of the same spot, but then dip down at the last second, hopefully for a swing and miss.
“Tunneling is really just a vocab word for what people have been doing forever — trying to disguise pitches — but you’re obviously going to have more success if you can make your pitches look similar. If I go up in the zone with the four-seam, I want to make sure I throw my slider out of the same spot.”
At the distance from the plate where a hitter has to decide whether or not to swing, which Baseball Prospectus defines as the tunnel point, Maton’s fastball and breaking ball are just 7.6 inches apart, 27th in the league out of 236 pitchers with at least 10 fastball-curveball pairs*. He also releases each pitch from a similar point. That makes both Maton’s fastball and breaking ball look better, as the hitter is forced to wait until the last second to identify which is which.
*BP classifies Maton’s breaker as a curveball even though he defines it more as a slider.
Throw it all together and Maton’s fastball is just different, and it works. So instead of nibbling around the fringes of the zone, Maton gets right to the heart of the matter, challenging hitters with a steady diet of fastballs up in the zone. Here’s his strike zone plot from that game against the Indians:
Maton threw a staggering 22 fastballs out of 25 pitches that night, and 15 of them were in the middle of the strike zone and up, a trend he’s followed all season. The idea in working up in the zone is that hitters will not only swing through Maton’s fastball with good frequency, but also that they’ll pop more pitches up when they do make contact. So far it’s a game plan that’s been working, from Low-A Tri-City in 2015 right up to the major leagues this year.
There is, of course, some danger to living up in the zone with 93 mph fastballs. After a hot start, Maton’s given up six runs over his last four outings, and yesterday in Philadelphia two of his high-spin heaters were tagged for no-doubt home runs (dammit!). The reality is that while spin rate is great and all, it doesn’t make the fastball homer-proof, especially if hitters are able to adjust. Maton still has some work to do, and he’ll probably need to further refine the breaking ball, so opposing hitters aren’t able to set up for the straight stuff.
Overall, though, despite the recent hiccups, Maton has the ingredients to become an excellent late-inning reliever. And he’ll probably live or die with that high fastball, either way.