Before the Toronto Blue Jays opened their season, the biggest question surrounding the team was whether there was anyone in their rotation — aside from Hyun-Jin Ryu — who could be counted on.
Thanks to injuries to Robbie Ray and Nate Pearson, their starting five included a swingman coming off a rough year (Ross Stripling), a guy with 34 MLB innings under his belt and almost no ability to miss bats (T.J. Zeuch), a formerly-productive southpaw who got clobbered on the way to a 9.68 ERA in 2020 (Steven Matz) and a 34-year-old innings eater whose stuff fell off a cliff last season (Tanner Roark).
Although Ray will be back soon, and Pearson will have a role to play in 2021, the Blue Jays won’t get far this season unless a member of that quartet comes through with some quality innings.
On Monday, Matz looked like the man for the job.
In 6.1 innings, the left-hander struck out nine hitters, allowed just three base runners, and didn’t concede an extra-base hit. He also got that tidy bit of work done on just 91 pitches, an impressive feat of efficiency considering his strikeout total.
Sure, it was just one start, and it came against the lowly Texas Rangers, but there’s mounting evidence that the Blue Jays are onto something with Matz — who they got in the offseason for three young arms they’re unlikely to miss.
Not only were Matz’s results impressive, his stuff played up thanks to a bump in his velocity. The 29-year-old averaged 95.3 mph on his fastball, a very strong number considering he averaged 94.5 in 2020 and 93.3 in 2019. While one-game blips can happen, Matz has pitched in 113 games in his MLB career and only bested Monday’s average velocity once. A little extra juice never hurt anyone, and it might be especially valuable for Matz considering his top swing-and-miss offering is a changeup that becomes more dangerous when hitters have the fastball on their minds.
Besides the radar gun readings, Matz’s performance is also a little easier to put stock into thanks to his impressive work during spring training. If you combine his first start with his Grapefruit League numbers the end result is stellar:
This doesn’t tell us with certainty what Matz is going to do this season, but it has to be encouraging for the Blue Jays to see their newly-acquired lefty dealing — and 22.2 innings of homer-free ball, no matter the context, is an accomplishment for a guy whose career HR/9 has been trending like this:
Matz has always been the best candidate to provide some punch from the middle of the Blue Jays rotation. Stripling and Roark’s run-of-the-mill stuff don’t allow for much upside. Zeuch has a power sinker, but his inability to prevent contact makes sustainable success hard to envision. The likely next man up, Anthony Kay, is totally unproven as an MLB starter. Even Ray and Pearson come with serious warts, from the former’s inability to find the strike zone to the latter’s horrendous injury luck. Matz hasn’t been as durable as Roark, and he doesn’t have the ceiling of Pearson, but where those two lines intersect you’ve got a pretty interesting pitcher.
That’s what the southpaw was as recently as 2019. Although his 2020 campaign was nothing short of catastrophic, it looks like he’s on the road back to providing dependability with a side of potential.
Considering the little they paid to get him, and their other options, the Blue Jays would be delighted with that. If Matz keeps up the heightened velocity he showed on Monday, though, he might be able to give them even more.
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