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Phil Maton and His Invisible Fastball

It’s been nearly two weeks since Phil Maton’s big league promotion, and he is showing not only the comfort and proficiency of a veteran but also the makings of an upper echelon reliever.

He has struck out five of the last eight batters he’s faced and allowed a stingy one baserunner in his first five appearances, and the crazy thing is that Maton hasn’t even unleased his full arsenal yet, throwing exclusively a fastball and curveball/slider (tracking sites are split on the designation) combination. Once the cutter and changeup are integrated into his attack, even if it is sparingly, it’s hard to imagine opposing hitters being anything but befuddled by the “spin king.”

While the movement of the slider attests to this envious title, Maton’s fastball doesn’t have particularly noteworthy overall movement.  In fact, the arm-side run of 3.4 inches registers fairly low on the list of horizontal movement for starter or relievers, which in conjunction with decent but not elite velocity makes you wonder how exactly Maton earned his nickname.  Of course, when you see pitches like this one, I supposed it’s much easier to understand:

 

Nonetheless, the data says Maton’s movement and velocity are good but not elite, so I decided to delve deeper into advanced statistics to see if how he actually fared in spin rate and effectively velocity painted a clearer picture.

Spin King?

As the data reveals, Maton doesn’t boast either the highest spin rate on his “invisible fastball” or the highest effective velocity, but he’s still clearly proficient in both.  Although, of the 567 pitchers in our sample, only sixteen other pitchers possess the combination of higher effective velocity and better spin rate than Maton, putting him squarely in the top three percent of pitchers in this area.

Here’s a glimpse of the players ahead of Maton on the list:

Player Total Pitches Spin Rate Effective Velocity
Aroldis Chapman 254 2506 99.63
Dellin Betances 377 2517 98.22
Trevor Rosenthal 491 2497 98.18
Matt Bush 443 2574 97.31
Brian Ellington 297 2489 96.49
Josh Ravin 30 2539 96.17
Carl Edwards Jr. 483 2690 95.84
Garrett Richards 76 2573 95.84
Domingo German 115 2546 95.75
Chad Green 341 2513 95.37
Alan Busenitz 60 2512 94.97
Austin Maddox 25 2503 94.71
Cody Allen 482 2531 94.67
Tyler Chatwood 1485 2493 94.62
Edubray Ramos 549 2573 94.37
Phil Maton 49 2487 94.34

 

Chatwood is the lone starter on the list, and though there a couple of guys who haven’t had success, there are quite a few names (Chapman, Edwards, Allen, Bush, Betances, Rosenthal) that immediately jump out at you. So even if the combination of spin and speed isn’t a guarantee of success, these guys clearly reveal that it is viable path to becoming elite.  Of course, the total number of pitches is small for Maton, so while we don’t want to get carried away to quickly, he is evincing why he earned his nickname.

However, I think it would be remiss to not mention an element of Maton’s game that has contributed to ability to be so unhittable; his pitches have been remarkably deceptive as they travel towards the plate.  If you look at his release chart, you can see that there is nothing elite in terms of concealing, but when it comes to tunneling (the term given by Baseball Prospectus for a pitch’s ability to travel similar paths from release until the point when a hitter must decide whether to swing), Maton has spectacularly deceptive.  The average differential between the flight paths of all Maton’s consecutive pitch pairs, regardless of fastball or breaking ball, are at the very top of all pitching sequences recorded this season.

To put that in perspective, it would be prudent to invoke the name of Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who is considered the “father of pitch tunneling.”  There were other pitchers with more velocity or movement to their pitches, but Maddux was as deceptive as anyone who has ever pitched.  Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post once recounted watching Maddux pitch, writing,

One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux’s catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher’s glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.

Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn’t taste quite right, he said, “That’s all I got.”

Then he explained that I couldn’t tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the later the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.

I have yet to have a conversation with Phil Maton or read any dialogue where he discusses this strategy that Maddux employed, but it is one of the very characteristics of his attack that has enabled him to zoom through the minor league system and why his fastball was at times referred to as an “invisible fastball.”

Ultimately, if Maton can continue his unique combination of spin rate, effective velocity and deception, he could thrust himself into the conversation of elite relievers sooner rather than later.

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