Lessons from '23 relief stint lend to Matz's '24 dominance

April 6th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- In his past seven starts for the Cardinals, has allowed exactly six runs. That’s it, six. His ERA in that span is 1.37.

Stellar stuff; elite production, even. So why has the veteran left-hander largely slipped under the radar? The biggest reason: That seven-start span for Matz stretches over 10 months -- five starts in the middle of the 2023 season (from July 20 to Aug. 12) and his first two of ‘24, including five scoreless innings in the Cards’ 3-1 win over the Marlins on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

It’s hard to get too many headlines that way, especially when the Cards have some young stars.

But in his mind, Matz has picked up in 2024 where he left off last season, ignoring the couple months that he spent on the injured list with a lat strain. After all, he didn’t give up any runs then, either. To him, it’s all one elongated stretch of success, tied together with a similar formula: trust your best pitches and get after hitters aggressively.

“Me and Dusty [Blake, the pitching coach] were working on it a lot last season,” Matz said, “carrying it into Spring Training and now, just getting after guys and having that mentality.”

Matz’ run totals in seven starts are: 1, 0, 0, 1, 2, 2, 0. Staying more in the zone, he’s walked just seven batters, a stark contrast against 31 strikeouts.

And then, there’s this: Matz struggled early in the 2023 season, to the point that the Cardinals dropped him into the bullpen to regain some confidence. When he became a reliever, his ERA was 5.72. In the new role, he consolidated his pitches a bit, focusing mostly on his fastball -- it registers as a sinker, but Matz considers it a two-seamer, with more run than drop -- and his changeup.

Relievers traditionally only rely on two pitches, maybe three, so it made sense.

And it worked. Rolling with pitches he trusted and using them aggressively in shorter stints was a mentality Matz could see working when he got back to his preferred role as a starter.

“That was when I started seeing the mentality of wanting to get back into the rotation, ‘I want another shot at this,’” manager Oliver Marmol said after Saturday’s win. “It had very little to do with how he was using his stuff at that point, but then it led to asking how to best use his stuff. I think the switch back to the rotation was more mental than anything.”

Matz still has four pitches: his sinker, his changeup, his slider and his curveball. But just because he has them doesn’t mean he has to use them every inning, or even every game.

“I just didn’t necessarily have a good feel for [the curveball] today,” Matz said. “There were some counts where I thought I could throw it, but I just wanted to stay aggressive in the zone with different pitches. I think that will come back into play as the year goes on.”

Statcast data was missing for the first few innings of Saturday’s game, but what did register showed 37 sinkers, 15 changeups, four sliders and only two curveballs.

Marlins manager Skip Schumaker noticed.

“I thought Matz did a nice job with his changeup, kept us off-balance with the heater in/changeup combo,” he said. “I thought [Emmanuel] Rivera had a nice couple of at-bats, [Avisaíl García] had a nice couple of at-bats, but really other than that, just couldn't get anything going.”

With his sinker/two-seamer checking in at an average of 94.3 mph on Saturday, and the changeup rolling up at 82.8 mph -- both with plenty of movement -- the two pitches provided Matz enough different tempo to keep batters off-balance.

“I definitely have a lot of confidence in [the changeup], and that makes it better when you’re throwing it with conviction,” Matz said. “And then it just helps my fastball play up, as well. I think those two pitches are working really well for me.”

On Saturday, that combo worked really well for the Cardinals, too. At 5-4 on the season after the win, the Cardinals are back over .500 for the first time since April 2 of last year.

“Taking two straight series [against the Marlins and Dodgers] now and playing good baseball has really given us a lot of confidence,” Matz said. “I actually thought we played L.A. really tough, and we all know how good they are supposed to be this season. So, playing the way we have so far, it has really given us a lot of confidence.”