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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Phil Maton

Could the Yankees poach away an important piece of the Astros’ bullpen from the last few years?

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With February right around the corner, the Yankees find themselves with less than three weeks to bolster the pitching staff before pitchers and catchers report. Recent rumors suggest that the front office is satisfied with the additions made on the starting pitching side, with focus shifting to the last few reinforcements for the bullpen. New York has been linked to reunions with Wandy Peralta and Keynan Middleton in that regard, however recent reports suggest they are currently looking at former Astros reliever Phil Maton.

2023 Statistics: 68 games, 66 IP, 3.00 ERA (141 ERA+), 3.74 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, 27.0 percent K%, 9.1 percent BB%, 0.6 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 67 games, 67 IP, 4.10 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 24.7 percent K%, 8.7 percent BB%, 0.3 fWAR

Previous Contract: Agreed to one-year, $2.55 million contract in third and final year of arbitration eligibility.

Though his name is not one that generates the same national recognition as some of the fireballers coming out of bullpens around the league, Maton has been one of the most consistently available relievers of the last three years. Since the start of 2021, his 197 innings ranks eighth and 199 appearances 10th among qualified relievers. He posted a career-best in ERA in 2023 aided by a scorching hot first-half (2.44 ERA) and stark home (4.05 ERA) vs. away (1.93 ERA) splits.

Maton is something of a unicorn pitcher. He doesn’t throw hard at all, his four-seam average velocity of 89 mph — down two mph from previous seasons — placing him in the third percentile league-wide. However, his 96th percentile extension means the ball gets on the hitter faster than your average 89 mph fastball, leading to a whiffs on roughly a third of swings against the pitch.

The fastball is also a unicorn in that it is the straightest four-seamer in the league, with ten inches less horizontal movement versus average. Recent research suggests that for effective pitch tunneling, too much separation in horizontal movement can be a negative. Take a sinker and sweeper that break in opposite directions. In order for both pitches to tunnel, they have to be thrown with the same initial aiming point. This means that for a sinker and sweeper to tunnel, both have to be thrown off the plate, the sinker tailing back toward the outside corner (vs a righty) while the sweeper dives further away from the plate.

Maton has always had elite horizontal movement on his breaking pitches — his sweeper and curveball routinely place in the top-20 league-wide in horizontal moment versus average. Therefore, in order to create more effective tunneling with the fastball, he had to straighten the four-seamer out. Now, instead of aiming his pitches off the plate, he can start the four-seamer aimed directly at the outside edge and avoid it fading over the heart of the zone.

This in turn allows him to start both sweeper and curveball in the zone before both dive toward the lefty hitter’s batting box. Both pitches travel a course toward the strike zone for longer, giving the hitter less time to recognize location and pitch type before deciding on a swing or take. It’s how the slow four-seamer plays up — the longer a hitter has to track a pitch on the outside edge to determine fastball versus breaking ball, the less time they have to react if it’s the heater. It’s how you get swings like this against what ought to be an eminently hittable fastball:

These pitch characteristics allowed Maton to limit hitters to the lowest hard-hit rate (23.5 percent) of any qualified pitcher in 2023. In fact, he’s been a soft contact merchant his entire career, placing in the 95th percentile or better in exit velocity and hard-hit rate in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023. The curveball in particular has emerged as quite the weapon, becoming his most-used pitch in 2023. He can vary its velocity by as much as 10 mph while maintaining its 98th percentile spin rate of well over 3,000 rpm — both of which combined to produce a paltry .169 average and 79.6 mph average exit velocity against.

All of this is to say that Maton aligns with the Yankees’ relief pitching philosophy from two different angles. Matt Blake loves his unicorn relievers, whether that’s Clay Holmes’ demon sinker, Ron Marinaccio’s airbender-lite changeup, or Ian Hamilton’s slambio, and Maton certainly fits the mold. In addition, Maton’s ability to induce weak contact aligns perfectly with the arms already in the Yankees’ pen, which produced the lowest barrel rate and second-lowest exit velocity and hard-hit rate of any relief unit in 2023.

That’s not to suggest that the 30-year-old righty doesn’t come with some flaws — he probably gives up a few too many fly balls and walks a few too many hitters to be entirely comfortable penciling him in as a high-leverage reliever in Yankee Stadium. However, in terms of replacing the production of the since-departed arms and in general raising the floor of already one of the best bullpens in the sport for an affordable price, there are few better options than the ex-Astro.