Steven Matz was selected in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, NY, which is apparently a breeding ground for notable names, ranging from sporadically funny and continuously fat comedian/actor Kevin James, wrestler Mick Foley, former co-host of America’s Funniest Home Videos John Fugelsang, and Terrance Hobbs, lead guitarist for the death metal band Suffocation. Because of these notable names on his high school’s resume, and more importantly, his southpaw potential on the mound, Matz received a bonus of $895K, almost half a million over the recommend slot, from the Mets. The future was bright.
Unfortunately for Matz, setback arrived before success, as the young lefty’s pitching elbow fell victim to the knife in his first professional spring. Tommy John has a way of limiting the present while also obscuring the future, and when an unproven arm like Matz falls to injury before establishing his prospect bona fides, the journey back to legitimacy is a very long road that must first pass through good health and relevancy. This was 2010. Matz wouldnât throw his first professional pitch until the summer of 2012.
It wasn’t until the 2013 season that Matz established himself as a legit prospect, which is to say he was finally healthy and showing the necessary physical qualities to project to the major-league level. I was slow to jump on the bandwagon because I had completely forgotten about the player, and to be honest, 22-year-olds pitching well in Low-A aren’t exactly the type of feathers that usually tickle my fancy. But this is where I lost my way from an evaluation standpoint, and itâs important to recognize such a flaw in the process in order to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.
In the prospect world, we search for exceptionalism on the field, either in raw tools or performance or the blissful marriage of the two, and in most cases, the younger the better, which makes age in relation to competitive level a valuable evaluation tool. I was too focused on Matz’s age and level of accomplishment, and I dismissed the positive scouting reports because I’m a young-for-the-level junkie — often at the expense of context — and he didn’t fit into the value box I had created. After the 2013 season, Matz didn’t find his way onto the offseason Mets top 10 list, after barely getting a mention in the internal debates and discussions. He was a southpaw with a plus fastball who missed more than a bat an inning while showing good feel for command, and he was overlooked in favor of the toolsy but highly erratic Cesar Puello and a then 18-year-old Dominican arm with only six stateside starts under his belt.
What I failed to properly contextualize at the time was that Matz’s life age was much older than his baseball age, as he missed two full seasons dealing with the elbow injury, surgery, and the subsequent recovery process. The 22-year-old in Low-A was really just a high school arm with a college birth certificate, a pitcher with only 29 innings of professional experience on his resume before his Sally League debut. On the scouting side, this was an athletic lefty with good size and strength, pumping a low-mid-90s fastball in the zone and backing it up with two playable and projectable secondary offerings and a good overall feel for execution. The scouting should have been paramount, the production on the mound should have helped confirm those reports, and the age relative to league shouldn’t have played such a major hand in the evaluation process. Matz was a top 10 prospect in the Mets system coming into the 2014 season, regardless of what our list suggested. I missed it then, and unfortunately I continued to hold hands with the age bias even as the positive results continued in 2014.
In his 12 starts in the Florida State League, Matz offered up more of the same. Baseball Prospectus’ Jeff Moore caught the lefty in early May and suggested he profiled as a mid-rotation arm with a chance to develop into a No. 2 starter. Here’s the full report, which echoed most of the scouting opinions I was receiving at the time, and Moore’s evaluation was even called light by a few sources who had the 23-year-old ranked on the same prospect tier as national darling Noah Syndergaard. The praise was crazy high, but I refused to acknowledge his status because I was still hanging on to the paper age and level, and with every passing start Matz was refining into a prospect that deserved a hell of a lot more national recognition than he was receiving.
Matz was moved up to the Double-A level in late June, and after a shaky debut in which he gave up five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, he has found his groove and is putting himself in the Mets rotation discussion for the 2015 season. This is a power lefty with a go-to changeup and a breaking ball that flashes plus, and those simply don’t grow on trees, at least on the trees major-league teams are picking from. Aside from some command refinement and some secondary arsenal growth, this is the same arm that exploded on the scene back in the Sally League, a future mid-rotation pitcher with a high floor and low risk, despite the elbow injury on the resume. Good scouts recognized this potential early, and because I didn’t personally put eyes on the prize, I was forced to rely on secondhand reports and was at the mercy of my own biases, which unfortunately used Matz’s paper age against him.
Evaluators can’t see every player on every field, and when you don’t have the opportunity to form conclusions from personal accounts, the value and significance of the secondhand scouting reports being received is enhanced, as is the necessity to properly contextualize the overall profile without attaching too many built-in biases that could negate the impact of said reports. I have been receiving positive scouting information on Matz since he returned to the mound after injury, yet the lack of prospect relevance and intimate [field] familiarity with the player pushed me to lean heavily on the significance of his age rather than the prospect stature established by the combination of scouting and performance.
Not every prospect comes wrapped in the same packaging, so adhering to strict value constructs can cause an upscale prospect like Matz to stay in the shadows while other prospects of lesser value receive more light. This could be viewed as the biggest difference between what we do on the Internet and what teams do on the inside, as I’m often stuck looking for the right characteristics in order to define a prospect whereas teams are just looking at the player, regardless of the labels attached to his status. When you get caught looking for the perfect prospect, you can miss the clues that point to a legit player.
This column was written by Baseball Prospectus contributor Jason Parks.