Padres’ prospect Maton trending upwards in his rise to the majors

Maton pitching for the Lake Elsinore Storm.

Seth Sanchez/WP

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — Usually when a player is drafted by a major league club, he has posted some Xbox worthy statistics in high school or college and the numbers gradually turn downward as the competition improves as he gets closer to the major leagues.

But for Phil Maton, a pitcher who the Padres selected in the 20th round of 2015 draft from Louisiana Tech, the pattern has been reversed. He has been getting better as he moves closer to the major leagues.

Maton, 23, had a solid four-year career for the Bulldogs with a 3.53 ERA and 324 strikeouts against 98 walks in 359 innings as a starting pitcher. His best year came as a senior when he struck out 90 batters in 88 innings against just 19 walks.

When he joined the Padres organization last summer, the team moved the right-hander  into the bullpen to limit his workload after having thrown so much in the spring. His numbers skyrocketed.  In 32.2 innings with the short-season Tri-City Dust Devils, he struck out 58 batters against only five walks for a 1.38 ERA.

“I do think going to the bullpen helped me out quite a bit,” Maton said from El Paso where he recently joined the Triple-A Chihuahuas barely a year after the move.  “Knowing that I only had to get three or at the most nine outs really helped me.  You don’t have to save any bullets, just go right at hitters and attack them.”

In the offseason the organization debated whether or not to return Maton to starting. But a combination of  some very talented young arms in Low-A Fort Wayne and his inability to consistently throw his changeup for strikes led them to the conclusion of not wanting to mess with a good thing.

“Honestly it was just one of those things where I didn’t have a great feel for a third pitch and I’m fine with it.  I am much more of a two-pitch guy; four-seam fastball and slider, and never really got the feel to use a changeup in game situations.”

And Maton has been good this season.  After beginning the year with the TinCaps, where he posted a 1.42 ERA in only 12.2 innings, he was quickly promoted to the Storm where he spent the majority of the year.

In Lake Elsinore he continued to strikeout more than a batter an inning with 47 punchouts in 33 innings against only eight walks and 17 hits allowed.

“He pounds the zone and comes right at guys,” said Storm manager Lance Burkhart.  “He has a good fastball and slider that he can throw for strikes.  Because he can throw both for strikes there is enough speed and plane differential that he is going to be very effective.”

“He has the velocity to get by guys and then the change of speeds affects the eye level; it’s really tough to hit.”

When the Padres discuss Maton, a phrase that comes into play is “spin rate.”  Pitches that spin tighter and faster as they travel to the plate appear faster to hitters and can even provide the illusion that they are rising. The more revolutions the ball makes, the more swinging strikes and fly balls a pitcher can induce.  Maton has one of the highest spin rates in the organization.

“I have a good fastball, but not one that is in the high-90s,” Maton said on how he understands the concept.  “Mainly it allows me to go low to high in the zone and change the hitter’s eye level because the ball appears to be coming faster than it really is.”

The Padres’ new development philosophy is to get relievers used to working multiple innings, instead of just limiting the best ones to the closer’s role and always starting a game with a clean inning.  This allows pitchers to throw more innings without warming up as often in the bullpen, and makes for an easier transition to the big leagues when they most likely will find an initial role in middle relief.

“I’ve been very impressed with the way he attacks hitters,” said Padres’ Director of Player Development Sam Geaney.  “As a reliever, he has two plus pitches in his fastball – mainly his ability to command his fastball as opposed to its pure velocity – and his slider.

“But his velocity is also there, he can touch 95. He’s very athletic, easily repeats his delivery and has a good finish.”

Since leaving Louisiana Tech, Maton believes his biggest improvement has been the command of his four-seam fastball.

“I have really bought into a lot of the organization’s throwing programs and feel much more comfortable with my ability to put it where I want to.”

“Going to the bullpen does have something to do with it; teams are not having meetings on how to face a bullpen guy,” laughed Maton.

But a bigger reason for his success may be more on the mental side than physical.

“I think it has also helped being in a pro atmosphere where you are really focused on trying to get better everyday.  In college there were a lot of responsibilities, like class, but here it is just go out and get better at baseball.”

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