Since debuting with the New York Mets in 2015 as a lesser-but-not-insignificant prospect in the young pitching core that guided the Mets to their first World Series in *checks, assumes it must be many many decades based on how Mets fans discuss their futility* fifteen years, Steven Matz has been an aggressively average pitcher.
Both his ERA and FIP have been 4% worse than league average in the time, though they were 15% and 11% better than average last season. Last season, his first and only with the Toronto Blue Jays, was his first season since 2016 that could truly be considered better than average, though none of the numbers were very exciting. 150 2/3 innings is relatively high in a modern context, and is significant more than any non-Adam Wainwright Cardinals pitcher last season, but he isn’t exactly Justin Verlander in terms of eating innings—his career high is 160 1/3. A 3.82 ERA and 3.79 FIP are hardly the marks of a staff ace; they are far closer to that of a staff workhorse.
There is a reason Steven Matz, a 30 year-old who will turn 31 next May, was sent to Toronto last January for spare parts after, following a disastrous (though unlucky in just about every statistical way there is) 2020, Matz was squeezed out of the Mets’ rotation. There is a reason Matz was not extended the qualifying offer by a Toronto Blue Jays team that could really use a stud pitcher in the rotation for a hopeful 2022 playoff run. That reason is because Steven Matz is the latter-day Mike Leake.
In case this analogy seems unfair, let me note that Mike Leake was nearly four years younger than Matz is now and he had a firmly league-average ERA. Additionally, the reported terms of Steven Matz’s four-year, $44 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals are significantly lower than Leake’s five-year, $80 million deal. And Mike Leake, while disappointing to those expecting great things after what is still the most lucrative free agent pitching signing in franchise history, was perfectly fine as a Cardinal before being traded with cash to the Seattle Mariners for farmhand Rayder Ascanio.
The proper way to evaluate Steven Matz is as depth, which sounds boring but which is also something the Cardinals very much need.
There is nothing wrong with such a signing. If you assume Steven Matz is an average or even slightly below-average MLB pitcher, $11 million per year to take Jake Woodford’s spot in the starting rotation is hardly some grand financial obstacle. But there is a reason Steven Matz is going to, over the next four seasons on his first free agent contract, make about as much as Max Scherzer is going to command per year on his second contract. Max Scherzer is special. Steven Matz is ordinary, the kind of pitcher the Cardinals cranked out several at a time in the early 2010s.
That Steven Matz is better than Jake Woodford, or is at the very least more reliable than Jake Woodford, is a significant part of why this deal is more good than bad for the Cardinals. Perhaps even more significant is that this move means the Cardinals can keep Woodford, obligatory “whiskey puns aside” warning, in reserve. But does Steven Matz put the Cardinals in a better pitching situation than they were in entering 2021, when the team still had Kwang Hyun Kim, a pitcher with a lower ERA than Matz in 2021 mind you, and Carlos Martínez, who had a rough campaign but has had far higher highs as an MLB starter than Matz? I would say no.
Steven Matz could be a really nice first step for the Cardinals. Earlier this off-season, I suggested that two of Matz, Carlos Rodón, and Jon Gray could make a significant impact on the starting rotation (granted, Matz was the one I wanted the least of the three, but whatever). Max Scherzer remains the prize, Marcus Stroman a nifty consolation prize, and the prospect of counting on Dakota Hudson, he of fewer than 10 MLB innings in 2021 and an outright bad track record for defense-independent pitching metrics, as a significant part of their 2022 plans looming. The Steven Matz signing is a good move. It just cannot, if the Cardinals hope to enter next season as division favorites, be the only move.