Why Nick Maton — who crushes righties and ‘can hit any fastball’ — fits with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Suddenly, Nick Maton started receiving text messages.

The news leaked.

“It was a big surprise,” Maton said.

Last week, the Detroit Tigers acquired Maton, Matt Vierling and Donny Sands from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for closer Gregory Soto and utility player Kody Clemens. The Tigers have spent the offseason searching for controllable position players with upside, and in their trade with the Phillies, they added three of them.

“It’s a mix of emotions,” Maton said, roughly two months after playing against the Houston Astros in the World Series, “but I’m extremely excited to be coming over here and being able to show what I can do. I’m pumped to see what I can do, and I want to help the team win.”

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The Tigers acquired Maton for several reasons.

He has controlled the strike zone — 11.8% walk rate in 34 MLB games last season — for his entire professional career. As a left-handed hitter, he crushes right-handed pitchers, though he has been better against left-handers in the big leagues, meaning he could evolve into an everyday player. And he is a versatile defender with extensive experience in the infield and limited experience in the outfield.

“I’m most comfortable in the middle infield,” Maton said. “I came up through the system playing mostly shortstop, and then as I broke into the big leagues, it was more second base.”

There’s a chance Maton becomes the Tigers’ Opening Day third baseman. At the very least, he profiles as an important role player on a winning team in the future. The 25-year-old, who turns 26 in mid-February, won’t be a free agent until after the 2027 season.

“I think these guys (Maton and Vierling) will be a factor in that conversation,” Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said. The Tigers also have homegrown infielder Ryan Kreidler and former Orioles infielder Tyler Nevin, both right-handed hitters, in the mix for playing time at the hot corner.

Another thing: Maton annihilates fastballs.

It’s his biggest strength.

“As you’ll see, he can hit a fastball,” Preston Mattingly, the Phillies’ director of player development and the son of baseball lifer Don Mattingly, told the Free Press. “One thing they were really working on was him understanding the offspeed pitches and how to attack those, but one thing that’s very known is Nick can hit any fastball.”

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Maton played 34 games for the Phillies last season, hitting .250 with five home runs, 10 walks, 29 strikeouts and a .341 on-base percentage. Of those five home runs, four came against right-handed pitchers, and all four of those were against fastballs.

Against righties, Maton hit .478 against fastballs, .067 against breaking balls and .071 against offspeed pitches.

Against lefties, he hit .222 against fastballs.

“I’m not a hitting guy,” Mattingly said, “but in understanding the game, if you can’t hit a fastball, it’s going to be really tough to survive in the game. With the pure velocity and stuff these pitchers have, you better be able to be on time for a fastball. That’s one thing Nick can do.”

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For a larger sample, take a look at Maton’s results in Triple-A Lehigh (57 games) and Low-A Clearwater (four games) last season. He hit .263 with five home runs, 34 walks and 55 strikeouts in 61 games, with a 19.2% chase rate (compared to a 31% chase rate in MLB).

He hit .288 in 189 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and .211 in 78 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. Those splits are expected to translate to the majors over time and would make the left-hander a lineup lock when the Tigers face righties.

As for the fastballs, Maton posted an eye-popping 87.3% contact rate against them in the minors. He had a 74.4% contact rate on fastballs outside the strike zone and an 89.5% contact rate on fastballs inside the strike zone.

Harris said the Tigers noticed a swing adjustment during the 2022 season.

“Coming through the system, I struggled in certain things, and then I started figuring it out and working more in my legs and down through the ball,” Maton said. “It’s helped me out a lot, and I hope the people here (with the Tigers) can help me out and I continue to get better.”

It just so happens the Tigers were miserable against fastballs and right-handed pitchers last season. They ranked near the bottom of MLB in both categories: 25th with a 78.8% contact rate against fastballs (not including cutters) and 29th with a .219 batting average against righties.

For Maton, fastballs and righties aren’t problems.

Just ask Miami Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara, the reigning National League Cy Young winner who allowed 16 home runs last season. Maton took him deep twice in September, blasting a 97 mph fastball Sept. 8 and a 98.9 mph fastball Sept. 13. Both heaters were around the top of the strike zone.

“He has a chance to be a good player,” Mattingly said.

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For some reason, though, Maton has struggled against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. His below-average strikeout rate — 34.1% in MLB and 22% in Triple-A last season — can be attributed to his trouble with the secondary pitches, particularly at the bottom and below the strike zone.

Therefore, it’s important to check the locations where Maton generates contact.

In the majors and minors last season, Maton registered an 87.6% contact rate against fastballs in the upper-third of the strike zone, a 91% contact rate in the middle-third and a 75.6% contact rate in the bottom-third. Clearly, he isn’t as polished at the bottom of the zone.

“As you get older and learn more things and see more pitches, you keep getting better and learn what works and what doesn’t work,” said Maton, who has 216 plate appearances in his MLB career. “I’m starting to figure out how my body works and what I can and can’t do, and I feel like it’s moving in the right direction.”

That’s another reason why the Tigers acquired Maton. He hits high-velocity fastballs and right-handed pitchers, but more importantly, he is in the early stages of his development at the highest level and will get more playing time in Detroit, where the Tigers plan to earmark at-bats for several up-and-comers, than he would have in Philadelphia.

And he’s not a finished product yet.

“Guys with more opportunity have a chance to really improve their games,” Mattingly said, referencing Maton and Vierling. “They showed in small stretches last year that they’re good, valuable big league pieces. This trade allows them to get more opportunity and prove that they can be quality everyday players.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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