The Detroit Tigers are nearing the All-Star break.
Third baseman Nick Maton, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in an offseason trade, is hitting .156 through 69 games this season. The 26-year-old has spent 37 of his 69 games — or 53.6% of his games — as the starter in the fourth and fifth spots in the batting order.
The Tigers still haven’t sent Maton to Triple-A Toledo.
“With Nick, he’s working through it right now,” Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said Monday. “He is adjusting back to what the league is doing to him. There are some nights where you can see a lot of progress, and there are some nights where it’s difficult for him.”
Most nights, and most days, have been a struggle for Maton.
He hit .171 with four home runs and a .643 on-base-plus-slugging percentage across 26 games in April, and then he hit .161 with one homer and a .564 OPS across 24 games in May. So far in June, he has hit .130 with one homer and a .481 OPS across 19 games. The steady decline in production is alarming.
“In our jobs, one thing that is helpful is we don’t just go based on the outcomes that we see every night,” Harris said. “We get an opportunity to see the work behind the scenes. We get to see the adjustments that they’re making in the cage. We get to see them work their tail off in the gym. We get to meet with them on some of the adjustments that they’re making.”
The pitch data in June is alarming, too.
For the first time in his three-year career, Maton — known for crushing fastballs — is seeing more breaking balls (39.4%) than fastballs (37.6%) in a single month. (He has also received 23% offspeed pitches.)
He has a 29.2% swing-and-miss rate on fastballs, the highest clip of his career in a single month, as well as a 34.7% whiff rate on breaking balls and a 44% whiff rate on offspeed pitches. His batting average against breakers has improved from May to June, but at what cost?
Maton appears to be guessing at the plate.
“He’s still a young hitter,” Harris said. “He doesn’t have quite the body of work at this level to suggest that he’s going to be as consistent of a performer as we think he’s going to be in the future. As long as the work looks good, and as long as he continues to show some of those adjustments at the plate, we’re going to give him some runway.”
It sounds like Harris feels encouraged by Maton’s behind-the-scenes work, which means the struggling left-handed hitter could maintain his role with the Tigers into the second half of the season. Andre Lipcius, Justyn-Henry Malloy and Johan Camargo play third base in Triple-A Toledo.
Maton has seven doubles, six home runs, 33 walks and 57 strikeouts through 69 games, entering Friday’s series opener against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. He has a .228 on-base percentage and a .575 OPS, both worse than his 2021-22 seasons with the Phillies.
Maton’s 67 wRC+ ranks 293rd among 324 position players with at least 220 plate appearances this season. The one positive, aside from his big personality, in his on-field performance: His 14.4% walk rate ranks 19th among the same group of position players.
“It’s no joke, everybody knows what they’re going to throw me,” Maton said June 5, after hitting a three-run home run off a curveball from his former team. “I was able to get to it. I feel like I’ve been seeing it a lot better over these past couple weeks, as far as the curveballs and offspeeds. I’ll keep on working.”
As for Maton’s spot in the batting order, the Tigers have quietly been using his left-handed bat as a pawn in the chess match to force opposing managers to think twice about bringing in a right-handed reliever.
Stacking too many right-handed hitters in a row, which would happen if Maton wasn’t in the heart of the order, could give teams with top-tier righty relievers an advantage against Spencer Torkelson and Javier Báez. (Once Riley Greene and Akil Baddoo, fellow lefty hitters, return from the injured list in July, Maton could slide down to the bottom of the batting order.)
Strategy is important.
But production matters even more.
“He’s a huge part of this culture that we’re developing,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “I met with him (Monday) just to encourage him that we’ve got to see some adjustments to his swing and with the production for him to continue to get the at-bats. He’s left-handed, and we only have three left-handed hitters that are healthy right now. We’ve been facing a lot of right-handed pitchers. So it’s critical, not only for him but for us, to get more out of him.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.