Is It Legit: Matz, Dunning, and Ramos

Attempting to quell the early season jitters with calm analysis.

In a Glass Case of Emotion


If you’re like me, you go through a huge range of emotions at the start of every baseball season. Having trudged through the depths of winter (I live in Charlotte, N.C., so please excuse my dramatic flourishes) I am energized by news of pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. I get another shot of joy when spring training games begin. Sure, the games are virtually meaningless, but nevertheless, it’s baseball and it’s the magical time of year where any fan can somehow envision their team making the postseason — Pirates fans, how do you manage this? My home league completes its draft the weekend before Opening Day and I’m walking on air, convinced for 24 hours I’ve assembled the perfect team. By the 25th hour, I acknowledge that my draft may have been a series of huge mistakes, and I start agonizing over the downside of every decision I’ve made. Finally, the excitement surges to a fever pitch as Opening Day is upon us … and everything goes sideways. In just two and a half weeks, we’ve seen scores of injuries, sluggish starts (how about them Yankees?!), and superstar turns from backup catchers.  Everything happens except what we expected. This is where my emotional roller coaster really starts doing loops. I’m scribbling notes on napkins, ranking players on waivers frantically as if I’m breaking a cold case. I glance at my team for the fifteenth time in a day, only to notice another star hitter going down with an injury, or a key pitcher failing to make it out of the second inning (looking at you, Lucas!) and I feel something like despair wash over me. I make resolutions to quit fantasy baseball altogether and live a simpler life.  And we’re only two and a half weeks into a 26 week season.


Making Sense of it All


As you’ve ridden out the inevitable bumps and bruises of the season’s opening weeks, you’ve gone through the stages of grief and have now accepted the truth that you probably learned last year, but quickly forgot: Managing a fantasy baseball team is messy. Things absolutely do not go as planned. We will need to make hard decisions about whether or not to drop or trade underperforming players. We need to cast aside the unproductive parts of preseason assessments, such as a rigid adherence to our pre-draft player valuations, and start looking at what we can do to help our teams going forward. We need to acknowledge the possibility that the player who leads our teams to victory by season’s end may not even be on our rosters right now. He may be currently languishing on the waiver wire, or on someone else’s team. The right decision could help us win our leagues. So let’s take a deep breath together, try to calm all of the destructive emotions that have been periodically bubbling to the surface these last few weeks, and try to make some smart decisions.


What Stats Can We Actually Trust So Far?


As we’re making roster decisions with limited sample sizes, there are not that many stats that are reliable. Especially for hitters. Max exit velocity is one immediately helpful stat, in that a single batted ball can give us insight into a player’s power potential. If a player has exceeded his previous career max exit velocity already in this two-week-old season, that’s a great sign that he may, in fact, be in the best shape of his life. A player’s swing rate is the next stat to stabilize, but that occurs roughly one month into the season, so we’re not there yet. We can, however, look at a player’s usage. Where is he hitting in the lineup?  Does he play every day, or is he getting regular rest days? We already have some useful insight into this data. For pitchers, we can look at max pitch velocity, pitch mix and pitch shape. I’ll try to use these stats, as well as some (admitted) speculation on the margins to try to make some early conclusions about three players in the midst of hot starts. Even though I’ve put a lot of time and thought into this piece, take these suggestions with a grain of salt.  We’re so early in the season that a single start for a pitcher or handful of games for a hitter can dramatically change their outlook. Please note that if I declare someone “legit” for the purposes of this article, it means I think their struggles or success will continue. 


Steven Matz


The early returns have been quite happy for Steven Matz so far this year, as the former second-round pick has already notched three wins and a strikeout per inning while holding opponents to a 1.47 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over 18.1 frames. Matz’s success is supported by subtle improvements in velocity and pitch mix. Both his max velocity (97.2 mph) and his average velocity (94.8 mph) are the best he’s had since his rookie season way back in 2015. Featuring four pitches, Matz has a broad arsenal. His changeup is his best pitch in terms of movement relative to league average and, not surprisingly, it is also his most effective putaway pitch. He’s upped the use of it steadily over the years, employing the offering 27.8% of the time thus far this season, which is a career high usage rate. The increased use of his breaking and offspeed pitches has allowed Matz to drop his sinker usage to an all-time low of 48.3%, which marks the first time he’s used it less than 50% of the time in a season.  

While these developments are encouraging, there are some stats that make me concerned he hasn’t yet bloomed into a pitcher who can sustain a full breakout. For one, batters’ plate discipline metrics against Matz are virtually unchanged from previous years. While it has not yet stabilized as a stat, a 9.9% swinging-strike rate so far for Matz is actually lower than it was last season. Batters are chasing fewer pitches out of the zone and making more contact when they swing at pitches in the zone, which indicates that, even with his four pitches, Matz isn’t fooling hitters as much as we’d like. Finally, Matz has earned the dreaded “HOTEL” (Nick’s “Holy Trinity Equating Luck”) distinction in the sense that his favorable BABIP, strand rate and home run per fly ball rate indicate that he’s had some good fortunes on balls in play so far this season.  

Verdict: NOT LEGIT

While it’s fantastic that Matz appears healthy and is throwing the baseball harder than before, with a trickier pitch mix, he’s not a dramatically different pitcher from the one who has averaged a 4.26 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over the course of his career. To me, the most likely outcome is that he puts up very similar stats this season. Given Matz’s injury history as well (he’s never completed more than 160.1 innings in a season), I’d explore trading him at the height of his value.  


Wilson Ramos


Regularly hitting in the heart of the Tigers’ batting order and playing almost every day, new addition Wilson Ramos has more than made up for his .235 batting average thus far with 6 home runs and a .608 slugging percentage. The max exit velo is there! With a 111.5 mph hit already this season, only 36 hitters have a higher max exit velo. In fact, Salvador Perez and Yermin Mercedes (if he qualifies in your league) are the only two catchers who have a harder max EV than the Buffalo this season. Ramos’s hard-hit rate is 55.3%, which ranks ninth (!) among all qualified hitters. His plate discipline is looking quite promising: Ramos is swinging less at pitches out of the zone and swinging less overall than he has at any point in the past four years. Yet another bit of good news is that Ramos is hitting more fly balls. His career-long ground ball lean has kept him from maximizing his prodigious power, but this season he is off to a much better start. His average launch angle is 14.4 degrees, which, if he sustained it for the season, would give him his highest average launch angle since Statcast began recording launch angle in 2015.  

Verdict: LEGIT

Ramos’s power is legit, and he’s had strong contact ability over his career as well. Might the launch angle drop back down? Absolutely. But his power/contact profile, playing time and spot in the order all make him a very appealing addition to your team. If you’re fortunate enough to have him on your squad right now, I’d hold unless you get a really attractive offer.


Dane Dunning


An intriguing young pitcher who was sent to Texas in the Lance Lynn deal, Dane Dunning is off to a fast start with his new club, compiling fifteen innings of a 27.6% strikeout rate, and a 0.60 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and one win over three starts. Dunning has ditched his four-seamer completely so far this year in favor of his sinker. With a max velo of 93.5 mph and an average velocity of 90.9 mph, which is down more than 1 mph from last year, Dunning’s sinker doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of the opposition through speed alone. The pitch does have a good movement profile, however, with better drop and run than league average. Dunning has spoken about his willingness to pitch to contact, and there is certainly a lot of contact going on, as the pitch has generated a tiny 5.6% swinging-strike rate and an infinitesimal 8.7% reach rate. When they have made contact, batters are struggling against the pitch so far, hitting .158 and slugging .289 against it. This seems more due to batted-ball luck than a truly stifling offering, and the expected stats are significantly higher. Dunning also features a slider with nasty drop and a changeup with very good arm-side run, and has been an effective whiff-generating pitch against lefties. My main problem with Dunning right now is his predictability: He’s thrown the sinker a whopping 65.3% of the time! For comparison, notable sinker-ballers such as Sandy Alcantara and Zach Eflin throw their sinkers 26.8% and 43.4% of the time, respectively.  Dunning, like Matz, has also been the beneficiary of batted-ball luck this year: batters have generated a measly a .231 BABIP and a 6.7% HR/FB against him so far, and Dunning has a 100% strand rate, which you don’t see often, and which certainly speaks to the good fortune he’s experienced.

Verdict: NOT LEGIT  

I applaud Dane Dunning for knowing himself and pitching to his strengths, and there will be some games where his approach works fantastically well. If hitters aren’t taking advantage of the sinker in early counts, they have to contend with the nasty slider and effective changeup, and this would lead to a healthy dose of strikeouts. But such a predictable pitch mix needs to anchor off of a truly dominant offering, and Dunning’s sinker just isn’t that pitch right now.  It seems only like a matter of time before the league catches up with him in his current approach.

(Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire)

Brian Holcomb

Charlotte-based outdoor educator and Philly sports fan whose Pitcher List involvement stems from a decades-long fascination with baseball statistics, trading cards, and debates about player valuation. When not thinking about fantasy baseball, can regularly be found exploring the trails, rivers and rocks of North Carolina.

4 responses to “Is It Legit: Matz, Dunning, and Ramos”

  1. Jack says:

    With your review on Ramos, would rather have Ramos, Murphy, Molina or Narvaez ROS?

    • Brian Holcomb says:

      I would actually take Ramos over all of those guys in a roto league. If he plays another 125 or so games for the Tigers while hitting in the middle of the order, he could put up 15 homers and 60 RBI with a .270 average ROS. I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen from Narvaez so far as well, and would take him over Ramos in an OBP league.

  2. turnnoblindeye says:

    I don’t understand the Dane Dunning hate. Yes, obviously nobody expects him to keep up a .6 ERA, for the aforementioned reasons about BABIP and HR/FB. But his xFIP is around 3, his xWOBA is .265, xERA is 2.55. His statcast data suggests he’s been a very effective pitcher. Granted, tiny sample size, but that’s the case for all of the numbers we’re citing.

    • Brian Holcomb says:

      My concern is that his pitch mix leans so heavily on his sinker, and it’s not missing many bats, so his pitch-to-contact approach will ebb and flow with batted ball luck.

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