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Player Review: Luis Matos

2023 was ultimately a disappointment for the young outfielder. An offseason spent eating cheeseburgers and running down fly balls might be the key to his success in 2024...

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at San Francisco Giants Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Over his first 11 plate appearances in his Major League career, Luis Matos swung-and-missed at a pitch out of the zone once.

A 98 MPH sinker from Bo Miller lace-high—it was the 27th pitch out of the zone and 43rd pitch he saw. It was only his second whiff of his inchoate career and impressively just the third time he had chased a pitch out of the zone. The other two occurrences resulted in contact: a spoiled pitch foul and line drive that traveled 345 feet.

It wasn’t until his 22nd trip to the plate that a big league pitcher would be able to jump him for three strikes. He had only collected 3 hits before the K but had worked 5 walks, stole one base and scored 7 runs.

See the ball, hit the ball. This is baseball at its most basic. The essential matter of the game. A pitch is thrown and in a fraction of a second a hitter must see it, recognize it, choose to attack it, and then actually do it. Micro-decisions layered on top of physical execution leading to contact. It has always been difficult, and it is only more so in this age of high-90s fastballs and neck-snapping sliders, yet Luis Matos can do it.

Over his 253 career trips to a Major League plate, he has already exhibited an instinctual understanding of how to hit a baseball. An above average chase rate improved by an incredibly low whiff and strike-out percentage adds up to a player who time-and-time again understood the zone, recognized pitches, and executed contact.

See the ball—check. Hit the ball—check.

A gorgeous right-handed swing that found the sweet-spot (meaning a ball leaving the bat with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees and has the best chance of producing a hit) 38.6% of the time. Matos’s rate ranked 31st in the MLB (min of 250 PA). His swing mechanics are solid with great timing. Not only does he have a knack for contact (89.6% In Zone contact, 19th in the MLB), it’s often contact that should set him up for success more often than not.

Bat-to-ball skills are essential building blocks, but they aren’t standalone structures. Contact doesn’t create runs. How many times did a ball leaving Matos’s bat feel like a line-drive in the gap, extra bases, even gone? And how often did the broadcast cut to an opposing outfielder cruising under and pocketing it with relative ease? It was like the baseballs off his bat unfolded parachutes en route.

The recurring problem? A lack of oomph.

As much as fans are pummeled with notifications and alerts and headlines bedecked with heads-exploding flame emojis boasting you’ll never believe how hard this ball was hit, Statcast metrics like exit velocity not only have curb appeal, but actually clue us into the effectiveness of a hitter. A pitcher can still finesse his way into a Major League career, but a batter dinking and doinking his way to a steady job is becoming exceedingly rare. It’s really really helpful to hit the ball hard.

Last season the batting average of batted-balls with an exit velocity of 95 MPH was .292. 100 MPH: .422. 105 MPH: .640. It’s no surprise which way the averages trend when you drop the exit velocity. Matos’s average exit velocity clocked in at 87.1 MPH (the third-lowest on the team, min 250 PA)—the correlating average of balls in play with that E.V. last season was .206. Of those that left the bat at that pace and resulted in a hit, only 3 percent went for a double and none of them left the park. In terms of Statcast’s hard-hit% (BBE with exit velo of 95 MPH or higher), his 31% rate was the lowest on the Giants.

Fangraphs’ quality of contact scale from Soft%, Medium% and High% isn’t a measurement based exclusively on exit velocity but “the amount of authority” a batter hits a ball judged by hang-time, trajectory, and its eventual landing spot. Matos’s Soft% was pretty low but his Hard% was in the cellar with the likes of Brett Wisely, while his extremely high 58.9% Medium% led the team. This spray chart of his batted balls in 2023 is pretty effective illustration of just how lukewarm his authority was.

An underwhelming spread with a lot of lifeless gray dots peppered in his pull side gap. Potential doubles that didn’t quite have the zip needed to fall for extra bases. The good news is the possible fix doesn’t require a tear down. When Matos was optioned back to Triple-A in mid-August after 50 games, Gabe Kapler talked about how the adjustment the organization wanted from the outfielder wasn’t mechanical at all, but physical. They wanted him to bulk up.

Matos’s Fangraphs page has him at 5’11’ and 160 pounds, and those numbers tend to be a little generous (Dustin Pedroia is maybe 5’9’’ in cleats with his hat on). Matos has the body of a 1980s shortstop. Lithe, athletic, durable—the problem is he’s hit like them too. A .661 OPS, .092 ISO, and 87 wRC+ would be a larger millstone around his neck if he was older and more filled out, but he’s only 21 years old—four months younger than Marco Luciano. There’s still a lot of potential for growth with his form to aid its function. An offseason mandate of adding 15-20 pounds might give him the missing wallop in his already sound swing.

With a bat in his hands, Luis Matos seemed to do a lot of things right in 2023, he was just rarely rewarded for it.

As much as he appeared wise-beyond-his-years in the plate, Matos very much acted his age in the outfield.

The initial swagger he presented running down a line drive in the gap was certainly beguiling but couldn’t hide for long the 21 year old’s inexperience. Some bad reads, especially when coming in on a ball, plagued his confidence. Some mental errors relaying to the wrong base revealed he was maybe overcompensating, or putting too much pressure on himself. Bad jumps and routes undermined his speed.

Defensive metrics aren’t perfect and can be volatile from season to season, but Matos’s -4 Outs Above Average and -9 Defensive Runs Saved graded over 438 innings in center communicate what we all witnessed. Not that he was un-athletic or lacking in ability but inconsistent and green.

The San Francisco Giants outfield was desperate last season. Luis Matos offered some reprieve but not much. Maybe the organizational hope landed on his shoulders as expectation, and I imagine that grew heavier the more distressed the team became in late summer. His bat didn’t excuse his glove and was swapped for the hot-hand in Wade Meckler. Called back soon after, he shifted over to the more forgiving corners with improvements.

That being said, I’m not convinced that Luis Matos can’t be a center fielder. Bridging the gap between his current reality and potential feels doable. His reads and routes will be better because he is too athletic and too young not to improve. Falling on your face in front of 30 thousand people will give you an irrepressible drive to not do that again. Despite the tendency of his age demographic, he’s not going to spend his entire winter playing Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Even if he wanted to spend his time exploring the Kingdom of Hyrule and its peripheral lands, the Giants coaching staff wouldn’t let him. He’s hopefully shagged a hundred fly balls and eaten five thousand calories in the time it took me to write this article.

Even if Matos can ultimately play center, the best case scenario is that he doesn’t have to. Signing Cody Bellinger feels paramount with the plan to remake the outfield in his image. Matos and the Slater-Yaz platoon attendants on either of his arms, with Mitch Haniger or Michael Conforto or Heliot Ramos or Tyler Fitzgerald or Meckler, read: whoever is healthy or hot at the time. I suppose it’s possible that if everything goes right for everyone else, Luis Matos could be the odd man out, starting the season in Triple-A, spending the rest of the year shuttling back and forth between Sacramento and San Francisco. That probably won’t happen…yeah, that definitely won’t. Something will go wrong. The Giants will miss out on Bellinger, or Conforto and Haniger will struggle to stay healthy, or just be bad, or Slater and Yastrzemski will continue to slow down and age, or just be bad. Matos’s combination of youth, health and potential will be an essential part of the Giants’ fielding an outfield for 162 games. He’ll also get a little more leeway being a talent the organization would want to prioritize developing since none of those veteran names other than Haniger with his player option are signed after this coming season.

Could he be a part of a trade package if the free agency rug gets pulled out from under the Giants? It’s definitely a possibility, he’s got a high organizational ranking with big league chops and a clear upside. His value might never be higher…but hopefully they wouldn’t ship him for Randy Arozarena, or another corner outfielder. The front office isn’t actively looking to trade Matos, especially after hiring Pat Burrell as their hitting coach, who’s been gushing about him since 2021.

Expect to see Luis Matos a lot in 2024, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he will be improved.