In the world of baseball, especially when it comes to pitchers, arm strength is widely considered a top priority among scouts. Pitchers who can demonstrate the ability to reach the mid-to-upper 90s with relative ease are often taken in the highest rounds. This is common knowledge to anyone who follows the game with even a mild interest.
However, when differentiating between pitchers who display such a talent, what is it that sets them apart from one another?
Besides the obvious things, such as command and control, there is a sometimes-overlooked category that contributes directly to pitch movement, as well as stat categories such as groundball-flyball ratio or BABIP. That category is rotations per minute, or RPM.
Simply put, pitchers who are able to impart more spin on their pitches generally demonstrate more movement on their fastball and greater break on curves, cutters and sliders. Rotations per minute are generated by factors such as arm speed, mechanics, the snap of the wrist and even the length of a pitcher's fingers, among other things.
The San Diego Padres have such a pitcher, currently flying somewhat under the radar but showing periods of dominance nevertheless. That young man is right-hander Phil Maton. In his first 14 MLB innings he has 4.40 ERA but a spectacular 18/2 K/BB ratio.
The 6'3", 220-pound product of Louisiana Tech (20th round, 2015) has made short work of minor-league competition since his pro debut in 2015, rising from short-season A-ball to the major leagues in that time-span on the strength of a fastball that he delivers in the low-90's at a spin rate over 2500 RPM, inducing often-weak contact and a lot more swings and misses than one might expect from what would otherwise seem to be a slightly-above-average heater.
Take a look at some of his appearances with San Diego this season, and you'll see the occasional look of bewilderment on the faces of opposing batters. Relying primarily on a fastball that averages approximately 93 MPH, as well as a somewhat-slurvy breaking ball that comes in at 80 MPH with deceptive, late break, Maton has been able to work high in the zone with his fastball successfully because it's so hard to square up consistently.
In fact, he seems to get good results this way, contrary to what one might expect of low-90's heat just above belt-high. The plus movement he generates makes it extremely difficult to get on top of the pitch; so much so, in fact, that he has gone to his fastball nearly 80% of the time in July.
Thus far in his MLB career, Maton has only 17 appearances (14 1/3 innings) on which to judge his skill. Still, in those short stints on the mound he has shown fans a glimpse of what he could accomplish after he gets some mileage in the bigs. At times his fastball will show decent lateral movement, often cutting into left-handed batters, but will be otherwise flat.
He has generated a 45.9% ground-ball percentage, but has also had hitters pull his pitches 45.9% of the time. Again, a small sample size, but should bear watching going forward. One thing I found intriguing: his O-Swing of 33.6%, an indication of how often batters will swing at pitches outside of the zone.
There's a good chance that, as he refines his location and command (especially of his fastball), he will generate a lot of swings out of the zone, likely resulting in weak contact and a continuing high ground-ball percentage.
Maton also takes a bulldog mentality to the mound; he appears fearless and unflappable, qualities that could pair with his outstanding fastball and improving slurve to make him a top-flight closer in the near future.
There are some elements of this assessment that can only be appreciated in context. Just watch him pitch. When he's on his game, Maton gets some perplexed looks from opposing hitters. There is a great deal to like about him.
Add to all of the aforementioned the fact that he plays in a low-pressure environment (for the foreseeable future), and Maton should have every chance in the world to become a future All-Star, perhaps even a first-tier closer over the next decade.