Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Bryan Mata.
The Question: Can Bryan Mata find consistent command?
It truly seems like it has been forever since this has been the case, but the Red Sox enter 2021 with some actual prospect depth ready to contribute on the mound in the relative short-term. Granted, they are not elite prospects, and this team as a whole has plenty of pitching issues, but waiting in the wings at Triple-A are actual prospects instead of 29-year-old retreads who have failed in the majors at three previous stops. That’s more exciting as a fan, and has much more upside on the field. In terms of names, the first two to get their chance in the majors are likely to be Tanner Houck (who still has a shot at an Opening Day roster nod) and Connor Seabold.
But neither of them are the highest rank prospect we’re likely to see pitch this year. That’s Bryan Mata, who could (but not definitely) be a month or two behind, but possesses some real upside. The near-consensus top pitching prospect in the organization, Mata has the big stuff that one can dream on, and he’s made strides with his flaws throughout his time as a pro, but he still has one thing to work on. That would be his command, which must be refined before he can be counted on to make starts every five days at the highest level.
Before we get into all of that, it’s worth quickly going over how we got to this point with Mata, because it wasn’t exactly the expectation when he entered the organization. The righty from Venezuela was a low-key signing, getting a $25,000 signing bonus back in 2016. But once he started throwing, he did nothing but put up numbers. He pitched extremely well in the Dominican Summer League that first year with the team, and then was pushed very aggressively up to full-season ball in 2017. He continued to hold his own, making it up to Salem in 2018 before getting to up to Double-A Portland midway through 2019, still only his age-20 season.
It was a remarkable ride, and for the most part he put up strong results, with some hiccups along the way. Those hiccups weren’t really a surprise nor a cause for major concern given his age relative to his level (per Baseball-Reference, he has been at least three years younger than the average player in his league since leaving the DSL), though the walk numbers were something that have stood out amid the good and bad results. Those issues showed up the most in 2018 when he was in High-A for the first time, walking a whopping seven batters per nine innings. He has improved since then, but he’s still been hovering up around four per nine, which is a tough place to succeed for a starter.
Now, there are some physical reasons for this that are explainable and, at least theoretically, a reason to breathe a bit more easily. Looking at that 2018 season in Salem, Mata had entered that year as a 19-year-old and put on more bulk prior to that season. This was a conscious choice to add a bit more oomph to his fastball as well as better enable him to make it through full seasons as a starter, but it also comes with adjustments. He had been pretty small before that, and pitching at its most basic level all comes down to repeating your mechanics. That was understandably an issue as Mata was essentially pitching in an entirely different body that year. His mechanics suffered, and with them so did his command.
That’s an explanation for why he cratered so hard that year, but the fact is he had command issues before bulking up, and he’s had them since, just not to that glaring degree. And so this is something he still needs to work on. The good news is this isn’t a rarity for young pitchers, and Mata is just that. Even with the missed season last year, Mata is still figuring to enter Triple-A (whenever that may start) this summer in what will be his age-22 season. For some context, the other pitching prospects mentioned above, Houck and Seabold, will both be in their age-25 seasons in 2021. This is why Mata is likely to be behind them a bit in terms of timeline, and also why there’s time for him to figure out the command issues.
It’s certainly not a guarantee, though. Plenty of pitchers have had the stuff that Mata has, but they haven’t had the command to back it up and they’ve either shifted to the bullpen or flamed out entirely. For Mata, the bullpen is still a distinct possibility. And to be fair, while much of this has focused on the shortcomings, we should not let that overshadow the good in this profile, which largely comes down to his stuff. Amid the walk issues he’s had in the minors, he has also missed bats, striking out about a batter per innings despite his relative youth at each level. Mata comes equipped with a fastball that can sit in the mid-90s along with a good slider and a solid curveball and changeup,
And so with that arsenal, Mata has a good chance to stick around at least as a reliever, but there is clearly hope for so much more. He is a top five prospect in the organization for a reason, and while it’s not the best system in the world that’s still no small feat. There is real potential for a rotation stalwart here, with the kind of stuff to put together special runs even if he’s unlikely to do it consistently enough to pitch at the top of a rotation. But the Red Sox need young starters, and he represents the best chance. Despite still being only 22 years old (he actually doesn’t even turn 22 until early May), he’s knocking on the door and should get his chance in Boston in 2021. To make the most of it, he’ll need to refine that command and throw consistent strikes.