For years, Bryan Mata has been heralded as one of the top Red Sox pitching prospects. There’s no one in the system who can match his combination of mid- to upper-90s velocity and ability to shape six different pitches.
Yet the 24-year-old righthander may be nearing a professional crossroads. As much as teams want to give pitchers with diverse arsenals every chance to start, there comes a point where practical considerations enter the equation. And for Mata, who is on the 40-man roster for the third year and thus will be out of options after this season, a developmental fork may be approaching.
Mata left his Tuesday start for Worcester after 2⅓ innings with discomfort in his right lat muscle, near his shoulder. The Red Sox remain hopeful that the issue is minor and won’t require a long stint on the injured list.
“He was throwing as well as he had all season, up to 99,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “It’s certainly a frustrating bump in the road, but hopefully short-term.”
Still, even a temporary interruption is significant against the backdrop of a ticking clock on Mata’s career. A year ago, the Sox were encouraged by his midseason return from Tommy John surgery he’d undergone in early 2021. He likewise impressed this year in spring training, both with his stuff and his purpose.
Yet that promise hasn’t carried over to the season. In seven starts at Triple A, he has a 5.61 ERA with the highest walk rate (20.6 percent) by a minor league pitcher with at least 25 innings. Mata entered the year needing to make a qualitative jump in control to stick as a starter, but instead has a strike rate below 60 percent in all but one of his starts.
While he continues to show good velocity — regularly topping out at 98-99 — and his sinker-heavy arsenal has minimized damage (just one homer), he hasn’t gotten the kind of swing-and-miss numbers expected from a pitcher who throws as hard as he does, and he has more walks (27) than strikeouts (26).
Moreover, there’s an organizational sense that Mata hasn’t been consistent with the between-starts work needed to push his development.
“The way that his body works, the work in between starts is imperative for him,” director of pitching development Shawn Haviland said. “When he has a good five-day cycle, he’s going to go out and throw the baseball really well. And in the early going this year, we just haven’t found the work quality that we’re looking for.
“To be a major league starter, you have to be a pretty special guy. You need talent but you need to attack every single day relentlessly, stick to your routine, and use the opportunity to get better so that when you show up on that fifth day, everything clicks together and you can go compete.
“That’s just something Bryan is working on, that Bryan’s learning.”
It would be one thing if Mata were absorbing these lessons in the lower minors. But the combination of the lost COVID-19 season and missing 2021 while recovering from surgery means that he is nearing the time when he needs to show whether he can help in the big leagues.
So the question looms: Is there still time for him to develop into a big league starter? And can the Sox afford to take a longer view with him this year by giving him months to develop as a starter or will it become necessary to explore more immediate contributions out of the bullpen? Might the lat injury open conversations about a change of role?
“Anytime something like this happens, you have to look at how the player is best positioned to have long-term success,” said Abraham. “We see him as a starter, but there’s a roster piece and a time piece. Having to balance that with his development and seeing where we can get the most impact is something we have to talk about.”
Still, the Sox remain mindful of a tantalizing talent whose sinker can generate high ground-ball rates, while using that to anchor a mix that includes a slider, cutter, curveball, changeup, and four-seamer.
He has the pitch mix to start. But can he execute those pitches well enough to remain in that role?
Scouts with other teams are split, some suggesting that it’s imperative to exhaust starting as an option with such a pitcher — maybe with some delivery tweaks — and others seeing him as a future bullpen lock.
The Sox, meanwhile, face a developmental dilemma.
“When you’re on the 40-man, you’re not just developing as a prospect; you’re also direct support for the major league team,” said Haviland. “We’re continuing to try to push his ceiling as high as we possibly can, which is as a starter.
“But if there’s a need or an opportunity at the major league level and you feel like he’s a guy that can make it happen as a reliever, then that conversation will happen then.”
▪ Top prospect Marcelo Mayer opened May with an outrageous week for High A Greenville, going 16 for 31 with three homers and a .516/.516/1.000 line. While he’s been sidelined this week with minor soreness in his left shoulder, he is building a case for promotion. “He’s doing everything we can ask for, no doubt,” said Abraham. “He’s knocking on the door. He’s pushing.”
▪ Double A Portland righthander CJ Liu threw 13 no-hit innings across three starts, including a seven-inning complete game no-hitter last week in which he topped out at 98 miles per hour and got swings and misses on his splitter and slider.
▪ Greenville infielder Eddinson Paulino has posted a .390/.457/.610 with seven extra-base hits and eight steals in his last 10 games to improve his season line to .248/.307/.391.
▪ Shortstop/center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela is 3 for 34 this month with no walks and eight strikeouts for Portland, with a proclivity to expand the strike zone even when ahead in the count.
▪ While corner infielder Alex Binelas shows significant power, his struggles to make contact have continued. He’s hitting .195/.259/.351 with a 35.3 percent strikeout rate in Portland.
▪ Righthander Luis Perales has more walks (12) than strikeouts (11) in 12 innings for Single A Salem. He had been sidelined by a stomach bug but is scheduled to make his fifth start Saturday.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.