MILWAUKEE — Phil Maton pitches mad. Scoreless or shelled, mid-inning hero or hard-luck loser, his dour demeanor does not change. Onlookers wonder if it ever will. Maton’s emotionless expressions have earned a cult following among the Astros’ fanbase, inspiring at least one Twitter account and so many other memes from his time on the mound. “I’m usually pretty angry at times,” Maton said. “I just feel like any time you show too much on the field, the game finds a way to come back and get you, so I try to just not poke the bear in any way or get too high or too low when I’m out there.” Maton holds himself to an almost unattainable standard. He has been one of baseball’s best relievers this season, yet projects no outward satisfaction. To hear Maton describe it, happiness with one outing may make him content. His next appearance is always most important. “To a point, that can be bad,” Maton said, “obviously, with a plate in my hand now.” On Oct. 5, following his final regular-season outing, Maton punched his locker at Minute Maid Park and fractured the fifth metacarpal on his pitching hand. Surgery to insert the plate prevented Maton from pitching in the postseason, robbing him of a chance to contribute during a World Series run. The reliever remained with the club throughout its 13-game journey and participated in all three champagne celebrations, the only instances in which he could relax. “You’d see situations where I was supposed to throw and (I was) kind of just hoping that everything went smoothly and there weren’t any situations where things went sideways and it was a situation where I could’ve helped the team and we lost because of it,” Maton said this week. “Very stressful in that aspect, but it was really cool to see a front-row seat to watching it and not having the actual on-field stress of being in the game.” Make no mistake: Maton would have welcomed that tension. He has it now — and the 30-year-old right-hander is thriving, perhaps the most underrated weapon in one of baseball’s best bullpens. His 0.77 ERA is the third-lowest among qualified major-league relievers. Maton’s 0.514 WHIP is the second-lowest, trailing only Baltimore wunderkind Yennier Cano. Entering Friday’s series-opener against the A’s, Maton has thrown 23 1/3 frames and faced 84 batters. Fifteen have reached base. Maton is throwing 69 percent of his pitches for strikes, allowing opponents a mere .368 OPS, and has issued just two walks. Of the 10 hits against him, seven are singles, inviting wonder whether Maton should rise in the team’s bullpen hierarchy — if he hasn’t already. Hector Neris and Bryan Abreu are the most common bridge to closer Ryan Pressly, but Maton may morph into the team’s fireman, the pitcher to whom manager Dusty Baker turns in the middle of an inning with runners aboard and a game in peril. Maton does not boast the sort of overpowering arsenal Abreu wields, nor does he have the lengthy late-game experience Pressly and Neris provide. Instead, Maton is making do with a four-seam fastball averaging 89.6 mph and a curveball he can’t stop throwing — even if it wasn’t part of the team’s plan. “We didn’t come out and flat say, ‘Hey, you need to throw your curveball more,’” pitching coach Josh Miller said. “We just said, ‘You need to throw it more consistently to good locations,’ and he’s done that. What we’ve found is you can throw it a lot more if you throw it to good spots. He’s landing it, throwing it down in the zone and below it to get some chases. It’s been really good to see.” Opponents are 1-for-40 against Maton’s curveball this season. After throwing it at a 31.6 percent clip last year, Maton has used it 42.5 percent of the time across these first two months. Maton can manipulate its velocity from anywhere in the high-60s to mid-70s. At an average of 3,203 revolutions per minute, its spin rate is in the 98th percentile. It has a negative-9 run value, according to Baseball Savant. No single pitch in the Astros’ bullpen has performed better. “Right now, it’s the pitch I can get down better than others,” Maton said. “The slider, I’m still leaving up way more than I’d like, but if I need to bury a pitch, the curveball, I have much more trust in getting and executing it down right now. If I could get my slider down, I’d probably lean on it a lot more, especially against righties, but if I need a pitch down, the curveball is the one I’m going to go to because I can execute it at a higher rate.” Maton’s injury delayed his offseason buildup by about a month. He did not throw his first bullpen session until January and reported to spring training a bit behind the Astros’ other relievers. Maton presumed he’d feel fresher as a result, but acknowledged this week he feels “about the same as I normally do.” Perhaps as a byproduct, the velocity on Maton’s four-seam fastball is down almost two miles per hour from last season. Its shape is dramatically different, though, masking the decline. His four-seamer now has some natural cut it didn’t before, averaging 3.4 inches of horizontal break. Last year, it averaged 1.3. Maton can’t pinpoint what caused it — he surmised aloud it may actually be the plate in his surgically-repaired right hand, but laughed it off when asked if that is rooted in reality. “It could be a range of motion thing where I don’t have complete range of motion or pronation. But I think more than likely, it’s a bad habit I got into in camp and I liked the result and just kind of kept it,” Maton said. “I’m just really around the baseball right now whereas normally I’m blocking behind it a little better and getting more efficient ball rotation. I just kind of leaned into the cut towards the end of camp.” For most of his Astros tenure, Maton has relied primarily on elevating his four-seam fastball. Now, with more cut, he is free to use it in other lanes to keep opponents off of his curveball and slider. After shelving it when he left Cleveland, Maton resumed throwing a traditional two-seam fastball last June, too, after the Astros noticed right-handed hitters sitting on his slider. It helped him author a second-half resurgence, culminating in a 14-outing stretch from Aug. 25 through Oct. 3 during which he allowed two earned runs. Maton isn’t wired to rest on that production. He injured his hand after an 18-pitch outing against the Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 5. He scattered two earned runs, secured one out and surrendered a bloop single to his younger brother, Nick, during an at-bat that brought both teams to the top step of their dugouts. At the time, Baker acknowledged he and Phillies skipper Rob Thomson arranged for the brothers to face each other, ostensibly a feel-good moment in a meaningless game. It did not end as they envisioned for Phil, who is one of the more genial, accessible and calm players when reporters are inside the Astros’ clubhouse. After shaving his season ERA to 3.58 with that aforementioned stretch, Maton exited with a 3.84 clip. On the day he announced the injury, Maton — heading into his final trip through the arbitration process — mentioned his inflated ERA before calling his actions “selfish” and offering “no excuses” for what he did. Maton made $2.55 million this offseason in his final year of arbitration eligibility. So far, he is authoring the sort of walk year that every free agent-to-be craves. Prolonging that excellence is Maton’s next challenge. So is striking a balance between the anger that fuels him and anything drastic. “I’ve thrown my fair share of gloves and spikes,” Maton said. “Hitting stuff is not something I’ve done. That kind of was an outlier. I obviously shouldn’t be hitting solid objects, so that’s a pretty easy thing to fix and not do again.” Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us. Chandler Rome is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering the Houston Astros. Before joining The Athletic, he covered the Astros for five years at the Houston Chronicle. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University. Follow Chandler on Twitter @Chandler_Rome