It’s been a long time coming for LHP Steven Matz. The left-hander from Long Island had to wait over three years from the day the Mets drafted him to throw his first professional pitch in a game that counted. The Mets selected the Matz in the second round in 2009, with the 72nd overall selection that year. Tommy John surgery in May 2010, and then a setbacks in 2011 and in early 2012, forced his professional debut all the way back to June 20, 2012 when he threw 3.1 innings in Princeton for the Kingsport Mets.
Released into the wild of the Appalachian League, his armstrength leaves room to dream. He’s grown into his 6’2″ frame and his fastball has been sitting 93-95 mph. He’s been mixing in a curve and a changeup that both, according to a scout who saw his most recent outing on July 9, have a chance to be average offerings. His July 9 start, when he did not allow a run on one hit while striking out six in six innings was easily his best in his four professional tries.
Matz, who turned 21 on May 29, has already re-calibrated his own expectations for 2012. “The goal [coming into the year] was get on the mound and be healthy,” he said “Now that I know I’m healthy, physically healthy, the goal is just try to have a good season now [and] keep my walks down, which I haven’t really done so far. Just commanding all of my pitches.” Matz has walked 11 batters in his first 17 professional innings.
Matz began throwing in the summer of 2011, but never felt right. “Last year, when I was just about a year out of surgery (May 2011), I threw a couple of innings, a couple of live BPs,” Matz detailed. “I got to work with Randy Nieman a little bit. So that was kind of a milestone, just getting back on the mound and just knowing that everything was still there. My elbow was still kinda hurting, so it started hurting again. I took some time but it still had its struggles.”
He had his first setback of 2012 even before the season began. “I came down to Florida on January 15th with a couple of other guys. I wasn’t in STEP Camp; I was just kinda using the complex and hoping I could be ready to go 100% for spring training. I was pitching in spring training, I got a couple of innings in, but [my elbow] was still bothering me, so I had to shut it down for a little while. When I got shut down that was right towards the end of spring training [in march], beginning of extended.. And then I came back. After that, pretty much, I don’t know what happened. It all clicked together. Luckily, I haven’t had any problems since.”
When he was shut down in March, he visited Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who had performed his surgery. Andrews’ according to Matz, “saw a little concern – maybe it was just the last little bit of scar tissue. I came back from him, and it’s been fine ever since.” All the same, the Dr. told Matz, there was nothing he could do for him, “He pretty much told me it’s either going to hold up, or it isn’t. God willing, it held up. It wasn’t like a slow process. I just kinda jumped back into it. Threw a bullpen, threw a live BP and got right into a game and threw an inning. Then one inning, then two then three innings and built it up.”
“It’s just great to finally feel good again”
And suddenly, all the years of pain and frustration and discomfort were gone. Andrews’ words for Matz were liberating, “I wasn’t too worried at this point. It was either all or nothing,” Matz explained. And it was more all, “It’s just great to finally feel good again. It’s the first time I’d felt good in so long. Finally, no symptoms or anything.”
Back on the mound in St. Lucie in 2012, pain-free, “It was a huge weight off my shoulders. At some points [in the past] it would feel good, but I’d always feel something. That was the first time I’d finally felt nothing. Just 100% again. And ever since then it’s been the same,” he gushed.
Was Matz rusty when he stepped on the hill in extended spring training? Kingsport Mets Pitching Coach Jonathan Hurst thought so, “We really picked up on it, with maybe a month left in extended. He really wasn’t letting the ball go. Everything we were telling him, the surgery, the rehab, everything’s been done, as far as strengthening. Now, go out and just let the ball go. I think he was a little bit apprehensive to let the ball go, not wanting to go back to where he was. Once we got that fear out of him and he was able to just go out and compete then that first game that he did that, it was jaw-dropping. He was 96, he touched 98, and we had never seen that before. After the game was over, and he’d only pitched like three or four innings, we pulled him aside, and he was like, “that felt great.” It was him just trusting himself. It was just him trusting himself and letting the ball go. Once he knew it wasn’t going to affect him any, he hasn’t looked back.”
Matz could feel the three years away from the game, “When I threw my first game [in the Appy League], I felt real uncomfortable out there just in a competitive situation, I guess you can call it. I’d been working with the pitching coordinator, Ron Romanick, when he came down here, and Jonathan Hurst just on pitch selection. Sometimes I just get ahead of myself and start going a million miles an hour out there. Slowing down, once that kinda clicks, everything just falls into place.”
Matz will never be the pitcher he was three years ago. In his eyes, that’s a good thing, “I feel a lot stronger, just my whole body, my legs, to my core, [and] my armstrength. My velocity has definitely gone up since I first signed. Some people will say it’s from Tommy John, but I think its just from growing physically. When I first signed, I couldn’t even grow facial hair, but now, it’s starting to fill out.”
Goal number one for Matz now is simply repeating his delivery. He seems to have a solid understanding of his own mechanics, “Sometimes when I start speeding up, then I start overstriding and I gotta work on just staying with my stride and not trying to overstride,” he reported. “When I overstride, I’m trying to use more of my legs, but I lose velocity when my arm starts dragging and then I start getting wild. So that’s the main thing: repeat my delivery and don’t overstride.”
In terms of secondary stuff to complement his fastball, Matz took his changeup, on which he uses a four-seam grip, back into games in extended spring training before his curveball, which he dubbed “a work in progress.” His suggestion for improving the curve is simple: “it’s just a matter of throwing it, I think.” Hurst has been working on Matz to hold the ball harder. “At times he gets a little light on his fingers and it just kinda flies out,” he broke down. “He just needs to get a little bit firmer grip so he can feel the baseball. He’s just feeling half of the baseball right now. He’s not feeling the true spin come out. We just firmed it up a bit so he can get more rotation over the top.”
There’s still more work to do on the mental side for Matz. “The game can speed up on you and it kinda did that in my first outing and my third outing,” he opined. “I just started rushing out there, walking guys. I’d give up a couple little hits here and there, walk a guy and everything just speeeeds up on you out there.” As he pronounced it, the speed had extra emphasis. His aim, now is “just slowing myself down.”
Now that Josh Edgin is in the big leagues, Matz has the best arm-strength of any left-hander on the Mets’ farm, which could and perhaps should get him to the big leagues as long as he can stay healthy. He is six levels away from the Majors, playing on the lowest domestic level team the Mets offered their farmhands in 2012. Even so, he is very much a prospect once again.