As an early step in an attempt to overcome his terrible 2020 season, Steven Matz got back to basics.
He spent five days late last month at the Mets’ complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the professional baseball environment in which he has spent the most time, working with Phil Regan, the Mets coach he has known longer than any other.
They didn’t do anything dramatic. No major delivery changes or new pitches. Just reminders of what they did in 2012, when Regan was Matz’s pitching coach with St. Lucie, and the second half of 2019, when Regan was the major-league club’s interim pitching coach, and who knows how many occasions in between.
Allard Baird, the now-former assistant general manager, pitched the idea to them. Matz traveled from Nashville — where the Stony Brook native lives in the offseason — and Regan traveled from his home five minutes from Clover Park.
"Knowing him for a long time, we’ve always had a pretty good relationship," Regan, 83, said in a recent phone interview. "We thought we could refresh him and get him going into spring training in a positive attitude — that’s what I was really thinking — so that he wasn’t going in on the season that he had."
With no minor-league season this year, Regan was tasked by Baird with watching the Mets’ games on television and reporting what he thought.
"Tough job, but somebody had to do it," Regan said with a laugh.
That meant he watched closely, if from afar, as Matz posted a 9.68 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in nine games (six starts). He lost his rotation spot, spent two weeks on the injured list with left shoulder discomfort and looked generally lost — a betrayal of his track record from the previous five years, when he had a 4.05 ERA and 1.30 WHIP.
Matz struggled despite, or maybe because of, his higher-than-normal velocity. His fastball averaged 94.5 mph and topped out at 97.
"He told me because he was throwing so hard, he thought he could pitch up a lot more than he did in the past," Regan said. "I think as a result, he overthrew the ball a little bit and tried to throw the ball by guys. Even though you throw 97 mph, you gotta pitch. You gotta be able to hit those spots."
By the time they reunited in Florida, Regan had a couple of ideas he wanted to reiterate. Most have to do with balance.
When Matz was setting up to throw a pitch, he would position his head above but behind his feet, "which I don’t teach," Regan said. He prefers to have pitchers keep their head over their feet.
At the other end of Matz’s delivery, Regan had him land on the ball of his foot instead of his heel. When he was doing the latter, he wound up falling — off-balance — toward the third-base side.
And then there is mental balance, an area of focus for Matz for years.
Regan has valued the mental side of the game since he was 18 years old and in his first spring training with the Tigers. It was 1956. One of Detroit’s coaches, Schoolboy Rowe, pulled him into conversation.
Rowe was a 6-4, 210-pound, 15-year big-league pitcher who earned his nickname by playing in men’s leagues as a teenager, pre-Depression, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. He was an All-Star in 1935 and 1936, dealt with chronic arm pain before anyone knew how to diagnose or treat such an issue, missed two years during World War II and was an All-Star again in 1947.
By the time he got his hands on Regan, five years before Rowe died at age 50 of a second heart attack, he had developed certain philosophies regarding pitching.
Forgive Schoolboy — or praise him — if his advice 65 years ago sounds common now.
"So he got to talking to me one day, and he said, ‘Phil, when you get to Detroit and you get in trouble and the bases are loaded with nobody out, what I want you to do is walk off the back of the mound, get in the grass, look up at the scoreboard out there in centerfield, clear your mind and get back on the mound and go get ’em,’ " Regan recalled. "I remembered that, and I think it’s a great thing."
Regan discussed the same idea with Matz, who he thinks will be just fine come spring training when he returns to Port St. Lucie.
"He left in a real, real positive state of mind," Regan said. "It’s just going to carry over into spring training for him. You don’t find a lot of lefthanders around with his kind of stuff. That’s pretty good."