PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — To the untrained eye, Steven Matz didn’t look any different Thursday during his live batting practice session on Field 5. Same velocity, same lethal two-seamer, same destabilizing curveball.
“You don’t see many lefty starters who throw that hard, with that movement,” said Brandon Nimmo, among the three Mets to flail away at him.
But this was not the same Matz. A significant mechanical alteration implemented by new pitching coach Dave Eiland could be the key that wipes away nearly three years of medical woes for the former Ward Melville star.
Eiland noticed that Matz, 26, had a tendency to be slow with his left arm, essentially dragging it behind the lower half of his body as he powered through his delivery. That can put strain on the entire left side and trigger any number of injuries, a few of which he already has endured.
The torn UCL in his elbow that necessitated Tommy John surgery, the recurring shoulder tightness, the ripped lat muscle, last year’s operation to “decompress and reposition” the ulnar nerve. All of them, of course, were on the left side. Matz, meanwhile, has an incomplete resume that has left him at 15-15 with a 3.99 ERA in only 41 career starts over three seasons.
The solution almost sounds too simple. Eiland’s mantra involves reminding Matz to get his arm “out” and then “up” to have it remain in line with the rest of his delivery. That’s what spring training is for, to transform these messages into muscle memory. And now that he is starting with a clean bill of health, this adjustment could make sure he stays that way.
“The cleaner, more repeatable your delivery is, that helps the percentage chance of injuries go down,” Eiland said. “Everything’s working in sync, everything’s on time, there’s less stress. Less stress on the arm, less stress on the body.”
Could it really be that easy? There’s no way of knowing yet. But every day that Matz is pain-free is a victory in itself, and that includes late February.
A year ago, Matz was bothered during spring training by a mysterious condition — one the Mets generally described as elbow tenderness — and that carried over into the season as he tried to pitch through the discomfort.
Last year’s treatment remains a point of contention, from painkilling injections to the late diagnosis of the nerve issue and even the Mets’ suggestion that maybe he had to learn to pitch through the discomfort. But after all the drama, he has no interest in revisiting it. Mentally, it’s as if he’s drawn a line at the Aug. 24 surgery; anything that happened before then is ancient history.
When asked how he feels now in relation to his pre-op condition, he quickly cut off that topic. After constantly being asked about injuries during the first three years of his career — an incredibly frustrating stretch in which flashes of greatness repeatedly were derailed — Matz is trying to look forward.
“I don’t want to compare anything,” he said. “I just want to say right now I feel really good. I’m real excited about where I’m at.”
As for last year’s torturous spring training, which at times put him and the team at odds, Matz said, “It doesn’t matter at this point.”
Matz hopes this fresh start with Eiland, who stood behind the mound during Thursday’s session, will allow him to rewrite the narrative. As Eiland said, there’s physical evidence to support a healthier future for Matz as long as he can maintain this delivery. Perhaps more important, Matz has bought in to what Eiland is preaching, and there is power in that positivity. If Matz believes this will return him to a potential Cy Young Award track, that could be half the battle.
“Just staying loaded with my lower half and not so much leading with my arm,” Matz said. “It’s hard to explain. But it could be why I was injured because my arm gets kind of caught behind me and I try to make it up by being too quick.”
On a larger scale, there’s no rush. Matz still has another month or so to prepare for the regular season, and Eiland acknowledged that it takes time to imprint these delivery changes. But that’s a small price to pay as long as Matz has a clear head and sound body every time he takes the mound.