PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On the first day of February, the scrutiny of Steven Matz already was underway at Tradition Field.
Matz, four months removed from surgery to remove a bone spur inside his left elbow, threw off the stadium mound Wednesday so he could be evaluated by the Mets’ TrackMan system — analytical software used to monitor a pitcher’s delivery. Matz was joined by his buddy Jacob deGrom, who also went under the knife, in September, to repair nerve damage in his right forearm.
For any pitcher coming off surgery, it’s essential to closely monitor the rehab process, and these two arms are as important as any in the Mets’ rotation as the franchise aims for its unprecedented third straight playoff berth. But unlike deGrom, who has established himself as a perennial Cy Young threat, Matz remains more of a wild card, a lethal lefthander with a sky-high ceiling — yet repeatedly sabotaged by injuries.
The Ward Melville star, only 25, always appears to be in perfect shape, and he does again two weeks before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report for spring training. That’s because he’s a fitness fanatic, spending the first part of the offseason in Nashville — the home of his country singer fiancee Taylor Cain — working out with other major leaguers before joining the Mike Barwis troop down at the Mets’ PSL complex.
The puzzling part is why some of his internal machinery keeps malfunctioning, from the 2010 Tommy John surgery that slowed his development to the handful of other ailments that dogged him before last year’s troublesome bone spur. Despite all that, Matz is 13-8 with a 3.16 ERA and an 8.7 SO/9 ratio in a total of 28 starts in his first two major-league seasons. That is why everyone keeps dreaming of what a fully healthy Matz could deliver, and the pitcher himself prefers to concentrate on the day-to-day regimen necessary to achieve those lofty projections.
“I don’t try to put any numbers on it,” Matz said Wednesday. “I realize it’s most beneficial if I focus on what you’re doing today, then with that mindset, just go out and do what you got to do. All the preparation you did to get there should take care of itself.”
With Matz, however, it seems more complicated than that, and at times, the only thing that’s even slowed him down has been the injuries. Matz rolled to 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA in his first nine starts last season, then stumbled to 2-7 with a 4.21 ERA in his last 13 as he labored with the sizable bone spur.
There were times, Matz said, that he felt pretty good, despite the spur, so he didn’t place all the blame on that. Matz believes that he needs to be more intelligent in attacking hitters, too. Such as picking better spots to use his changeup, a pitch that wound up over the fence a little too often. If there is anything positive to take from his difficulty with the spur, it’s that Matz knows what it takes to be effective when he may be tired or sore. Chalk that up to the education of a young pitcher who still has room to grow.
“I think I just learned that staying within yourself plays a big role for me,” Matz said. “When I try to muscle up or do any of that, I kind of fight myself. I’m definitely going to try to stay within myself when I’m feeling healthy. And that will probably help keep me healthy.”
The Mets will be keeping their fingers crossed. For all the physical conditioning Matz puts in to get ready for the season, maybe he’s discovered that the key to preventing further injuries could involve altering his mental approach to some degree.
“I think it’s the difference between working hard and working smart,” Matz said. “I’ve got to just know that what works for me and what doesn’t. Even if something may be beneficial to get me stronger, it could possibly throw off something else.”
Has Matz possibly solved his biggest problem? There’s only one way to know for sure, and everyone will find out soon enough.