Staying Focused: The Chi of Baseball and the Struggles of Mets Pitcher Steven Matz

Steven Matz pitching
Steven Matz pitching, Courtesy New York Mets

I’ve been following the career of Steven Matz closely. Matz is now 27, a talented starting pitcher with a great curve and slider who is in the starting rotation for the New York Mets.

I am following his career because I have high hopes for him. Only once has there been a superstar baseball player from the East End of Long Island. That was Carl Yastrzemski, the son of a prominent Bridgehampton potato farmer who started his career at the Bridgehampton High School half a century ago on the sandlot ball field behind the firehouse.

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Nobody had ever seen a kid hit a ball over the fence as far as he could. He drew crowds here. So it was no surprise that he soon became the star of the Boston Red Sox, sometimes leading the league in batting, runs batted in and home runs. He’s a legend in baseball and was elected to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

Eight years ago, a famous high school baseball game was played on the East End between two pitchers who many felt could fill the shoes of the great Yaz. Scouts from all 32 Major League teams watched from the stands, clicking speed guns at these pitchers.

Both struck out nearly half the hitters they faced, and in the end, Ward Melville High School beat Patchogue-Medford 1 to 0. The losing pitcher was Marcus Stroman, who is now a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. The winning pitcher in that encounter was Steven Matz.

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What this story really is about, is what I think is going on in Matz’s mind as he pitches. Out on the mound, Matz’s face can be read like a map. Just by looking at him, you can tell if he is pleased with himself, scared, nervous, angry or calm. I never thought of it this way before.

Steven Matz headshot
Steven Matz, Courtesy New York Mets

With just about everybody else, the young men pitch, the batters try to hit. Mostly they are stone faced. They are focused and determined, pitch after pitch. They come from Texas, Florida, Arkansas. They mess up a pitch. It’s forgotten. They don’t think about it. It’s on to the next. Matz, until recently, is from the opposite extreme. He is thinking all over the lot. Just watch him.

Here would be a typical thought process for Steven Matz during this period. Keep in mind I am making this up by looking at the closeups of his face on TV.

STRIKE ONE. Got him with the fastball. Happy, happy. STRIKE TWO. Perfect curve, didn’t swing at that either. BALL ONE. I thought that caught the inside corner. I had him. What’s the matter with this ump? BALL TWO. Slipped out of my hand. If it hadn’t I’d have got him. BALL THREE. Low and away. Why was that? How could I have missed that? That was supposed to be perfect. My curve. And now the crowd is on me. It’s a full count. Do or die. Is my grandfather at the game? I can’t let this guy get away. That would open the door. I’ll catch the inside corner. Here goes. Was that a bird that just flew by? Am I losing it again? BALL FOUR. Oh boy. Now it starts. This damn game is getting away from me again. What should I do? My nose itches.

Think of the actor Gene Wilder. You may recall him in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. He can’t lie. If he does, you see guilt top to bottom. It all shows. It’s all out there. In the case of Matz, his inability to not think allows the batters to lick their chops hoping to smash a home run while he’s out of focus, or if not that get a four ball walk out of him.

His win/loss record has been all over the place. He won the first seven games he played. He struck out a ton of people. He was a whiz in the Mets’ postseason run. The sportswriters talked about him. He was named one of the best rookies in baseball in August 2015. But then he went into a nosedive, had to be pulled out of games and tried comeback after comeback from various injuries, or, in my opinion, from being all over the place with his thinking.

I’ve not read anything about this before. Perhaps I am wrong. But the behavior of his coaches, particularly this year, his third full season, seems to confirm this is his problem.

In interviews these last few weeks, the coaches say they’ve urged him not to lie back and pitch around anybody, but to play with the confidence of a tiger. You can outsmart and overpower the best men in baseball. You’re unstoppable. Remember that day you struck out the heart of the Atlanta order on nine pitches? That’s the Matz we know. Every pitch, focus on that. Just that. One pitch at a time. You’re a terrific pitcher.

In his last three outings, you can see the ferocity come over him on the mound. It’s not a full-bore ferocity, its somewhere between determination and ferocity—and it lasts, at least for five innings. He could be striking out the side and heading into no-hitter territory for four innings. Then he’d tire, in my opinion, from the stress of trying not to think. Suddenly the Mets are behind by three runs and they have to take him out.

Now comes a thing that has helped even more. The coaches decided that he should pitch without a windup. Many pitchers have this elaborate high kick wind up ritual they go through before they heave the ball. Matz was no exception. In recent years, though, some pitchers have pitched without a windup. Just get the ball, get the sign from the catcher then throw it. Just like that. Take 10 seconds between pitches instead of 20.

It’s been shown that throwing without a windup does not, in most cases, affect either the speed of pitches or the accuracy of the throw. Matz now pitches without one. And the speed of it gives him little time to overthink anything.

In his last two outings, Matz has been playing really great baseball. He stays focused and keeps it together by just thinking in the moment. He forgets what went down with that last pitch. (Home run. Walk. Foul ball. Another foul ball.) Don’t look for your uncle. You can do this.

And he has.

There’s a lesson here, not only for baseball players, but for everybody. But I forgot what it is.

Go Steven.

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