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Matz primed for bounce-back season under Callaway’s wing

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Mets LHP Steven Matz said he was excited to hear from the team’s new manager, Mickey Callaway, who last week began contacting players to introduce himself.

“He’s a real enthusiastic guy and seems to know pitching really well,” Matz told Newsday’s Kenny DeJean this past weekend. “He did a great job with Cleveland.”

Matz also told DeJean that he feels good and plans to soon pick up a baseball for the first time since having season-ending elbow surgery in August.

The surgery, which repositioned the ulnar nerve in his left elbow, should eliminate the increasing irritation Matz experienced during 2017. It is the same surgery Jacob deGrom had done in 2016, which he says helped him to make 31 starts and throw 201 innings last season.

Matz pushed himself to pitch through pain in 2017, but instead ended up choosing surgery, he recently told James Wagner of the NY Times.

“Ultimately, it was my decision,” Matz told Wagner. “I wanted to go out there and pitch because I’m so sick of being on the D.L. and I did everything I could. … The doctor said the symptoms I was getting were nontypical for nerve problems. I had no tingling or numbness. … I want to be out there competing and pitching.”

Matthew Cerrone (Twitter | Instagram | About Me):

Matz is set to have a breakout year in 2018. I think this may be the one he — and we — have been waiting for. I’m genuinely excited for what is in front of him…

For starters, if his elbow (and pitching arm) responds in the same way deGrom’s did to the same surgery, Steven may finally feel healthy and confident enough to make a full season’s worth of starts, which – for him – has been half of his battle. The other half is how he approaches each hitter and utilizes his curve ball, which is where Callaway come in to play…

As I mentioned in a post late last Friday, Callaway recently talked extensively at Citi Field about how his pitchers next season will be charged with throwing more curve balls that they’re used to doing in their careers. He said it with confidence and just kept talking, as though it was inherently obvious to everyone why this statement would benefit the Mets. It wasn’t obvious to me, though. Thankfully, after reading this article by’s Jordan Bastian about Callaway and Cleveland’s pitching staff, I now totally understand Mickey’s point.

According to Callaway, regardless of whether a pitch is in the strike zone or not, a pitcher is better served using his curve ball instead of other off-speed pitches because it generally has the best chance of resulting in a strike. This is supported by the Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox, and Callaway’s Indians, who have all consistently ranked as the top four teams in curve rate during the last three years, while also ranking atop the league in strike outs and wins.

Aug 17, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets manager Terry Collins (10) takes New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) out of a game against the New York Yankees during the fourth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

“When you throw breaking balls, you get the benefit of more chase out of the zone,” Callaway explained to Bastian. “So, your strike percentage is actually higher, even though your zone percentage might be lower.”

Callaway also said recent research indicates velocity is contributing more to pitching injuries than breaking balls, which is a secondary benefit to pushing his staff to use a more balanced selection of pitches. This should all be music to the ears of Matz and Seth Lugo, both of whom have one of the nastiest curve balls in baseball.

The last piece to Steven’s puzzle is time…

In most cases, successful left-handed starting pitchers need around 60-to-100 starts before seeing their career ERA began to dip and stayed below 4.00. Matz should be approaching this biographical pivot point to his career. However, due to multiple setbacks, surgeries and injuries, despite being 26 years old and drafted eight years ago, Steven has made only 41 starts and thrown 234 big-league innings during his career.

So, instead of gaining experience and learning about himself and the art of pitching, which is what most successful lefties are doing in their early-20s, Matz spent his time on the sidelines resting and rehabbing from injury.

Aug 17, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) reacts after allowing three runs to the New York Yankees during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Now, as he starts to hit what should be his prime, he’s still essentially a rookie that is learning the game and questioning himself mentally and physically. Sure, time allows for professional pitchers to excel in their 30s — no question. Unfortunately, time also makes it more difficult to sustain success, because it’s at this point when little aches and pains and the struggle to recover begin to impact success.

Basically, for Matz, it’s now or never.

In Callaway, Steven will finally have a mentor on the big-league staff that is pushing an approach to pitching that specifically plays to Matz’s strengths. Callaway may also be able to help Steven make up for lost time learning about the game since, like Matz, Callaway is a left-handed starting pitcher that also had Tommy John surgery. So, Callaway has walked in Steven’s shoes. Of course, as has always been the case, Matz can’t learn and evolve if he isn’t on the mound.

In the end, it all comes down to health. Hopefully, finally, when Matz picks up a baseball next month, he’ll respond like deGrom and never look back.

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