The Unlucky Lefty
Steven Matz grew up watching Minnesota Twins left-handed pitcher Johan Santana baffle opposing hitters on the mound. As a young lefty pitcher himself, Matz emulated Santana’s delivery and arsenal of pitches.
Though the Stony Brook native was a Mets fan, Matz took the mound in Little League thinking he was Santana—this was before Santana was a Met.
At Ward-Melville High School in 2005, Matz impressed professional scouts with his powerful fastball and his 6-foot 4-inch, 200-pound frame.
Many high school athletes play multiple sports, but Matz focused solely on baseball, even if he was forced to throw off an indoor mound in the school gym in January. He did not allow Long Island’s poor weather climate to stop him from pursuing his dreams of playing Major League Baseball.
“I pretty much pitched in any condition,” says Matz, now 20. “It didn’t matter if it was snowing out. I think that made me a little bit tougher as a player.”
This toughness paid off as more and more scouts showed up at his high school starts, especially during his senior year in 2009 when he only gave up two earned runs in 54.0 innings, good enough for a 0.26 ERA. Ward-Melville Head Coach Lou Petrucci recalled Matz’s dominance: “Every time he went out there, he knew it was going to be a win with 10-plus strikeouts.”
Matz planned to go from high school to college before hopefully reaching the majors, but once a Mets scout told him he was interested, Matz’s plans changed drastically. The Mets selected Matz right out of high school with their second-round pick (72nd overall) in the 2009 MLB Draft.
“It was pretty exciting because a lot of my family members are big fans, too,” Matz says. “It’s pretty much every kid’s dream, especially getting picked by your own team.”
Matz signed a contract close to $1 million—very rare for a Long Island high school player—and would have the chance to learn from his childhood idol Santana, whom the Mets acquired via trade in early 2008.
The negotiations, however, were anything but smooth. Matz signed just three minutes prior to the Aug. 15 deadline. If players don’t sign with the team that drafted them before this deadline, they have to either play three years of college baseball or wait until age 21 to be drafted again. Had Matz not signed, he would have pitched in college at Coastal Carolina University. His next step would be to report to spring training in February 2010.
The Mets kept Matz in extended spring training, which is customary for younger draft picks. But during this time, his elbow flared up, and the team doctors were forced to tell him some terrible news: He would have to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Tommy John surgery has become very common in baseball today. (The first successful procedure was performed in 1974 on Los Angeles Dodgers lefty pitcher Tommy John, of course.) The ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The normal recovery time is approximately one year.
Though the operation performed on Matz was successful, it put a damper on his dreams. Questions of whether he’d be the same pitcher danced through his head, and the thought of complications from the surgery gave him feelings of uncertainty he’d never experienced.
Matz began the necessary rehab in summer 2010 in hopes of pitching in 2011. But he still has not thrown a professional pitch after a break-up of scar tissue this summer halted his progress.
“It’s been a little bit of a rocky road,” says Matz.
The Mets stopped his throwing program completely in late July after a second opinion from renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews revealed that Matz was still not fully healed.
Normally, a minor league pitcher who hasn’t thrown a pitch two years after being drafted would panic. But through his rehab, Matz has gained a valuable lesson in something that often fails to sink in with young players: patience.
“I’ve done everything I possibly could, and if it’s not going to work out, then that’s what it’s meant to be,” Matz says. “At the end of the day, you know you tried as hard as you possibly could to get back, and hopefully it will pay off.”
Though many young baseball players have never experienced anything but success, none of them can take their playing careers for granted because injuries are unfortunately part of the game.
Still, it’s going to take much more than a few setbacks in rehab to keep Matz off the field.
“There’s no question in my mind he’s going to be in the big leagues in three-four years,” says Petrucci. “You’re not going to stop this kid from making it.”