Steven Matz is enjoying a routine off-season following surgery last August to reposition the ulnar nerve in his left elbow, he told Newsday reporter Steve Marcus.
"I've been playing catch and working out just as I normally would," Matz said. "I anticipate being ready when spring training starts. I'm coming in healthy.''
Jacob deGrom had the same surgery on his right elbow in 2016. He returned healthy in 2017, made 31 starts and eclipsed 200 innings for the first time in his career.
"He pretty much told me it was fairly simple and after a couple of months he was feeling really good,'' Matz said of a conversation with deGrom, according to Marcus.
Matz, 26, entered this past season 13-8 with a 3.16 ERA (3.44 FIP) during 28 career starts. However, after missing the first two months of the season, he put up a 6.08 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and struck out just 48 batters in 66 2/3 innings (13 starts) before ending his season to have elbow surgery.
In November, Matz told WOR 710 AM that he's eager to officially begin his 2018 season.
"This is a really big year for me," he said. "I know what I'm capable of."
Matz recently admitted to Newsday's Marc Carig of Newsday that he was forced to limit preparation, shorten bullpen sessions and occasionally skip starts due to significant pain and swelling in his pitching elbow last season.
In the end, in part due to encouragement from deGrom, Matz ended his season in favor of surgery.
"Ultimately, it was my decision," he told James Wagner of the NY Times in October. "I wanted to go out there and pitch because I'm so sick of being on the D.L. I did everything I could."
Matz missed the first two months of this season with what was described as elbow inflammation, the result of which may have been a side effect of the bone spur surgery that ended his 2016.
The MRI he had before the 2017 season indicated no structural damage, which is why he pushed to pitch through discomfort, he told Wagner.
"In my mind, I'm like, 'The MRI is clean, so this is something I'm going to have to deal with," he explained. "I had no tingling or numbness. ... I didn't feel any pressure from the team (to pitch). Did I feel pressure from myself? Yeah. I want to be out there competing and pitching."
After going 1-7 with a 10.19 ERA during July and August, Matz requested another exam. According to Wagner, results of the mid-summer exam revealed that Matz's elbow pain could only be eliminated by surgically repositioning the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow.
Danny Abriano (Twitter)
Recovery from any surgery is never a given, but Matz can draw a hopeful parallel with deGrom, who was largely dominant last season after returning from the same surgery.
For starters, Matz threw his slider much less last season (4.3 percent, compared to 10.4 percent in 2016), most likely to to reduce stress on his elbow. As a result, his strikeout rate decreased dramatically. At the same time, his average fastball velocity was 93.1 MPH, down from 93.6 MPH in 2016 and 94.3 MPH in 2015.
Similarly, DeGrom's fastball velocity was 93.4 MPH, down from 95 MPH, when he was pitching hurt in 2016. In 2017, after having his ulnar nerve moved, which was followed by a normal spring training, his average fastball velocity returned to 95.2 MPH. As a result, he made a career-high 31 starts and struck out 239 batters in 201 1/3 innings -- a career-high rate of 10.68 per nine innings.
Hopefully for the Mets, Matz will see a similar bounce back in performance...
This whole situation is exactly the type the Mets hope to now avoid by hiring a peak performance coordinator, switching up their training staff and hiring a pitching-first manager, who had Tommy John surgery himself, all of which will hopefully increase communication between doctor, team, player, and pain.
In regards to Matz, as a pitcher, I'm of course frustrated for him and his career. But, it's also frustrating for us -- as fans -- and for the organization, all of whom know he has talent, but can't trust in his presence because -- to date -- he had missed so much time due to pain and invasive surgery.
He's young, but he's not that young. He'll turn 27 years old this coming May. Considering his age, talent, and that he was drafted in 2009, he should probably have at least 500 innings and 80 starts under his belt at this point in his career. Instead, due to multiple significant surgeries, he's made just 41 starts and thrown only 234 innings.
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)
As I mentioned last summer, most consistently successful left-handed starting pitchers all needed around 60-to-100 starts before their career ERA began to dip and remained below 4.00. More specifically, these pitchers were all around Matz's age when they hit that pivot point in their career. But, instead of gaining experience and learning about himself and the art of pitching, as other lefties do in their mid-20s, Matz has been rehabbing and missing major time on field.
Now, as he starts to hit what should be his prime, he's still essentially a rookie, learning the game, and questioning himself mentally and physically. Sure, time allows for professional pitchers to excel in their 30s, no question. Unfortunately, time and age also make for more aches, pains, interruptions between starts and -- again -- the potential for surgery.
The fact is, Matz will not meet expectations until he's able to make close to 30 starts in a single season... and do it again... and do it again. Maybe that'll start next season, but maybe it won't. In either case, if he can stay healthy, find the right mindset that works for him, and continue to develop his pitches, he's going to notice that everything will click, and when that happens, he won't look back.
Callaway will help, too. Like he did with success in Cleveland, he intends to put a big emphasis on getting his starting pitchers to throw more off-speed pitches, especially their curve balls. As Danny pointed out above, Matz was forced to use his slider less due to elbow pain. Hopefully, that pain is gone, at the same time he gets new life on his fastball and better direction from Callaway.