Nearly every athlete will repeat the mantra, “control what you can control”. While at Duke, Michael Matuella’s right arm seemed to be in control of a future destiny.
As a sophomore for the Blue Devils in 2014, Matuella allowed just 55 baserunners and struck out 69 over 58.1 innings. Towering at 6-7 on the mound the downward angle of his 97-mph fastball along with a developing change, and an advanced feel for the curve and slider, Matuella was on the track as a possible first-overall pick in the 2015 first-year player draft. This, despite dealing with spondylolysis in the lower back.
Then, a little more than two months ahead of the June draft. the dreaded MRI confirmed a different destiny: “Tommy John” surgery.
Almost two years after his selection by the Texas Rangers in the third round – and in the process getting first-round bonus money, a reported $2 million – Matuella finally has his pro career underway. The innings are limited, the results aren’t always pretty, but Matuella is healthy and ready see his long months of rehab pay off.
I had a chance to interview Matuella a little over two weeks ago in preparation for a feature writeup. Here is that interview:
How did you get started in baseball?
Matuella: I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I have an older brother; he’s four years older than me. I just remember just going out in the yard and playing with him and my dad. That just grew as I started playing travel ball, at whatever age that was, through middle school.
Obviously, I played in high school and my coach, he really pushed me to be the best that I can be there. He saw the potential in me to go Division I. I had the offer to Duke and I absolutely loved it. I had another offer to Maryland, but from the first visit I had there, I loved the place and the people. Duke is really where I took off, where I had the little velocity jump and where I started to figure some things out. My command really improved and it shifted my mentality to a more aggressive one. That’s how I got here today.
Who was your high school coach?
Matuella: Chris Rodriguez
What were some things that he said or did that helped you along to where you are now?
Matuella: I remember, this was the fall of my sophomore year. I was on JV my freshman year and by the fall of my sophomore year I started doing some workouts and he told me I was just as good as his seniors on the team and I could go Division 1 wherever I wanted if I put in all of the work. I think I hadn’t really thought of it like that until that point, but then I realized like, “Wait, this could be a possibility.” That’s when I really started dedicated myself to becoming the best I could be.
Did you have any inkling that professional sports could be a career for you until that point?
Matuella: I would say that point came even later. I admit, I was just thinking step by step at that point. Then, once I got to Duke, probably my freshman year, that I really decided, “Alright, I want to pursue this and I want to see what I can do.” I didn’t know if it was possible yet. My sophomore year, that’s when I realized that this is going to be a thing for me if I keep putting in the work. It definitely started in high school where I was going from working hard and playing and enjoying the game, obviously competing and wanting to win, to where I said, “I can actually maybe take this a step further” and that’s what carried over again at Duke.
You went to Duke, which is not known as a powerhouse, but the program has turned out some players, Marcus Stroman being at the top of that list. What sort of things have happened to help turn that program around to where they are starting to produce some talent?
Matuella: I would say the coaching staff was a big one. Chris Pollard, he didn’t actually recruit me. There was an entirely new coaching staff when I get there my freshman year. I think he’s done a really good job, not only developing players physically, but also really hammering home the mental side of things. I think that’s been really huge for everyone. I really benefitted from that kind of stuff. A lot of people spend time on the physical side, but not as much on the mental side. I think that that’s a huge reason.
Once you see a couple of guys like Stroman that get drafted, and then there was my class. The class above me had three or four guys drafted, then my class had three guys. Basically, it’s been three to four guys every year the past four or five years or so. It’s good to see some more guys go into pro ball.
That’s (ACC) a tough league, especially that they’ve added Louisville and Notre Dame during your time.
Matuella: It’s a lot of fun playing in it though. You know every weekend there’s going to be a really good opponent and you have to really be ready and locked in. I always looked forward to those ACC weekends.
Does that sort of competition helps, not only the program, but the individuals to have that competition against other potential top prospects? How did that help you looking ahead to getting drafted and prepare you for the pros?
Matuella: I think a lot of the talent you see in the ACC – and you see that in other leagues as well, like the SEC and these other top programs that are turning out pro guys – you’re seeing professional level talent. I think it really prepares you, especially knowing you can do well in that setting, that prepares you for pro ball mentally, to where I was like, “I know I can get guys out like this.” Obviously, it’s a step up to pro ball, but for me, it gives me confidence to know, “Alright, I’ve been there before” and “I’ve done well against guys like that.” It gives me confidence to know that if I can pitch my game, I’ll be fine.
So, when you start hearing potential 1/1, what does that say in your mind during that stretch when you’re looking ahead to 2015 and you think, “My gosh, I could be first overall.”
Matuella: I really tried not to think about that at all. I tried to just focus on the work I had to do in and the preparation I had to put in for the 2015 season. Sure, you hear the rumors, but you try not to get distracted by it. You just try to focus in on and lock in on the daily routine and what you have to do to get better.
So, tell me about the back injury. I tried to pronounce it before I came here and still can’t get it right.
Matuella: It’s called spondylolysis. It sounds a lot worse than it is. It’s basically a lot of people have it. It’s something that I manage. I’ve been asymptomatic for two years. I don’t feel it. It’s something that once you do the rehab and once you develop a stronger core and basically develop strength all around that, you just don’t feel it.
Is it upper or lower back?
Matuella: Lower back. You can have it on any of the vertebrae, but I guess it’s more common to be lower.
Was it something that was spurred by all the pitching motions and the twists and turns?
Matuella: You just never know what contributed to it. There’s probably a number of things. Pitching, probably, contributes to it, but also weightlifting. Really a lot of stuff, the running, jumping. There’s a lot of guys, I think they estimated that probably 20 percent of athletes have that injury, but they don’t know they have it because it’s not causing any issues. So, for me, I’m at that point – and I’ve been at the point for a while now – where it’s not a big deal for me. It’s not that I’m frustrated with people – and I’m not frustrated by the question – but some people are really scared by it. I feel like a normal person and I don’t think it’s a big deal at all.
Then you get the “Tommy John” stuff. How long after the back injury did that start?
Matuella: I was cleared to throw in January 2015, which was basically when our spring practices started. It was March 27 in my last game when I injured it. It was only about two-and-a-half months.
Was it something that suddenly came up? Did you have issues before?
Matuella: It was pretty sudden. After my first start, I took the next weekend off, just because I was feeling some tightness in my forearm. We got the MRI and it showed that it was fine. So, I basically went on with a clear head. We felt that the innings might be too much, after I had gone out there for six innings.
They threw me back out there for one inning and then three innings and then four innings. I basically felt it on one pitch. I didn’t feel any popping sensation or pulling sensation. It just felt like a lot of pain in there, so I didn’t think it was UCL until we got the MRI and saw that it was. That was frustrating.
What was your mindset at that point, which, of course, you couldn’t be happy?
Matuella: I was honestly shocked. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me the news and he showed me the MRI. I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t cross my mind that was going to be what it was. Obviously, after that it was pretty tough for the next couple of days to process it and then reset my focus and acknowledge that “Tommy John” was going to happen. So, I started to focus on what I had to do each day to get better and come back from that.
Did you have any worries that you wouldn’t recover from it?
Matuella: No, I never did. I came out fully confident. It’s interesting at how common it is now. People just do it and it’s not a big deal. A lot of people have done it and a lot of people recover from it.
Did you have any worries as to how that was going to be perceived in the draft and where you might go and would you have to come back to Duke another year?
Matuella: I definitely knew that there were going to be some teams turned off by that. I think for me it wasn’t worry as much as I was annoyed because I know how I worked and I know how good I can be and I know that this isn’t going to be a big deal for me in the long run.
For me, it wasn’t worry like, “Am I going to do this?” or “Am I going to be able to come back and pitch again?” It was more like, teams shouldn’t be thrown by that. I was hoping they would judge me based on what I would do going forward versus the injury.
You dropped to the third round. Obviously, the Rangers saw something in you and were able to sign you above what they would normally pay a third-rounder. Tell me about those conversations with the Rangers.
Matuella: The Rangers, they were probably one of the teams that contacted me the most and they were the most interested from the beginning. So, I was happy that they did a lot of research on me and I really appreciated how much research they did on my back issue and, obviously, everyone knows about “Tommy John”.
I had talked with them prior to actually getting picked by them. They had put together a plan for me moving forward about they wanted to me to do and where they wanted me to go and a timeline for certain things. I was super impressed and super happy that they were so invested and put so much time and thought into what my program would be. It was awesome and I’m really happy to be with the Rangers.
Who helped you through the process? “Tommy John” is common and all that, but there are still some guys who go through this and never really get it back. Who helped you mentally through that process? I met you ten minutes ago and you’ve got such a positive attitude.
Matuella: Definitely my parents are a big one. They’re always there to talk and always there to keep me positive whenever I’m feeling down, or I’m feeling upset by things.They were always at Duke, too, which was awesome. They came for every weekend series. So, I got to see a lot of them and they’re always available to talk whenever I want.
My coaches at Duke at the time were really helpful. They were very positive with me. I had a couple of teammates that had undergone “Tommy John”. One was about a year earlier and one was about six months earlier. I had talked to them about what the process was like, so that was really helpful. There’s really so many people. I talked with my coaches. They were super upset for me because you never want to see an athlete go down with that type of injury. They weren’t upset about me not being able to pitch for the team. They were upset for me as a person not being able to pitch, which I thought was really nice.
The coaches I had for three years there and even afterward, I still stayed in contact with them when I went back there to take classes this fall taking classes. They’ve were super thoughtful and just caring, really overall caring. They asked how I’m doing and wanting me to do well for me, not just for the program. Obviously, I want to do well for the program. I love representing Duke and I loved representing Duke while I was there. A ton of people, as you can gather.
You pitched last year at Spokane and you get the one start in and here you are again. Take me through that process. That had to be more mental than physical.
Matuella: That was a lot tough mentally than the first time around, because the first time around I was like, “Alright, I’m going to get the surgery, not a big deal.” There’s no expectations of re-injury. Then it was like, “Whoa, what just happened?” and “How did that happen again?” So, there was a lot of frustration and a lot of questions of why it happened and how did that happen again. But it doesn’t do a lot of good to ask “what if?” or going back and thinking in the past. It was really tough because I had come off an injury that I’d spent 14 months to that point rehabbing.
To go down and know that you’re done for the season again and you won’t be able to pitch again until opening day – not that I was here opening day – but it wound up being ten months. That was tough and that was definitely a lot tougher to walk in and focus on what I was doing each day. I think, looking back, I’m even stronger for it, mentally and physically, to be able to push through as tough a time like that. Not that I had to go back to square one, because I didn’t have to have surgery again, but to really get knocked on my butt again. It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad I avoided surgery.
Did you pitch at instructionals?
They basically shut you down until spring?
Matuella: Yeah, I didn’t begin my throwing until the beginning of October, so they gave me plenty of time to heal up.
How do you feel now?
Matuella: I feel good. Overall, I feel good.
Results aside, how much more do you appreciate being on the mound than you did in 2015?
Matuella: Coming back from the first injury and the surgery, I definitely appreciated every time I stepped on the mound, whether that was a bullpen or that was pitching in an extended game or at Spokane. But this time around, even more so knowing it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a chance to go out there and compete the way I’m supposed to compete. It makes you appreciate it. You just never know with certain things and so many guys that go down with injuries and it stinks. But you just deal with it and you appreciate what you have each day.
Do you worry so much with results at this point as opposed to going out there and getting your work in?
Matuella: Obviously, you want to get results, too. This season is a lot about me being to get through it healthy, but I’m not going to happy unless I’m pitching well and doing what I need to do on the mound to pitch well.
If you get through the season with the health as opposed to the results, which are you happier with?
Matuella: Obviously, I need to be healthy and I need to be able to move forward and pitch and have a full season under my belt. But, like I said, it’s not like I’m going to be happy if I’m pitching, but doing crappy every outing. There needs to be both in order for me to be happy.
First outing, you got some pitches up, but got through it and then you had a couple of rough outings. What’s been the fine line for you right now to have success?
Matuella: Making sure that I’m commanding the fastball. I think you’re going to hear that out of anyone on the team that you talk to. That’s a big emphasis the Rangers have. For me, I need to make sure that I am committing to pitch down in the zone as opposed to committing to pitch in the zone. You’re going to get hurt if you stay up too much. You’ve got to mix up the eye level at some time, but I think I do a better job if I stick to a pitch down in the zone. I just need to keep working on that. I had a really good bullpen this past week, so I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow.
How was it pitching against Tim Tebow in your first outing?
Matuella: I really don’t pay attention to hitters that I’m facing. I’m just kind of looking at it like, there’s a left-handed hitter up there. After the first swing, you could read that he wasn’t going to time a fastball, so we just kept pounding fastballs. It was nice to see a big crowd there, I’ll say that. It’s really impressive that he brings the crowd everywhere he goes.
Obviously, he was a big story, but that was a big story involving you, too, a convergence of two stories.
Matuella: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The adrenaline was high. It was a lot of fun being able to look around and soak it all in and like, I’m back in the game. I’m here with an affiliate and a sold-out game. It was just a lot of fun.
Are you getting an idea of how long they will let you throw, maybe 50-60 pitches?
Matuella: I’m not entirely sure. I’m sure it will be a little bit longer. I think the more important thing this year is that I take the ball every six games. You don’t want to get too crazy with the innings, given the back-to-back injures, which is why I’m not too sure when it’s going to expand. I doubt I’ll ever go 100 pitches; I’m not entirely sure of that this season. Obviously, I want to pitch as much as I can, but I understand the plan the Rangers have in place for me.
Are you throwing much of the breaking ball right now?
Matuella: A little bit. I’ll start incorporating it some more, but the Rangers big emphasis is on establishing fastballs and fastball command. So, I’m really trying to stick to that.
When you get a call to major leagues, who is the first person you call?
Matuella: My parents. That will be a great conversation to have and I look forward to that one. Definitely, my parents.
Who is the next non-family member?
Matuella: Does my girlfriend count? She’s been there for me and she’s been super helpful mentally to be able to block stuff out. She’s the one that helps keep me really positive in times when I’m struggling. There’s been, obviously, a lot of those over the past couple of years.
What’s the biggest thing mentally you’ve learned through all this?
Matuella: The biggest thing is to stay consistent. Stay pitch-to-pitch and not focus on the outing-to-outing, but each pitch. You have to be consistent with your approach on every single pitch with a routine, and with how you step on the mound. Basically, doing the same thing every time, no matter what happened the pitch before, whether you struck the dude out on a great pitch, or he just hit a bomb. You step in knowing that this pitch is the only pitch that matters.
Is there an inspirational poster moment or quote that has stuck in your mind?
There’s an article that came out in 2010 in Sports Illustrated that’s called, “What Makes Roy Run?” It’s about Roy Halladay and basically his story about how he was a first-round pick and he made it all the way to the big leagues in his second year. He fell flat on his face and he really struggled and got demoted all the way down to single-A.
He basically emerged as a different pitcher and a different style of pitcher and he emerged as the best pitcher of that generation for a number of years. There’s a lot of details in there about his work ethic and the consistency he had and the mental approach that he had. I actually just read it again the other day. I’ve read it, I don’t know how many times now, but every time it’s super interesting to me. He was my favorite pitcher growing up. I definitely think that article is a cool one.
Following the interview with Matuella, I had a chance to get Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes’s perspective on the progress of Matuella.
How do you see Matuella progressing on the mound in just throwing pitches?
Jaimes: I think so far, we don’t have any concerns results wise. It’s more about him healthy. It’s been almost 16 months basically, since he got hurt last year. He’s going through a little tough time mentally wise. Naturally, he has some concerns about his elbow and his arm, but for the most part he’s getting better. His last bullpen was pretty good, so it’s a process for him just to trust he’s fully healthy. Hopefully, the next start will be better, but we don’t have any concerns about what he can do on the field. It’s more about him staying positive and knowing that all the work he put in the last year and a half is good for him.
Is there any concern about him not wanting to cut it loose and let go?
Jaimes: Yeah, most of the time when guys coming off an injury, it takes them a month just to get through that. They’re afraid to feel something in there. The last bullpen, he actually said, “you know what, I’m going to let it go and whatever happens, happens.” It was a good start for him.