Meet Michael Matuella, Unlikely No. 1 Prospect
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DURHAM, N.C. — Michael Matuella’s story is full of little moments that turned out to be not so little, and have become unforgettable for Matuella and those who have watched him grow from a lightly recruited high school project into a leading candidate to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft. It is a story of amazing progress in frenetic bursts, interrupted by frustrating setbacks. And those interruptions take on a different hue in hindsight, because they truly did make him stronger—physically and mentally.
Let’s begin the story with this moment, on a January day in the Duke sports information office in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 6-foot-6 Matuella, a junior righthander for the Blue Devils, sits casually behind an employee’s desk, his long legs seemingly taking up half the small room. He speaks quickly, and eloquently—he has a 3.6 grade-point average as a business major at one of the nation’s elite academic institutions, and his intelligence is instantly obvious. After making some small talk and deftly deflecting a few questions about the impending hoopla that comes with being regarded as the No. 1 prospect for the draft, Matuella steers the conversation toward the question on the minds of so many in the scouting world.
“I’m just not going to think about the draft right now. Where I have been, with the whole back situation and getting healthy, that was a whole process on its own,” he says. “That was a lot of work coming back from that, but I’m feeling 100 percent, feeling awesome right now. I feel like that was a big mental step for me. That was a big piece of adversity I had to overcome.”
Matuella did not pitch last summer or in fall practice while dealing with a back condition, which clouded his status as the nation’s top draft prospect. His condition was not new, but its effects were.
Matuella was originally diagnosed with spondylolysis as a freshman in high school. Between 3 percent and 7 percent of the American population have the condition, which is a defect in the connection between vertebrae. But for five years, Matuella was asymptomatic—he felt the same as anyone else. It turns out, of course, that the diagnosis was an important part of the Matuella story, though he wouldn’t know it until last summer.
The rest of Matuella’s high school career at Maryland’s prestigious Georgetown Prep was unremarkable. He played for a couple of travel teams, went to East Cobb, had some preliminary conversations with a few ACC schools. Then, in an event at Fort Myers, Fla., Duke got its first look at Matuella. He was discovered by the previous coaching staff when he was just a gangly kid who threw in the mid-80s. At the time, it must not have seemed like much of a discovery.
After his high school hosted an indoor showcase that winter, Matuella garnered his only two Division I offers—from Duke and Maryland. He chose Duke.
“Coming from high school, I wasn’t anybody,” Matuella says. “I don’t think I ever threw harder than 88. I got no major league interest. And honestly, I struggled a lot in high school. I struggled a lot with command, and I was really overthinking things.”
Revelations, Part I
Duke parted ways with coach Sean McNally and his staff the summer before Matuella arrived on campus. The school hired Chris Pollard, formerly of Appalachian State, to be the head coach, and he lured Andrew See (his former assistant at App. State) away from Ohio to be his pitching coach. Pollard wasn’t expecting to see a future first-round pick when he got his first look at his new team.
“I won’t ever forget watching him the very first day we started long-tossing,” Pollard recalls. “And this was before we ever put him on the bump. The very first day, we took him through our pre-throwing routine and then watched him stretch it out. I remember watching him get out to about 180 feet and stopping and walking over to him and asking him, ‘How hard did you tell me you threw in high school?’ He said, ‘Coach, I was an upper-80s guy.’ I said, ‘Well, I think you’ve got a lot more than that in the tank.’ It was very clear early on that there was an amount of leverage in his arm that was just different from other guys I’d ever seen, even guys that threw hard.”
But Matuella was a baby giraffe, as Pollard put it; as a freshman his teammates even nicknamed him “Melman,” after the giraffe character in the movie “Madagascar.” He needed to learn to control his delivery—and suddenly, after one significant mechanical adjustment, it clicked.
“All I focused on was driving off the back leg, and getting it as far out down the mound as I could, getting the most out of my legs and getting fast down the mound,” Matuella says. “Once I focused on that, everything else took care of itself, really. The timing of everything fixed itself. I wasn’t thinking anymore, ‘All right, lift the leg, break the hands, stride out, get the arm up.’ It was just, ‘All right, I see the target, I have the pitch, I’m going to throw as hard as I can through the target.’ I think the cue point for me was driving off that back leg to get to that point.”
That mechanical tweak went along with a mental adjustment. Matuella credits Pollard and See with simplifying his approach to pitching and helping him develop a much more aggressive mentality. “I feel like they’ve been a huge, huge part of my success and the strides I’ve been able to make,” Matuella says of his coaches. “I’m a much more confident person.”
His confidence grew quickly during his freshman year. At some point that year, it dawned on him that he could have a real future in baseball.
“I just realized this is what I wanted to do with my life, this is what I love doing, and I’m going to do everything in my power to become the best I can be. Once I totally dedicated myself, that’s when I noticed some big jumps.”
He started that spring working out of the bullpen, then began to start midweek and relieve on weekends. As a starter, he pitched in the 90-92 mph range with his four-seam fastball as a freshman, and he thinks he touched 95 once or twice out of the bullpen that year. Pollard won’t try to claim that he knew Matuella was on his way to the top of draft boards, but he says “we thought this guy had a chance to be pretty special, so let’s get his feet wet at the end of the year.” He made two ACC starts down the stretch that season and finished with a 4.53 ERA and a lackluster 28-14 SO-BB mark in 57.2 innings.
But the light had clicked on for Matuella. He knew it was time to get serious about his baseball career, so that summer he worked as hard as he could on adding strength to his skinny frame. He transformed his diet, eating only foods that he regarded as “the right fuel” for his body, and eating every two hours. He transformed his sleeping habits too, going to bed and waking up earlier. He made real gains in the weight room, and his confidence continued to climb.
Revelations, Part II
Then came the moment that helped Matuella make perhaps his biggest jump. That fall, the coaches introduced him to a two-seam fastball. It was love at first throw.
“I remember in the very first bullpen he threw it, watching that thing, all of a sudden with the action on it, going, ‘Whoa. It’s pretty natural. This comes really easy,’” Pollard says. “I think the biggest part of when he made that huge jump, when he switched over from a four-seam to a two-seam fastball in the fall of his sophomore year, the fall of 2013. That’s when you could really see him make the jump, because he didn’t lose any velocity but he had the huge sink. I mean, that ball, you’ve got to really have some courage as a catcher to catch that sinker. It allowed him to trust his fastball more. You say, ‘Well, how does a guy that was up to 94-95 mph not trust his fastball?’ But it was straight. Now, all of a sudden, because he’s got that sink and trusts his fastball so much, that has allowed his other pitches to develop and flourish.”
Matuella remembers that revelation similarly.
“The first outing we got gunned it was 94-96,” he says. “So I said, ‘OK, I can switch to the two-seamer, it’s got more movement, and I can throw it harder. I’m going to stick with the two-seam.’
Matuella ditched his four-seamer altogether and now throws exclusively two-seamers—that sit at 93-96 and can touch 98. That fall he also made strides with his big-breaking 12-to-6 curveball, giving him a swing-and-miss pitch to complement his shorter 82-85 slider.
In his 2014 season debut against Binghamton, Matuella put his new weapons to work and was simply unhittable. He struck out a career-high nine batters over five perfect innings, and did not even allow a ball out of the infield. But after cruising through those first four innings, Matuella felt some discomfort in his back. He sat out the next month with what he believed was a lat strain—but he gave the baseball world a glimpse of his incredible potential in that memorable debut.
“Those folks who were here for the first four innings against Binghamton will tell you what they saw,” Pollard says. “As much as scouts were in here over the second half of the season, and saw him against Georgia Tech, Clemson in the (conference) tournament, Miami late in the year—and really liked what they saw—they haven’t even seen the best version of him yet. It’s scary what he’s capable of doing with a full season of being healthy.”
He never felt 100 percent healthy as a sophomore, but he felt good enough to pitch through the discomfort, especially because he saw how hard his teammates had worked and how good his team could be, and he wanted to do his part. He showed flashes of greatness down the stretch, and though he finished just 1-3 in 11 starts, he posted a 2.78 ERA and a much-improved 69-15 SO-BB mark in 58.1 innings.
Revelations, Part III
Another key moment in his development came in a March 11 loss agains Miami. He struck out the side in the first inning and held the Hurricanes to one unearned run through five innings. Then, in the sixth, Miami got to him with three straight doubles with no outs. The Hurricanes were on the verge of breaking the game open, and Matuella fell behind in the count 3-1 against cleanup man Willie Abreu. That’s when he decided to break out another new weapon—the changeup he had been tinkering with all spring, searching for a grip that worked. He felt it just click for him in his pregame bullpen session, and he decided to deploy it in that crucial situation.
“I was thinking, ‘All right, he’s thinking fastball, everyone in the ballpark is thinking fastball, I’m not just going to give this guy a fastball,’” Matuella recalls. “I wasn’t commanding it as well as I could have that day, but the changeup was feeling good and looks like the fastball, so I threw the changeup, it was perfect location, swing-and-miss, 3-and-2. Throw the changeup again, swing-and-miss, and then proceeded to get the next two guys out to get out of the inning. I totally trusted it in the bullpen, and from then on out, it was like, this is a totally good pitch for me.”
He wasn’t a complete pitcher yet—he still struggled to control his sharp curveball and throw it for a strike, though it was a nice swing-and-miss weapon. When he needed a strike with a breaking ball, he would throw his slider. But all three of his secondary pitches flashed plus, and his fastball was electric. He was getting closer to putting together all of the pieces.
Setbacks—And More Revelations
The Blue Devils finished 16-14 in the ACC last year, and still they missed out on breaking the program’s 53-year NCAA tournament drought because of an RPI in the 80s. That disappointment had a lasting impact on Matuella, too.
“That was really tough,” he says. “Last season was the hardest season I’ve ever had to say goodbye to, with the group of guys that we had and how hard we all worked, and how firmly we all believed that we were a really good ballclub and we were going to make this. We had a really good team last year, and to come so close to making the ACC championship, it’s definitely a bitter feeling. I feel like it’s inspired a lot of people on the team to make sure we’re on the other side of that feeling this year.”
That trial was followed immediately by another. Matuella decided to take the summer off from pitching to focus on getting completely healthy. But he still wasn’t back to normal by the end of the summer. It turned out his lat strain wasn’t a lat strain at all—it was that spondylolysis in his back.
“When you hear about the injury, it sounds like this terrible thing, like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on?’” Matuella says. “But from what I’ve heard, it’s really not a big deal, and every doctor I’ve seen has told me, ‘This will not impact your playing career at all—as long as you get the core strength up. That’s the only thing that’s going to hold you back.’”
In August, Matuella flew to California to meet with Dr. Robert Watkins, a renowned back specialist who has treated scores of professional athletes, including another particularly notable tall pitcher named Randy Johnson. That marked another crucial turning point in Matuella’s career.
“He put me on his trunk stability program, which is a pretty rigorous program,” Matuella says. “He told me, ‘This is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.’ I was like, ‘All right, come on, I’ve done hard things. Let’s just see what this is.’ But it was brutal. It was physically tough, mentally tough. I was in the weight room for two hours a day, five days a week, for basically all the fall, anywhere from an hour and 45 to two hours a day. This was all core stuff—a lot of abs, glut, back muscles, making sure everything around the lower back is strong so I don’t have to use my lower back for anything.”
The program has five levels, and Matuella had to pass the test for each level by performing all the exercises from each preceding level consecutively. Level 3 and Level 4 were very difficult, but he passed the Level 4 test on Nov. 12, which allowed him to throw off the mound again. Fall practices were over, but Matuella began throwing bullpens—and he was relieved to discover that he was able to pick up his new changeup right where he left off more than five months earlier.
Finally, on Jan. 13, Matuella was tested for Level 5. It took him three hours and 40 minutes to perform the exercises for all five levels consecutively, but he passed it—“without too much trouble at all,” as he put it.
“I watched him go through Level 5, which is the hardest part of the routine—a number of big leaguers have gone through the same thing—and the kid wasn’t even breaking a sweat,” Pollard says. “He’s in that superior level of physical conditioning. I’ve told him this, and I mean this in all sincerity: It’s going to make him a better pitcher, because he is a more mentally tough person for having gone through this routine.”
When Duke opened spring practice on Jan. 23, Matuella was on the mound, and thrilled to be standing there. His fastball ranged from 91-96 mph, sitting mostly at 91-92 after the first inning, but scouts weren’t concerned about his velocity. Some of them aren’t sold on his ability to consistently repeat his release point on his curveball, which can result in erratic command of it. And though Matuella is 15 pounds stronger than when he showed up at Duke—and he has outgrown the “baby giraffe” comparison—there are still some scouts who wonder about his athleticism.
But everyone in the scouting industry agrees that Matuella’s upside is enormous, even if there are some differences in opinion over how much risk accompanies that potential. For his part, Matuella says he isn’t worried about anything he can’t control. He has bought into all of the one-day-a-time, control-the-controllables mantras that his coaches preach, and he doesn’t plan to read any of the copious words that are sure to be written about him this spring, or to concern himself with the armies of radar guns that will follow his every start.
Matuella says all the right things and is in firm control when he speaks with a reporter, but Pollard insists there is a goofier side of him that his teammates love. He is loose enough that he has been known to strum a bat like a guitar and show off some mean dance moves in the dugout—even before his own starts. He doesn’t seem like a kid who will be overwhelmed by the pressure of the spotlight.
Now he takes center stage—his show opens Friday at California. Whenever the next indelible Matuella moment occurs, the baseball world will be ready for it, and will remember it.