After two Tommy John surgeries, Scott Mathieson has now had 11 months and 40 relief outings of pitching pain-free and with good results. Since returning from his last Tommy John surgery last June, Mathieson is a combined 4-0 with ten saves in ten opportunities and an ERA of just 0.80 in his 40 minor league appearances. For any pitcher to come back from two Tommy John surgeries, the odds are very long, indeed, but Mathieson has made it look almost easy.
With all of his success this season (2-0-8, 0.76) at Lehigh Valley, it begs the question of when - not if - Mathieson will be added to the Phillies roster to help out in the bullpen. Even with all he's shown the Phillies, their top decision makers want to see a little more out of Mathieson at the minor league level before putting their official stamp of approval on him for a major league spot. In fact, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr recently said that there wasn't any relief help on the farm and when he was asked about Mathieson, said flat out that he didn't see how the 26 year-old right-hander could help the club. "If we felt he was going to help us in the big leagues right now, we'd have him here," said Amaro.
Somebody must have thought that Mathieson could provide at least some help at the major league level in 2006 when they pulled him to the big league club all the way from Double-A Reading. His stint with the Phillies was unremarkable (1-4, 7.47 in 9 games; 8 starts), but it was also in a completely different world. First, it was leading up to Mathieson's first Tommy John surgery, which came to the forefront in an early September start against Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park when Mathieson walked off the mound, grimacing and holding his right elbow. And, Mathieson was also a starter back in those days.
Now, Mathieson's role is squarely set in the bullpen and he's adapted to the situation well. "I'm happy pitching out of the bullpen. It's actually been a pretty easy adjustment and now, it's like an old routine for me; almost like a fresh start," said Mathieson recently after saving a game out of the 'Pigs bullpen. Pitching in relief has allowed Mathieson to come out firing and his velocity is definitely there even with all of the work that's been done on his elbow.
"I feel a lot more confident pitching now," said Mathieson of his fresh start as a reliever. "I wasn't much of a pitcher [before his surgeries], but now, I feel like I can throw my slider any time I want, I can throw my fastball and I'm able to rise it when I need to my fastball when I want and I throw a sinker too, even when I'm behind in the counts. I feel like I'm out there pitching more and not just going through the motions."
Even though as a reliever, Mathieson doesn't need to go to his secondary pitches as much, the official word is that it's those secondary pitches that are keeping him from reaching the major league level. Amaro and others in the Phillies front office have said in the past that Mathieson needed pitches to compliment his fastball and that he had to be able to throw them consistently if he was going to be effective in the majors and apparently, that's still their philosophy.
When asked about whether Mathieson could help in the majors, 'Pigs manager Dave Huppert pointed out that it's still those secondary pitches that are holding Mathieson back. "Most days, it's his secondary stuff. They'll hit that fastball at the next level, so the secondary stuff has got to continue to get better." Huppert did admit that on other days, Mathieson has everything he needs and it's just a matter of being more consistent with his performances and Mathieson agrees. "I've just got to keep being consistent and keep pitching," said Mathieson.
To his credit, Mathieson has taken the criticism about his secondary pitches to heart and worked hard on them over the winter and into the season. His secondary pitches have always been critiqued and rather than shrinking away from the reviews, he has put extra work into them and it's paying off. This season, Mathieson has also shown more consistency than he has in the past, getting hitters out in different situations, but always in an effective manner. "I couldn't have asked for better sliders than I threw today," explained Mathieson after a recent save. "I felt that the slider was the best that I've thrown in a while. I've been wanting to prove all year, and even in spring training, I was trying to prove that's in the past. It's always been 'well, where are the secondary pitches' and I feel that I worked pretty hard on it this winter and I feel like they're there when I want them and I feel pretty confident throwing them in any count."
Right now, there are two pitchers in the Phillies bullpen that don't seem to be getting a lot of work and it could be because of a lack of confidence from manager Charlie Manuel. Nelson Figueroa has made just three appearances in the month of May, covering 4 1/3 innings and went 19 days without pitching at one stretch. His ERA for the month stands at 10.38, which could be in part to the lack of work that he's received. However, in April, Figueroa allowed earned runs in three of his four relief appearances. The other question mark in the bullpen is Rule 5 addition David Herndon. The former Angels prospect has thrown on a more consistent basis than Figueroa and he's starting to show that he might be able to stick with the club for the entire season, posting a 3.18 ERA in six appearances this month. Manuel has had to find the right spots for Herndon to pitch in and is bringing him along slowly, which is exactly what Herndon needs. Figueroa, on the other hand, is a veteran pitcher who should be able to handle a regular role at this point in his career. Perhaps an arm like Mathieson's would be of more service to the Phillies than what Figueroa has been able to give them.
With closer Brad Lidge planning a return to the pen next week when the Phillies are in Atlanta, it's not likely that Mathieson's call is going to come any time soon, since somebody in the bullpen is going to be shipped out when he does return.
Mathieson is showing that his secondary pitches are better; much better. He's shown the consistency that Huppert has looked for from him and he's shown that he's healthy, which was probably the biggest question. With Lehigh Valley, Mathieson has pitched in various situations. The right-hander started the year with three two-inning stints in one week, where he allowed just three hits and no runs in those six innings. In fact, Mathieson has thrown two innings in six of his 18 outings this season, including picking up three two-inning saves. He's also shown the ability to pitch on back-to-back nights, having done that three times this season, the most recent being in the 'Pigs last two games where he has recorded two saves and thrown three innings.
It will be interesting to follow Mathieson's situation. If the Phillies aren't going to take advantage of his arm and the progress that he's made, he could become part of a trade package to get major league help from another club. For now though, he's doing all he can to lock down games for Lehigh Valley, while he keeps proving that his secondary pitches have improved and the consistency that he needs is there.
Scott Mathieson's minor league stats
|2008||Injured - did not pitch|
|Minor League stats||29||29||3.81||133||10||524.1||460||254||222||42||166||505|