Matthews mixing in the change

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Left-hander Kevin Matthews is having a successful first summer of professional baseball at the two short-season levels. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the Rangers' first-round pick, who is beginning to work with a three-pitch mix.

When the Texas Rangers went ‘off the board' with their first selection in this summer's MLB Draft––selecting Georgia prep left-hander Kevin Matthews with the 33rd overall pick––they surprised a number of onlookers, including Matthews himself.

As Matthews explains in the following interview, he thought it was possible that the Rangers would select him with their first pick. But he figured he was much more likely to go in the supplemental round.

The Rangers officially signed Matthews less than two weeks after the draft, inking him for a slot-level $936,000 bonus and steering him away from a seemingly strong commitment to the University of Virginia.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound southpaw then reported to the club's minor league complex in Arizona, where he began his professional career with the rookie-level Surprise Rangers.

Matthews posted a 1.50 earned-run average in seven appearances (three starts) with the Arizona League team. He yielded two earned runs in 12 innings, giving up 10 hits, walking five, and striking out 12.

In his second professional appearance, Matthews hurled a scoreless inning against the AZL Diamondbacks, walking one and striking out one. He featured an 89-92 mph fastball and a 78-81 mph breaking ball.

Two appearances later, he faced the East Division-leading AZL Giants and gave up a solo home run for the only damage in two innings of work. He fanned two without issuing a walk. The 18-year-old's stuff ticked up slightly in the second game, as his fastball jumped into the 90-94 mph range.

After eventually getting stretched to three innings with the rookie club, Matthews earned the promotion to short-season Spokane. The prospect has pitched well in three starts with the Indians, surrendering three runs in 12.2 innings. He has allowed nine hits while walking seven and fanning 14.

In his longer outings with the Indians, Matthews' velocity has settled into the upper-80s, low-90s. His 78-81 mph breaking ball isn't quite a curveball, and it isn't quite a slider. It's a tight-spinning pitch that is probably best described as a slurve––an offering that seems right in-between the two traditional breaking balls.

Like most young hurlers who were able to blow away their peers with pure velocity, Matthews rarely––if ever––featured a changeup in high school. He didn't throw his first professional change until that July 20 outing against the Giants. The pitch had some sinking action when thrown during between-inning warmups, but the only in-game change he threw that day was a firm 86 mph offering for a ball to a right-handed batter.

The Georgia native has begun throwing his changeup "roughly 12-15 times in each appearance with Spokane," according to a reason article from Patrick Brown.

Lone Star Dugout recently caught up with the first-rounder, who has a 1.82 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 24.2 innings between the two short-season levels this summer.

Jason Cole: Tell me about your outing today (July 20).

Kevin Matthews: I felt better than I have. The first couple times, I didn't feel rusty but I just felt like I had to get back into the swing of things. Tonight, I felt better than I have. I was more in-tune and just doing the things I've been working on.

Cole: I know your velocity ticked up a bit tonight. Have you needed to rebuild the arm strength from your high school season at all?

Matthews: I think some of that is just getting back into the weight room. It was more me getting control back and getting the feel for pitching.

Cole: How long of a layoff did you have between pitching in high school games until pitching out here?

Matthews: The last time I pitched in high school was early May or late April. I had done some workouts and stuff for teams, but I hadn't thrown in a game. After workouts were done for the draft, I rested for like two weeks and didn't really throw at all.

Cole: I know you're used to going deep into games from high school. You've been going one or two innings so far in the Arizona League. Are you looking forward to getting stretched out a little bit?

Matthews: Yeah. A lot of pitchers are different, but I feel like I get stronger in the fourth or fifth inning. I don't mind it right now. I'm just getting used to everything––getting used to pro ball and seeing how things are. But I'm looking forward to starting to go deeper, yeah.

Cole: You had an opportunity to attend a good school in the University of Virginia. But is it nice to basically just go to school for baseball out here?

Matthews: Yeah. For me, it's better than being in a classroom. But I'm enjoying it. It's a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to the years.

Cole: When you work with your pitching coaches between starts, what are some of the things you've been focusing on most?

Matthews: O'Malley and Oscar really have me getting on top of the ball and keeping it down. So I've been working on that. I feel that legs and your core are big things for pitching, so I've been working really hard on those.

Cole: You threw one changeup tonight. Is that something you threw at all in high school?

Matthews: Not in high school. We're working on it here––just getting it better. In the bullpens and sides, I've been throwing it a good bit.

Cole: Have you had to change the grip that you ‘used' in high school?

Matthews: It's actually a circle now. I used to throw kind of a split-change, but I'm starting to like the circle a lot. I feel I have more control, so I'm going to stick with the circle.

Cole: Obviously you threw it once tonight, but have you thrown it in past outings since signing?

Matthews: This is actually the first time in a game. But the first two or three times out, I've only thrown an inning. It's harder to work your pitches in with only an inning.

Cole: Your breaking ball––do you call it a curveball or a slider?

Matthews: I think it's more of a slurve. It's probably more of a curveball than a slider, but I think it has the action of a slider with the speed of a curveball.

Cole: Has it always been like that?

Matthews: Yeah. That's always how it has been. I toyed with a curveball, but I just can't really find a feel for it. I'm just going to stick with the slurve.

Cole: Take me back to draft day and getting picked by the Rangers. What was that day like for you? What was the experience like?

Matthews: My advisor––he told me just to act like a normal day. We weren't really expecting much. He said maybe supplemental round. So I went to the pool like it was a normal day. Then I had some friends over because the supplemental would still be on TV. So maybe there would be a shot that I got called, and it'd be nice to have some friends there to celebrate.

So we started watching the draft. I just remembered pick after pick and it was getting closer to Texas. So I started to get nervous. My hands were sweaty and my stomach had butterflies.

It was their next pick, and I was really nervous. I didn't know who they were going to take. Daniel Norris was still on the board, plus Henry Owens, Dillon Howard––they were all still on the board. I didn't think there was a shot. They didn't call me or anything before and tell me. And then Selig called my name on TV, and the place went crazy. I ran around the house.

Cole: Did you hear anything they said on TV after the pick?

Matthews: No. But I recorded it, so I got to go back and watch it. It was pretty cool.

Cole: You said that you got a little nervous when the Rangers were picking. Had you known before the draft that they were on you heavily?

Matthews: Yeah, I thought it was either going to be them or Seattle. Seattle was real big, too. And you never know if there's a team that doesn't really say much and then they take you. But I thought that it was either going to be Texas or Seattle––I just didn't know when.

Cole: Did you go to Arlington at all?

Matthews: Yeah, it was for the physical.

Cole: But you signed in Atlanta, right?

Matthews: At Turner Field, yeah.

Cole: Even though it wasn't at Rangers Ballpark, tell me what that experience was like––being around the major league team and coaching staff.

Matthews: We got there and we went into the locker room––Texas' locker room. I got to meet some of the guys like Josh Hamilton. They're real good guys. You think they're big leaguers and some of them would just be like, ‘Whatever,' but they were real nice. All of them came up to me, Cone, and JT (Johnathan Taylor).

Then we started the press conference. JT was there. It was real good to have him there. It was kind of like an eye opener that this could end any day. A lot of questions were toward him and Zach because it was between them and they are such good friends. But it was a good experience. I enjoyed it a lot.

Cole: When you went to Arlington for the physical, were the Rangers in town?

Matthews: No, they weren't. But I got to tour the stadium, and it's a real nice stadium. It's old school, but it's new.

Cole: Did you get a chance to meet Nolan Ryan?

Matthews: No, but I was hoping.

Cole: Clearly you have some season left here in Arizona, and then I'm sure you'll be at instructs. But are you kind of looking forward to your first spring training next year?

Matthews: Yeah, I'm excited for that. I'm going to work real hard in the offseason and hopefully start off somewhere other than 115 degrees. I believe hard work is what gets you far. That's what I've always done, so I'm going to work hard and come to spring training real strong, hopefully. Then we'll take it from there.

Cole: As you look forward to the remainder of your season out here, just tell me what you'd like to improve upon.

Matthews: I'd like to improve on pitching sequences. I want to learn how to really pitch instead of just throwing. I also want to learn the game of baseball and work on my changeup a lot. Just being more accurate.

Cole: You've played on the showcase circuit some in addition to your normal high school experience. In the AZL, how much different is this brand of baseball compared to what you're accustomed to?

Matthews: I think the hitters are better. They expect what's about to be thrown. They expect a 92 mph fastball. So I think that's different. The first time I pitched, I was real nervous. I didn't know what to expect as far as how good the hitters would be. It took probably until the second outing before I settled in.

Prospect Video:

Kevin Matthews warms up from Jason Cole on Vimeo.

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