A year ago, prior to the new staff’s arrival, West Virginia posted a team ERA of 6.04. This year, that mark is more than two runs better, with WVU sporting a staff mark of 3.96. Foes hit .294 against the Mountaineers in 2012 – this year that mark has been lowered to .255. Across the board, pitching stats have vastly improved, and much of the credit has to go to Matlock and the throwing program he instituted upon his arrival.
The focus for Matlock, as it was for Mazey in all aspects of the program rebuild, was fundamentals. It didn’t take Matlock long to spot some of the problems with the staff’s performance, so he knew where he wanted to start almost as soon as he looked at the statistics from the prior season.
“One big thing is they had as many walks as strikeouts last year, and six ERA,” he said. “So one thing we know was that we had to cut our walks down, and have more strikeouts. You can't play defense for 27 outs. We wanted to separate those numbers and make the strikeouts happen more often.”
That goal was achieved, with West Virginia boosting its Ks from 289 in 2012 to 340 in 2013. WVU also decreased its walks issued from 285 to 205, and nearly cut its wild pitches in half from 63 to 32. Those totals were surprising to anyone who followed Mountaineer baseball, but they were just a repeat of the numbers Matlock crafted at Texas State, where he was the pitching coach for the past six years. At TSU, he oversaw a staff that earned four conference pitcher of the year awards, and helped develop eight Bobcats into MLB draft selections. His 2012 staff ran off 57.2 consecutive scoreless innings, including wins over TCU, Rice and Notre Dame.
Given that success, Matlock believed he could help turn around the WVU staff, but even he was a bit surprised at the improvement the Mountaineers showed from fall practice to the beginning of the regular season. Noting that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the West Virginia pitchers give up a lot of runs in 2013, he instead witnessed a near total turnaround in the staff, with marked improvement from the weekend starting trio of Harrison Musgrave, Corey Walter and Dan Dierdorff.
“ If you had told me at the first of the year we were going to throw the ball like this from what I saw in the fall, I thought our season could have looked [like the 16-8 loss to TCU] a lot,” he said, recalling WVU’s worst Big 12 pitching performance of the year. “But our guys have worked at it and overachieved, and they have done an outstanding job.”
To work his magic, Matlock instituted the Jaeger throwing program at West Virginia, which emphasizes strengthening and stretching all of the muscles involved in throwing with the use of elastic resistance bands, weighted balls, and lots of long toss. That work, combined with more time on the mounds in the fall, has given a number of staff members extra velocity (or “velo” as the coaches call it).
“The biggest thing is that we do a lot of pre-throw stuff and a lot of post-throw stuff,” Matlock said in describing the program. “We are really diligent about staying on top of it. We've had a lot of guys velo go up. Those increases, and the ability to throw more in the bullpen because you are in better shape, helps the pitchers throw better. Your arm feels better, and you can repeat pitches, and stay in the strike zone more.”
Matlock’s description is of a program that clearly indicates a series of steps. Increase strength and flexibility, and arm strength improves. That allows pitchers to throw more, which helps them groove arm angle, release point and similar mechanics. That breeds consistency, which was clearly demonstrated on the mound this year.
“We try to get guys really strong,” Matlock said of the first goals of the program. “We work on their back where the labrum is and do two pound reverse throws and use a lot of tubing and stretching. We also use a weighted ball. Over time, I think guys can throw more, and they are more durable for the season. As long as our velo is up late in the season, that's what is important. That is what this program is built for. It's been really good for us.”
Of course, any new system also requires the enthusiastic support of its participants in order to show results, but it didn’t take long for that to develop.
“It probably only took about a week and the guys started saying, 'Holy cow, coach, my arm has never felt like this before',” Matlock said with a smile. “That's the first sign of the buy-in, because their arm feels good. Then Corey Walter, who is a 91 mph guy, throws 96 on scout day in October, and the other guys see that, and they buy in more. Musgrave adds three or four miles per hour, and Dan Dierdorff goes to 88 when he was around 84. You see those velo increases and that helps. The kids were ready for change, and they bought into it in a hurry. They built their weekly plans, and busted their butts, and I think they love the results.”
Not every goal can be achieved in one year, and Matlock would be the first to admit that. WVU is still very thin compared to most other Big 12 pitching staffs, and as a result, the Mountaineers are concentrating on bolstering the staff. No fewer than 10 potential pitchers populate the class of 15 signed players for 2014.
“We just need more arms,” Matlock said. “We are thin. We've had to have guys go up to 130 pitches, and that's not something you want to do all of the time, but we have guys that can handle it.”
Ideally, WVU would have three well-defined weekend starters, as well as two “swing” starters for mid-week and long relief stints. A corps of solid middle relievers and more than one closer capable of ending games (Pascal Paul has eight of the team’s 11 saves) are also on the wish list. Those are the goals for next year, but so far, Matlock is pleased with 2013’s showing. The new throwing program, coupled with the work put in by the staff, seems to indicate nothing but brighter days ahead for the Mountaineer hurlers.
Asked to sum it up, Matlock chose to focus on the process of improvement and his approval of the work that the pitchers have put in, but he did let one short performance assessment leak out.
“I think,” he said without irony, “that we’ve thrown it pretty good."