Pitchers, in particular, enter spring training with a particular focus or point of improvement. Work on fastball command. Get a better feel for a secondary pitch. Be more consistent with their arm slot. For Ryan Mattheus, his focus this spring is a byproduct of the Nationals’ offseason moves.
With the loss of reliable left-handers Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez, Mattheus read between the lines and discerned his future. The Nationals’ bullpen has only one left-hander with a major league contract (Zach Duke) and another left-hander with a minor league contract competing for a spot (Bill Bray). The Nationals whiffed on other free agent left-handers but maintained that they weren’t concerned with their backup plan of relying on their right-handers strong reverse splits against left-handed batters.
Mattheus, 29, is one of those right-handed relievers who has had unknowing success against left-handed batters and once he saw the Nationals heading towards spring training with a right-handed heavy bullpen he could see his future. No Nationals coaches or front office personnel told him directly; he just figured it out by reading between the lines and looking at his own statistics. So Mattheus’s area of improvement was almost predetermined.
“I’m going to be asked to face more left-handed hitters this year,” he said. “And guys in the bullpen are going to be asked to face more left-handed hitters. So I’m really going to work the inside part of the plate against left-handed hitters, more so the sinker on the inner half, trying to throw the comebacker on the inner half of the plate. … With right-handers, I can do that, I can just keep going further in. But lefties, they’ll go out there and get you. I’m working on keeping them honest inside.”
In his career, Mattheus has held left-handed hitters to a .214 batting average and Tyler Clippard, also particularly effective against them, has held them to a .186 average. Mattheus attributes the success against left-handers, and against batters from both sides of the plate, to his hard, biting sinker down in the strike zone.
Last season, Mattheus logged the most amount of work in his career (66 appearances) and posted a 2.85 ERA in large part because he learned how to better use his plus pitch, the sinker. Against right-handed batters, Mattheus learned to pound them inside the sinker, which moves in on their hands and nets ground balls. But against left-handers, the ball breaks away from them and they can adjust to the sinker and hit it to the opposite field. Mattheus said he needs to work on pounding left-handed hitters inside with just as much veracity as the right-handers.
“The more times guys start to see me they’re going to get onto that pattern,” he said. “I’m trying to establish more on both sides of the plate this year because I don’t spin the ball very well. We tried that coming in last year and that experience is over so I’m going to have to command both sides of the plate with the fastball.”
Mattheus spot in the bullpen isn’t guaranteed, a fact he understands. There are one or two spots left to be determined, most hinging on Bray’s success this spring. But Mattheus, who has a 2.84 ERA in two seasons with the Nationals, could improve his odds with his continued work this spring against left-handers.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
Vs. Braves in Orlando, 1:05 p.m. The Nationals send Ross Detwiler to the mound for the first time this spring to get their first look at their fiercest division foe. Their lineup:
1. Eury Perez, CF
2. Danny Espinosa, 2B
3. Bryce Harper, LF
4. Tyler Moore, 1B
5. Ian Desmond, SS
6. Chris Marrero, DH
7. Carlos Rivero, RF
8. Anthony Rendon, 3B
9. Jhonatan Solano, C
– Ross Detwiler, SP
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY