Yomiuri Giants reliever Scott Mathieson is no longer the pitcher he was when he turned up on these shores in 2012 as a 28-year-old, he’s better.
With 15 major league games to show for 10 seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Mathieson was brought to Japan to blow pitches past batters unused to 160 kph fastballs. But through exposure to different approaches — and embracing many of the differences — he has transformed himself.
“I was a rock thrower,” he told Kyodo News recently. “And now I can actually pitch.”
Much of that had to do with learning to live with less speed, while doing other things better, a process that started in Japan’s annual baseball boot camp, four weeks of back-to-basics work starting on Feb. 1 that is euphemistically known as “spring training.”
“I really enjoyed it,” said Mathieson, who has pitched for Canada in three World Baseball Classics. “It was tough because I felt like it was more instruction and more baseball than I was used to in a long time. I felt like I was stepping back to the low levels in the U.S., where there’s a lot more instruction, a lot more fundamentals, and I’d been away from that for a while. But I enjoyed it, I embraced it and I think it really helped me.”
He soon learned one of Japanese baseball’s mantras: walking batters is frowned on and can result in demotion to the farm team.
“They just worked on me, changed my grip on my slider, I’m staying consistent with my mechanics — and not just on the mound. I was working in the outfield repeating my delivery and repeating my arm slot,” Mathieson said.
“I feel now I can throw all three of my pitches whenever I want. I throw a split, a slider and a fastball. When I came here, my fastball was night-and-day my best pitch. Now I would flip a coin between my slider and my fastball. Maybe every third strikeout I get is on a split. It’s a pitch I throw to lefties and now I’m starting to throw it to righties. I like to throw it to righties — get them out in front — and it almost makes my fastball look faster, almost more of a changeup to righties and a true split to lefties.”
One teammate who expedited the growth process was Shinnosuke Abe. Then Japan’s best catcher and a future Hall of Famer, Abe is now playing first base.
When Mathieson is on the mound, Abe can still be seen drawing a figure eight with his finger from first base. The gesture signifies “80 percent,” a reminder that the right-hander needn’t overthrow and needn’t be perfect — that 80 percent is sufficient.
“It kind of makes me laugh sometimes, but it’s him telling me to stay within myself and not try to do much,” said Mathieson, who made the Central League All-Star team for the first time last year.
“I was a fastball-dominant pitcher and touching 100 miles per hour (160 kph) on a fairly consistent basis before I came over here. I threw fastball, slider. My slider was good but I couldn’t throw it where I wanted to all the time. It was more of a strikeout pitch, get them out front thinking it’s a fastball. It was one of those things that I could really only throw when I was ahead in the count.”
“I was touching 160 and guys were expecting that and I tried to do it too much. Now I don’t think I’ve touched 160 this year and I’ll be in the upper 150s sometimes. But now I’m a pitcher.”
If life in Japan has helped Mathieson reshape his career, it’s also been a huge hit off the field, despite learning his first child was on the way just hours before he was scheduled to fly to Japan.
“It added to some of the anxiety and the nerves about coming over, but we were excited about it and we embraced it,” Mathieson said. “We were hoping to have kids at that time, but once I signed in Japan, we kind of put it on hold or at least we thought we had.
“That was a little nerve-wracking, but maybe 20 minutes after finding out I was on the internet Googling, ‘Having kids in Japan,’ and that put the nerves to rest, finding out how good the medical is over here.
“When I first got over here one of the first things I did was meet with the doctor the team recommended. He was an awesome doctor and he delivered both of my children. Both my kids were born in Japan. When we had my daughter, we tried to plan it so she would be born in Japan rather than in the States, because we had such a great experience.”
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