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Today in Clubhouse Convos we sit down with Matt Whiteside, relief pitcher for the Rangers, Phillies, Padres, Braves and Blue Jays over 11 seasons in the big leagues. Matt officially retired in 2006 after 15 years in professional baseball and currently is co-owner of All-Star Performance, an instructional baseball facility in St. Louis, as well as a coach and director for the well respected St. Louis Gamers baseball program.
We appreciate the insight from Matt as he talks about: the best pitching advice he’s ever heard, the hardest adjustment for pitchers going from high school to college, how he learned how to throw a slider, teammates that made him say wow in a good way- and one that made him say wow in a bad way, a great story about getting inside the mind of Greg Maddux and more.
What is the biggest issue you see with aspiring ballplayers these days?
Not being able to transfer their abilities to the next level, and I’m not talking about taking their abilities to the Big Leagues, I’m talking about taking it from the bullpen or the batting cage to the field. It’s obviously not all physical.
What’s the best piece of pitching advice you’ve ever heard?
I’d have to say 2 things.
1. Trust your stuff. You advance from level to level for a reason. You have to trust what you have.
2. You have to have a very short term memory. Especially as a reliever, because that next outing is usually coming pretty quickly. You need to filter your outing. Take in the good stuff, and learn from the bad stuff. If you have a bad day you have to think about it for a little bit and then completely let it go and prepare for your next opportunity.
What’s the hardest adjustment for young pitchers to make when moving from high school to college baseball?
When going from high school to college you are probably going to step into a role you’re not familiar with. For the most part freshman are going to come out of the bullpen. Being able to acclimate yourself into the role you are given is a big part of successfully transitioning to the next level.
Biggest flaws you see in young pitchers today?
Mechanically, too many kids are not taught how to throw the baseball properly. Overall throwing mechanics is one area that doesn’t get taught enough.
What separates the good pitchers from the great pitchers?
It’s what goes on between the ears once you’re on the mound that separates the good pitchers from the great ones. I played with a lot of guys over my 15 year big league career who had physically more size, better velocity, shaper of speed pitches, but once they get into a game situation, for whatever reason they couldn’t take their abilities from the bullpen to the mound. The difference makers for those guys is their mental strength and ability to block things out. It all comes down to executing what their capable of, and that’s the next pitch.
What were some keys to your success in college at Arkansas State?
I would say that being able to pitch a lot as a freshman helped me a lot. We were not very good and I failed a lot, but it made me get more mentally tough. It also taught me that my high school curveball wasn’t good enough to get out SEC hitters. I’d say there were 3 main things that lead to my college success:
1. I was able to pitch a lot as a freshman and learn about myself. It was huge just getting out on the mound and trying to figure out how to get out more talented players than I’ve ever faced before.
2. I was able to develop physically. I didn’t go into college as a physical specimen by any means. I got to college and learned how to lift.
3. I started learning about the mental side of the game.
You mentioned to me you learned to throw a slider the summer after your freshman year of college. How’d you go about doing that?
I just took a bucket of baseballs out to my old high school field and I tried to find a grip that I could use that made the ball go right to left with some angle and didn’t pop up when it came out of my hand. I just experimented with a lot of grips and finally found one that felt good and it turned into a very effective pitch that I continued to use throughout my big league career.
What kind of advice would to give to the high school prospect who is weighing the options of going to a premier D1 program or a mid-level D1 program where they could compete for a starting spot right away?
I work with a lot of ballplayers now, and everybody wants to go to the big SEC schools or other top programs around the country. For most of these guys their going to go to these schools and just sit there for two years. Most will red shirt the first season and some still won’t play much the second year. Unless you’re a blue chip prospect that’s potentially going to get drafted, you’re probably going to go into a big program and watch a ton of baseball before you get on the field. If you’re not that that blue chip guy, you need to find a program where you can go enjoy four years of baseball instead of just your last two.
Hardest adjustment for you to make when transitioning to professional baseball?
Off the field:
Originally it was that my organization didn’t think I was good enough to start. I was a 25th round draft pick as a senior in college and was told pretty early on in minor league ball that the guys who were going to be in our starting rotation where all drafted in the top 12 rounds. They said my role would be long relief and mop up work when other guys struggled. It put a chip on my shoulder and probably helped in the long run, but it was still hard to swallow early on. That’s just the business side of baseball.
On the field:
Learning how to be ready to pitch every single day. If they asked me if I was available to pitch the day after I threw two innings, my answer was always yes. There was no way that I wanted someone else to go out on the mound if I had a chance to be out there. I didn’t want anyone else having a chance to shine, if it could be me. I had to learn how to limit my warm up throws in the bullpen and mentally prepare myself to throw every day.
When you made it to the big leagues, who was the toughest batter you had to face?
Oh, without a doubt Ken Griffey Jr! He gave me fits. At one point he was 9-10 off of me and his one out was a line drive that almost took my first basemen’s (Will Clark) head off.
Who was a teammate over the years that made you say wow?
Wow in a good way or wow in a bad way?
Lets start with wow in a good way:
Nolan Ryan is a guy that immediately comes to mind. He was a guy that I grew up admiring, and was amazing to watch. His work ethic, even in his early 40’s was incredible. It was near impossible to beat him to the ballpark and out work him. He was always running stairs and riding bike.
Greg Maddux is another guy. His mind was just amazing to me. We were in Montreal one time, and leading by 2 runs in the 6th inning, Bobby Cox took him out of the game. I was really shocked because Maddux seemed to be throwing well and his pitch count wasn’t high. Later that night at dinner, I asked him about it:
Matt: “How’d you feel about Bobby (Cox) taking you out of the game in the 6th inning tonight?”
Maddux: “I told Bobby to take me out. When I first got here to Atlanta, Bobby and I made a deal that I would be completely honest with him about when I was ready to come out of the game and give it over to the bullpen.”
Matt: “But I was watching you the whole time and I never saw you tell Bobby you were done.”
Maddux: “I reach down to play with my sock and make a quick scissor sign and that’s when Bobby knows to come get me.”
Matt: “How’d you know you were done? It looked to me like you were cruising.”
Maddux: “My first time through the lineup I had to use my second way to get those guys out. The second time through the lineup, I had to use my 3rd and absolute way that I knew I could get them out. So my 3rd time through the lineup I knew I didn’t have anything else to go to.”
Hearing Maddux say that just blew me away. There I was trying to get out the one guy in the batters box and he’s thinking ahead to the 3rd time through the lineup. And he’s worried about it in the first inning!
Ok, we need to know who was the teammate you had that made you say wow in a bad way?
Hands down, Jose Canseco. The guy was like a turd in a punch bowl. He was on a whole different planet. I was in the bullpen the game he had that routine fly ball hit off his head for a homerun. What people forget is that earlier that inning there was another high pop up to Jose and he ran into foul territory while the ball landed fair for a double. So in that one inning, he turned two easy outs into a double and and home run. Overall, he was just a bad teammate.
What is one piece of advice to pitchers out there who want to take their game to the next level?
Apply yourself in every opportunity you are given so that no matter what level of baseball you make it to, you can look back and feel good about what you accomplished. Applying yourself means having good nutrition, working out, working on mechanics, and on and on the list goes. Putting everything into being the best ballplayer you can be is the only way to look back on your baseball career with no regrets.