From 2005 to 2008, I probably paid less attention to to the day-to-day operations of the Phillies than at any other time, owing mostly to spending more than half of the baseball season living in a place where there was no local MLB broadcast among people who considered baseball season as nothing other than that awkward time between when the Gamecocks lose to Clemson and when the Gamecocks lose to Georgia. Thankfully, that second modifier no longer holds true. Eat me, Dabo Swinney. Of course, by “paid less attention” I mean “checked the standings online every day rather than spending every spare moment imagining a Hamels-and-Howard for Cain-and-Belt trade.”
Anyway, because I wasn’t watching as much baseball back then, Scott Mathieson was this mystical figure to me. He was some dude who showed up in the rotation in mid-2006 and totally sucked, not to put too fine a point on it, then got hurt and seemingly disappeared back into the woods of British Columbia like Sasquatch evading an enterprising photographer. I always liked him, because as a young guy who threw hard, he conceivably had some value to the Phillies. Also, because of my well-documented and long-running man-crush on Jeff Francis, I have a soft spot in my heart for enormous pitchers from British Columbia.
Since then, Mathieson’s had a fascinating career with the Phillies, which came to an end this week when he was granted his release. I felt a strong personal affinity for Mathieson over the years, maybe because he was the Phillies’ sleeper relief ace every year for the past three seasons but never got the chance as the Phillies relied on the likes of Danys Baez and Mike Zagurski to fill the gaps, a sort of proto-Domonic Brown. Nevertheless, for someone who only pitched 44 innings in red pinstripes, he generated a lot of ink before he was traded for a hot dog eater. In that vein, it’s appropriate to remember everyone’s favorite perennial closer-in-waiting and what our own Jay Floyd called his “strange odyssey.”
What made Scott Mathieson so special? Despite not saying a single word of note to the Philly media and having no real outspoken personality in the vein of a Brett Myers or even a Vance Worley, Mathieson represented eternal rebirth and optimism, a kind of rubber band of a man who came back from a terrible cup of coffee in 2006, then not one but two Tommy John surgeries to lurk on the fringes of the major league roster for three seasons, yanked around, promoted, demoted, and DFA’d like a practice squad offensive lineman.
The New and Improved Mathieson added a splitter and moved to the bullpen, one of two common refuges for failed starters with a history of injury and/or control problems (the other being Out of Baseball). The list of such players who have gone on to become effective closers is long and distinguished; Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, Octavio Dotel, Eric Gagne, Ryan Madson, and more have made this transition to great critical acclaim. The bullpen is a refuge from a 200-inning workload and an opportunity to put extra effort into every pitch, which transforms marginal or unimpressive stuff into effective stuff. I had the highest hopes for Mathieson in this role, and while I didn’t expect him to show up on Opening Day 2010 and turn into John Wetteland, it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect him to form, with Madson, the core of a bullpen that would be, if not reminiscent of the 1996 Yankees, at least passable.
When, in 2009, the Phillies’ bullpen went from an undeniable strength to a terrifying liability, Mathieson was striking out 11 men a game across three minor league levels, but he wasn’t tapped to fill the void. That offseason, the Phillies traded for Phillippe Aumont, another enormous hardthrowing Canadian, leading me to remark that the back end of the Phillies’ bullpen in 2012 or so could very easily pass as a decent checking line.
But the next year, when Brad Lidge was more effective but no more comforting and the Ryan Madson Folding Chair Incident of 2010 left the Phillies with a disturbing lack of bullpen depth, Mathieson pitched only 1 2/3 innings for the team.
By 2011, we were pretty much convinced that Mathieson would never really get his chance to rise from the ashes and become an effective reliever. The Phillies toyed with returning Mathieson to the rotation in Lehigh Valley, where he plugged away like the dutiful soldier he’d always been, but in 12 starts, the command issues came back, and by the time he was returned to the bullpen, Mathieson could only register 5 innings with La Furia Roja.
That’s all Mathieson 2.0 got: 6 2/3 innings in the bigs. Allow me to quote my good friend Dash Treyhorn on the subject:
“Despite that, fans viewed Mathieson as a prospect with unrealized potential and not enough opportunity. When he did get a call to The Show, he wasn’t used enough, or the team didn’t care about his growth, or he just needed another chance, and on and on.
For a while, it seemed like the fans felt as if though Mathieson was concealing some hidden talent and that the front office was wrong not to trust him with a significant spot on the big club. As it turns out, the brass was right, because Mathieson – despite having a blistering fastball and the makings of a great reliever – never really put it all together.
As it turns out, a mid-90s fastball with shaky control was not enough to get it done against professional hitters.”
Even though it slowly became clear that Mathieson wouldn’t ever get his shot in the majors, and didn’t really seem like he’d make much of it if he got one, at least with the Phillies, he still represented the hope of a second chance. The irony of it all is that the Phillies eventually got that failed starter with injury and command issues to anchor the bullpen, vice Madson. It just wasn’t Mathieson–it was Antonio Bastardo.
This seems a strange thing to say, given that Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt, and Jimmy Rollins may have all played their last game for the Phillies, but I’ll miss Scott Mathieson a lot. Not as much as Rollins, but Mathieson leaves a palpable gap in my life as a Phillies fan. His resilience and tantalizing but unrealized potential made him relatable in a way that few pro athletes are, and for completely irrational and subjective reasons, he was one of my favorite Phillies of this generation.
So here’s to Scott Mathieson, the eternal prospect, the relief ace who never was. I genuinely wish him all the best and hope that this deal with an undisclosed Asian team is only another twist in what has to be the longest, most circuitous road to major league stardom in history.