Monday, February 17, 2014
Ryan Mathews preps for Stockton
Entrenched within Wisconsin for the entirety of 2013, Ryan Mathews featured as a consistent, unwavering competitor for the Snappers through 122 contests as a 24 year old and previous 27th round 2012 draftee out of North Carolina St. The corner outfielder was Beloit's primary left fielder, Mathews slashed out to .260/.337/.446 between 472 plate appearances with a 120 wRC+, .357 wOBA, and a .186 ISO throughout his debut campaign in the full season ranks. Despite the statistical résumé not necessarily popping off the page, Mathews' role upon Beloit's ballclub was undeniably pivotal as a clubhouse presence and prominent offensive cog, penciled into the majority of the Snappers' 2013 lineup configurations and becoming one of the most loveable characters amongst the fanbase for his constant charitable efforts off of the diamond. It was additionally the first season outside of a tumultuous and infamous collegiate stay for the former 5th year senior, receiving an additive year of eligibility due to undergoing an appendectomy that squandered the majority of his 2010.
Bouncing through four institutions following a preparatory career in his native Orlando, Mathews initially began at Florida after being recruited as a first baseman and pitcher, but would eventually transfer to a program with significantly less notoriety in Western Carolina after the Gators underwent a coaching shift that irked Mathews enough to prompt him towards exiting the program. At WCU, Mathews starred in a stellar freshman stint throughout 54 contests with a .297/.335/.474 slash and caught the attention of his third suitor in Santa Fe CC in Gainesville, which he opted to depart to rather than continue onward as a member of the Catamounts. Ryan led the ballclub to the NJCAA World Series as they ultimately completed their season as the runners up in the championship bout, in an effort that attracted NCST to adopt the underclassman to conclude his college career with the Wolfpack. Unfortunately, the immediate two campaigns for Mathews saw him succumb to the aforementioned appendectomy and be buried underneath an extraordinarily competitive roster, which resulted in him only acquiring sporadic opportunities throughout his redshirt junior season.
The offseason saw Mathews be revitalized, however, as he latched onto a Coastal Plain League ballclub in the Wilson Tobs. After setting a franchise record for dingers with 15 and dominating offensively, Mathews was bestowed with the designation of the third best CPL prospect by Baseball America and offered a NDFA deal from Chicago. Mathews, to the surprise of many, declined and rather attempted to orchestrate a championship campaign with NCST as the fifth year senior manned a cleanup post between nearly 250 PAs during the 2012 Wolfpack run. Mathews obliterated opposing ACC rotations, hitting .327/.380/.628 with a tremendous 17 dingers as one of the most formidable power hitters within Division I baseball, and thus enticed the Athletics to pluck him as the 829th overall selection. Upon debuting in the AZL, he went 15-60 (10 XBH) in 66 PAs and convinced the organization to have him evade Vermont and instantly be shuttled to the midwest. Now, as 2014 approaches for the older Mathews, who turns 25 on August 1st, Stockton seems inevitable in what could be an entertaining environment for the power oriented Mathews to thrive within.
Hitting .339/.379/.578 throughout approximately 115 PAs within his final month of MWL action, Mathews has definitively demonstrated that California is all but a certainty, as the unique late round draftee shall attempt to achieve a previously unfathomable goal of a major league berth. I discussed matters with the honorary North Carolinian on his preparation entering 2014:
CK: Hey Ryan, how has the offseason been out there on the east coast? Ready for Arizona?
RM: The offseason has been great. I spent a little bit of time in Orlando, where my parents live, but I’ve spent the majority of my time in Raleigh, NC. I’ve been training and working at an indoor facility called TPA. I do baseball instruction, camps, and private lessons. Seth Frankoff also works and trains here as well in the off-season.
CK: After spending the last campaign entirety with the Midwest League with Beloit, how would you say the pitching compared with collegiate and rookie league arms?
RM: In comparing the Midwest League pitching to the college pitching I faced, I would say the MWL pitching was a little bit tougher. If I was to compare the MWL to just ACC pitching, I think it’s a lot more comparable. ACC games in college were always the toughest pitching we faced, but when you got deep into the bullpen you would usually face some softer throwing guys. In the Midwest League the majority of the pitchers all had the potential to be really tough if they were on that day.
CK: Obviously, you had a rather storied college career following your initial commitment with Florida to the transfer that had you wind up at WCU and the shift to Santa Fe CC and finally NCST, which you practically only one full season at anyways. Between the NJCCA title run with Santa Fe and the unfortunate appendectomy to your breakout senior year and the draft, how could you summarize your experience within the college ranks?
RM: Looking back on my college career, if I had to summarize it all into one word, I would have to say "blessed". The first reaction or comment I usually get when people find out I played at 4 different schools in college is "Wow, that must have been tough.” And to tell you the truth, it was tough and definitely not what I had planned, but God used it all to shape me and make me into who I am today. I was able to play for a lot of great coaches and with a lot of great players. I learned how to constantly adjust and transition. I faced a lot of closed doors in my career and at every one of them I had the choice to either quit or keep pushing and find another door. I’m extremely thankful for all the tough times I faced in college because they allowed me to truly appreciate and enjoy the little things in the game that I had never appreciated before.
CK: Prior to your fateful fifth year, the White Sox offered to sign you as a NDFA after a stellar performance in the Coastal Plain League. Why did you opt to return to NCST rather than enter the minors?
RM: Honestly, this was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. It had been my dream to get drafted and play professional baseball since I was 5 years old. A lot of people don’t actually know this, but I actually lost my spot on the team at NC State before my last year there. My scholarship was taken away and I was told that I was going to have to try out and make the team the next fall if I wanted to keep playing baseball. I couldn’t even get a summer ball team to take me either. I was fortunate enough to get a temporary two week contract with the Wilson Tobs. That summer I went from having my scholarship taken away to being offered a free agent contract with the White Sox. All my friends and teammates were ecstatic and called to congratulate me and wish me the best of luck in the pros. Why in the world would I go back and play at a school where none of the coaches believed in me when I had a chance to make my lifelong dream a reality? In 2010 at NC State I came to know Christ as my Savior and it radically changed my life. So instead of just signing the contract off the bat I decided to take a lot of quiet time with God and really seek where he might want me the next year. When I got done with all my quiet time, I really felt he was calling me to go back to NC State. It sure didn’t line up with my own logic or anyone else’s for that matter and I was even ridiculed by many professional scouts for that very decision to come back to school. I trusted that if it was God's will for me to play professional baseball that He would give me another opportunity. As the story goes, God was faithful.
CK: Within the CPL as a member of the Wilson Tobs, you set the franchise record for HRs with 15 and then launched 17 in just under 250 PAs with NCST. Plus you've kept the offensive streak going thus far in the minors through the first couple seasons. You wouldn't be able to tell initially with you being such a slender guy, but I think it's fair to classify you as a "dinger machine". Do you realistically view your longball ability as your best attribute on the diamond?
RM: Tough question, I’m not quite sure what my best attribute on the field is. I certainly enjoy hitting homeruns but I’ll leave that answer to you…
CK: You're considered one of the more outspoken and prominent Christian baseball players out there and even launched your own brand called "Saved Swag". Can you elaborate upon that a bit?
RM: I created SavedSWAG a year ago as a way to share with people what Christianity is all about. SWAG stands for Saved With Amazing Grace. It’s based off the bible verse Ephesians 2:8 – "For it is by God's grace you have been saved, not because of anything you’ve done, it is a gift from God". Christianity often gets a bad rap for being a group of people trying to do the “right” things, not sin, and then judge those who live differently. This completely misses the point that it is ONLY by God's grace that a Christian is a Christian.
CK: Heard you even had a class with Tim Tebow at Florida and view him as an athlete role model. Do you believe Tebow was a good example for Christian athletes to follow?
RM: Tim Tebow is a great advocate for the Christian and athlete alike, but I think it’s easy for us to forget that he's still human... Even on Tim Tebow or Russell Wilson's best day they are still a dim and poor reflection of whom we are supposed to be. The only person worthy of following and worthy of being like is Jesus himself. I think the greatest Christian athletes don’t point us to be more like them but point us to take a look at who Jesus is.
CK: Predominantly, you played LF for the Snappers as opposed to just a mere six contests in RF. Are you more comfortable at one corner outfield position over another?
RM: I had actually played a lot more RF and CF prior to playing professionally. LF has been an adjustment for me but I enjoy playing any of them.
CK: This upcoming campaign has you seemingly headed to Stockton with a pretty exciting cast between Christenson, Robertson, Olson, Renato, Covey, Wahl, Sanburn and Ynoa. What are you anticipating about the Cal League?
RM: I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Cal League. I’m pretty excited to see what Matt Olson is going to be able to do up with his power numbers up in Stockton. It should be a great year though; playing for a manager like Ryan Christenson really provides a great atmosphere for player development. I think it’s a special group of guys and it’ll be fun to see what everyone is able to do at the next level.
CK: You just recently attended a banquet in Beloit with Chris Bostick, who unfortunately is headed to Texas and probably Myrtle Beach for 2014. Plus, John Wooten, was packaged for Fernando Abad earlier this offseason as another 2013 Snapper departing the A's organization. Gonna be tough with those guys no longer around?
RM: Those are two great guys right there. From a personal standpoint you definitely miss having guys like Chris Bostick and John Wooten around, but at the same time it not only helped out the A’s organization but also probably helped them out in their individual careers as well.
CK: You have a whopping 15,400 twitter followers, in excess of three times as many as Addison Russell and easily the most within the A's MiLB system. How do maintain such a strong social media pressence?
RM: Since I became a Christian in 2010, it changed my life completely and the way I looked at everything. It was at that point when I started to use my social media as an outlet to encourage other people and tell them about Jesus. There’s a lot of negativity in the world and it’s been awesome to see how God’s used twitter and social media to encourage other people all over the country. I’m very fortunate to have such a great group of followers and fans.
CK: You and Seth Frankoff are besties so I've heard and have had your back-and-forths with the whole UNC-NCST rivalry. Have you seen him often this offseason? And how much will you gloat to him when the Wolfpack crush the Tarheels during this upcoming college baseball season?
RM: Like I said before, Seth and I spend most of the offseason working and training together so naturally we like to give each other a hard time. It’s all fun and games though; I consider him a good friend and have enjoyed getting to spend time with him the last couple off seasons.
CK: NCST has some tremendous talent this season with Rodon and Turner expected to zoom off the draft board this June. After playing with them and sharing first team honors with Rodon as a senior, how far do you believe they can go when they arrive in the professional ranks? Also, with Houston almost assuredly going to take Rodon, are you a bit frightened about possibly having to face him down the road in the minors or maybe even Oakland?
RM: It was easy to see that Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner were very special players as soon as they got to N.C. State. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to play with both of them when they were freshmen. Although very different personalities, I think they both have what it takes to do very well professionally. I faced Carlos a lot in scrimmage games when we played together. It was actually pretty funny, He told me at the end of the fall that whenever he faced me he would throw as hard as he could and I told him it was a good thing you did because I was swinging as hard as I could. I would enjoy getting to face him again, it would bring back the little rivalry we had.
CK: What facet, defensively or offensively, are you focusing upon improving the most throughout 2014?
RM: I’m looking to improve in all facets of the game in 2014. After my first full season, and getting the chance to play every day under great coaches, I really learned more than I ever have about the game. I’m looking forward to putting into play a lot that I was able to learn over this last year in Beloit.
CK: Lastly, when September rolls around, what do you hope to have accomplished when you look back on following your second complete season as a minor leaguer?
RM: When September rolls around this year, I hope to first off be playing in the playoffs making another run at a championship. We had a great team last year but just weren’t able to finish as strong as we started. When I look back on this year, I also hope people will say that I made my team a lot better on and off the field. I really enjoy helping those around me get better and I feel that’s when I’m at my best too. I know if that’s my main focus and goal that I won’t have any regrets looking back.