By Barry Duchan
Editor's Note: We will publish a post from Barry Duchan every Sunday covering some aspect of Mets history. - M.S.
Jon Matlack's career record of 125-126 may be as mediocre as you can get, but Matlack was a much, much better than average major league pitcher. In fact, he was one of the very finest lefthanded pitchers ever developed by the Mets' organization. His other career marks - 3.18 lifetime ERA (better than Steve Carlton, who was considered the best lefty of his generation), 97 complete games, and 30 shutouts attest to the fact that he was a workhorse, who when he was on, was as good as anyone.
Matlack holds several important distinctions as a Met, although not necessarily statistical ones. To begin with, he was the Mets' very first GOOD #1 amateur draft choice. In '65 with the second pick, the Mets selected the forgettable Les Rohr. With the first pick in '66, they opted for Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and we all know how that turned out. In 1967, having advanced to ninth place the previous season, they didn't get to pick until the #4 slot. The first three picks were Ron Blomberg, Terry Hughes, and Mike Garman. The Mets, up next, chose Jon Matlack, a 6-foot-3 lefthanded pitcher out of high school in West Chester, PA. Certainly you could make a case that later first round picks like John Mayberry and Ted Simmons turned out better, but there's no doubt that the Mets' selection of Matlack was better than the three choices that preceded him that year and a whole lot better than most of the Mets' #1's through the years.
Next, Matlack was the first of the Mets' hot young pitching prospects to be brought along slowly, getting 3 full seasons in AAA before being brought up for a cup of coffee in 1971. Prior to his extended hitch in AAA, in his first full year in the minors, 1968, Matlack had a superb year, going 13-6 2.76 with 188 strikeouts in 173 innings for Class A Raleigh-Durham.
Considering how the likes of Les Rohr, Dennis Musgraves, Ron Locke, Tug McGraw, Grover Powell, Tom Seaver, et al were force-fed to the big leagues based on single year minor league performances, you would have almost expected Matlack to be given a shot at the Mets' rotation in 1969 or 1970 at the latest, but starting pitching was the Mets' strong suit and that gave the organization the luxury of nurturing Matlack until he was unquestionably big-league ready. And in 1972, he certainly was, going 15-10 2.32 with the Mets, and winning the National League Rookie Of The Year Award.
Matlack was a solid starter for the Mets for six years, although he never really surpassed his rookie season, so he could be regarded as something of a disappointment i.e. he never became Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman. Matlack was dealt away to Texas prior to the 1978 season in a bizarre 4-team trade involving a lot of big name players. I won't go into the details here, but I've always wondered how that one came about.
Matlack pitched decently for the Rangers, but was out of baseball before he turned 34. In 1989, at the age of 39, Matlack resurfaced in the late, lamented Senior Professional Baseball Association (topic of a future post here at Metscentric) where he had a solid 10-2 record, making him one of the few well-known players in the league to deliver more than "name value".
Recently, Matlack became the Organizational Pitching coordinator for the Detroit Tigers, and no doubt, was instrumental in helping to develop the talented young staff the Tigers have today. But I'll always remember him as a true quality starter who unfortunately pitched on too many Mets' teams that couldn't score enough runs to make a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA a winner.