The date was Dec. 4, 2019. That was the day that Isaac Mattson’s world briefly got turned upside down. A right-handed relief pitcher, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in round 19 of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft and had completed three good years in their system. He reached Triple-A last summer and he was finally closing in on that major league dream.
Then he got a call. He was traded to the Orioles, one of four players coming to Baltimore in the deal for pitcher Dylan Bundy.
“Kind of got rocked a little bit, but rocked in a good way,” Mattson told me in a recent Zoom video interview. “Just trying to get to a place where I could get a chance to play at the highest level and the Orioles - it was a really cool opportunity for me. Not only there, but the geographic difference of being back on the East Coast. Being from Pennsylvania, it was really cool to kind of not have to worry about being in a time zone three hours away.”
The kid from Erie, Pa., was headed back east where he played in high school and three years of college ball at Pitt. He is coming off a 2019 season that started at high Single-A and then moved on to Double-A and Triple-A. He spent the bulk of his year - 24 of 37 games - at Double-A Mobile. Pitching out of the ‘pen, Mattson, 25, went 6-3 with a 2.33 ERA. Over 73 1/3 innings, he gave up 47 hits, walked 27 and fanned 110 with a .184 average against and a 1.01 WHIP. Yep, it was a pretty strong year.
After the regular season, he went to the Arizona Fall League and pitched to an ERA of 1.69 in seven games for Mesa. He fanned 12 over 12 innings and was named to the Fall Stars Game.
With a high-spin fastball that ranges from 90 to 94 mph, he is not blowing hitters away. But he fanned 13.5 per nine in 2019 and has averaged 10.9 per strikeouts per nine for his career.
What is the key to the strikeouts?
“I think last year especially, I took the next step mentally as far as being able to read swings,” Mattson explained. “That was the big thing that I took away last year. If I threw a slider low and away and they took one type of swing, I knew I could kind of go to another pitch. Maybe a fastball up and in, just expose where they were looking and what they were trying to do with the previous pitch. That was a big thing and then just commanding all my pitches.
“The fastball is the bread and butter for me, so being able to locate that and command that in any count was huge. And then going to off-speed in counts they were not expecting. So reading swings and then commanding fastballs was really big for me last year.”
And he kept his own personal scouting notes. If he saw the same player weeks or months later, he could check his notes.
“I love writing things down. If I don’t do that, I forget them. So I’ve got a couple of notebooks full of notes,” Mattson said.
Mattson’s season began with high Single-A Inland Empire, where he posted an ERA of 0.89 in eight games through mid-May. Then he moved to Mobile and recorded an ERA of 2.68 in 43 2/3 innings. On Aug. 19, he moved to Triple-A and posted an ERA of 3.68. In five games over 9 1/3 innings, he struck out 19 batters.
“The hitters in High-A are good hitters, but they are not the same as Double-A and the hitters at Triple-A are not the same as Double-A,” he said. “So just trying to figure out things I needed to do to be successful at each level and then going out and doing them. If there were places I could get better, look to attack that. My changeup last year was one of those areas. In Double-A, we spent a lot of time with TrackMan trying to break down what would be the most effective as far as grips and execution.
“My fastball is a very average velocity. It is something I hope to keep working on and maybe get a few ticks up as far as the fastball velocity goes. Fastball, slider and then changeup. They are still a work in progress, every one of those pitches. The other part of that is the mental side, knowing I can go to each pitch in any count. Then just execute based off the situation.”
For his three-year career, Mattson is 14-7 with a 2.89 ERA over 82 games. In 199 innings, he has allowed 155 hits with 69 walks, 242 strikeouts, a .215 batting average against and a WHIP of 1.13.
Now Mattson is part of the O’s 60-man player pool, and on July 10, he was assigned to the Bowie alternate site. He’s continuing to get to know his new teammates as he waits for a possible call to the bigs for the first time later this season.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “For me, being new this year, just learning guys’ names is step one. But we have a talented group here. Seeing DL (Hall) throw the past couple of days is fun. He’s a lefty that throws mid-to-upper 90s. Getting to watch guys and have some conversations. It is nice to be back in an environment where we are all keyed in on a process to get better. It’s great getting to form relationships with these guys.”
You can watch my interview with Mattson at the end of this story.
Weekend notes: After a blowout loss on Friday night, the Orioles bounced back with two straight wins at Boston by 7-2 and 7-4 scores. The Orioles (2-1) ended the weekend tied for first place in the American League East and begin a two-game series tonight at Miami.
O’s pitchers allowed no walks in back-to-back games for the first time since May 16-17, 2015. Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc threw solid outings, providing some hope for the rotation. The bullpen gave up just one run over seven innings over the past two days. Cole Sulser went two innings Sunday in his O’s debut for his first major league save. He’s now thrown 9 1/3 scoreless innings at the big league level.
José Iglesias had four hits to tie his career high Sunday and is batting .538 (7-for-13). Hanser Alberto went 6-for-12 in the series and Anthony Santander drove in four runs. Chris Davis ended his 0-for-10 start with an RBI double in the ninth yesterday.
The 2019 Orioles lost 108 games, but they got off to a 4-1 start. This club can match that if they sweep the two-game series that begins in Miami tonight.