Specialized instruction is just part of the game for young ballplayers

News-DemocratJuly 27, 2013 

It's a hot summer evening outside, but 9-year-old Matt Yost has found himself in an air-conditioned environment where he can pursue a dream.

Matt is a right-handed baseball pitcher with decent control and a lot of promise. Right now he's working hard on hitting a small strike zone target at the other end of an indoor pitching tunnel at the St. Louis Baseball and Fastpitch Academy in south St. Louis County.

There's a maze of nets in the facility and instructors nearby are working with pitchers and hitters from baseball and softball. During the winter months the crowds are large, but even in July during summer ball season there is no shortage of players and parents filing through the doors.

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher T.J. Mathews is Matt's pitching instructor and is running him through various points of emphasis in his motion.

"T.J. was the only one that I could find as a pitching coach that would take him at 8," said Mike Yost, Matt's father and a former pitcher at Valley Park High School in Missouri and Jefferson College. "The thing I like is he treats them like kids. You would think most pro players would stand over the top of them.

"But he gets down to their level ... he's just like a big kid, he gets down their level and he listens to them. He makes it fun for them. My son just listens to him like he's been with him forever, from the first day."

Mathews said the ages of his students range from 8 to high school, but probably 90-95 percent are in the eighth grade or younger.

"You've got to teach them to crawl before they walk," he said. "Even at age 8 or 9, I can get them to hold a changeup the correct way and to throw it the correct way. It may not work, but they know how to do it and what it's supposed to do."

Why do parents around the country spend $30 or more per half-hour for pitching lessons and/or hitting lessons?

For some, it's the lure of a college scholarship down the road -- even though HighSchoolBaseballWeb.com estimates only 5.6 percent of all high school baseball players will ever play for an NCAA college or university.

Even the top Division I baseball programs rarely award full scholarships and most of those are reserved for pitchers.

For others, it's about using the private instruction to help pave the way to a starting spot on the junior high or high school team, or perhaps later a spot in the varsity starting lineup.

That's what keeps Trevor Davis coming back to Mathews week after week. The freshman-to-be at Gibault High in Waterloo is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds and could have a future in the sport, Mathews said.

"I wanted to go to pitching lessons before high school started to find out about my mechanics," Davis said. "I asked my mom if we could find a pitching instructor and we picked him. He's been amazing, everything he says is understandable and easy to pick up.

"He doesn't have to tell me twice because it's so easy to understand."

And what parents don't dream about their son playing in the major leagues?

This despite the fact that only 0.5 percent of all high school seniors and 10.5 percent of all collegiate players will ever go on to be drafted by a major league team.

Less than 10 percent of all drafted players ever reach the major leagues.

Busy coach

Mathews is a living, breathing example of that tiny percentage.

The son of former major leaguer Nelson Mathews, T.J. grew up in Columbia and was good enough as an athlete to start in three varsity sports.

Now 43, Mathews helped Columbia High win a state baseball championship, then pitched at Meramec Community College and Nevada-Las Vegas before being drafted by the Cardinals in the 36th round in 1992.

Not many 36th-round picks reach the majors, but Mathews bucked the odds and lasted seven years in the majors with the Cardinals, Oakland and Houston.

"Probably 99 percent of the kids that come in here and do lessons don't have any idea who the heck I am," joked Mathews. "Their dads do, but none of them really has an idea of where I was at as a draft choice and what it took for me to the get to the level I was at."

As he watched his son refill a white plastic bucket with the baseballs he just fired at the other end of the net, Mike Yost talked about the motivation for bringing him to Mathews.

"From the first pitch until now it's just night and day," Yost said. "Night and day. He loves coming to him, everything T.J. tells him he just listens to him. With everything that he's picked up and learned, it's worth it."

For seven hours a day, two days a week in the summer, Mathews works with hundreds of area baseball pitchers paying him $30 per half-hour. He is known for one-one-one communication skills, attention to detail and for aiding and improving his pupils.

"There's been winters where I'll work five days and I'll have 130 kids a week coming in to do lessons," Mathews said.

Private lesson explosion

The trend toward private instruction has exploded in recent years. In the metro-east, there are numerous facilities that offer private lessons, and that number jumps dramatically when including the St. Louis region.

"Sports in general has gotten more and more specialized and the parents are investing more in their kids," said Sean Duncan, executive director of the baseball recruiting and rating web site PrepBaseballReport.com.

"You're practicing and fine-tuning a skill like anything else you do in life. The great thing about baseball is there's so much to learn. You can take a raw athlete and that only takes you so far, you have to have really good baseball skills to have a higher level of success."

Mathews has been giving pitching lessons since his college days, but has been doing it full-time since 2006. He charges $30 a half hour, but said quality instructors in the New York and New Jersey area he knows get as much as $75.

"I've got buddies doing the same thing in Arizona that have played in the big leagues," Mathews said. "They're doing one-on-one lessons and one guy is charging $120 a half-hour for one student out in Phoenix. The region kind of dictates what you can charge.

"We're in an area where it's a lot less expensive for pitchers to do it."

Duncan admits the trend toward private lessons is hard to ignore.

"There are natural talents like a Jake Odorizzi, who probably didn't need lessons but it could help him fine-tune his game," Duncan said, recalling the former first-round draft pick from Highland High who now pitches in Triple-A for the Tampa Bay Rays. "Other guys really need lessons. It's like anything else. If you're not really proficient in writing, you need to take a writing class.

"Hitting and pitching are another skill that you're trying to get better at."

Mathews said his dad taught him a lot about baseball, but back then few people were sending their children to get private instruction.

"He gave me the ins and outs as I was coming up, where a lot of the other guys didn't have that experience," Mathews said. "He kept everything in perspective for me and when things would get good, he wouldn't make too big of a deal out of it. When things would get bad, he never harped on anything on a negative or a positive."

Mathews' success as a pitching coach has attracted students from as far away as Rolla and Sullivan in Missouri to Pinckneyville and Mount Vernon in Illinois.

"I've had multiple kids from Pinckneyville come in," Mathews said. "At one point I had seven pitchers that were on their varsity or their JV."

That's not surprising since one of Mathews' prized pupils is former Pinckneyville right-hander Brandon Hardin. Hardin pitched for Kaskaskia College and later Delta State in Mississippi, then was drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago White Sox last summer.

"He started coming to me after his freshman year in college at Kaskaskia and then went to Delta State," Mathews said. "Between his junior and senior year he just exploded with velocity and focus and dedication -- and that's what it took for him."

Debbie Mizell from Granite City has a 13-year-old left-hander, Isaiah, that takes full advantage of his pitching lesson opportunities.

Isaiah Mizell works with former Lebanon High and minor-league pitcher Wesley Brooks. Mizell hasn't pitched much, but has made solid progress, his mother said.

"He's a good athlete and if he's having fun and truly just loves what he's doing, he's going to want to do better," Debbie Mizell said. "If you find somebody that can bring that out in your child, that's what makes it really amazing."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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