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 left-handed pitchers ever developed by the Mets’ organization.
His other career marks – a 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 first round amateur draft pick.
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 left-handed 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’ selction 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 three 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 with a 2.32 ERA and 1.172 WHIP with the Mets, and winning the National League Rookie Of The Year Award.
Matlack was a solid starter for the Mets for six years, and while he never became Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman, he impressed nonetheless. In 1974, Matlack posted the finest season of his career and one of the top five seasons ever by a Mets pitcher.
That season, despite the poorest run support in the league, he led the majors with seven shutouts and a 2.42 FIP while winning just 13 games. He completed 14 of his 34 starts, and led all pitchers with a 7.2 fWAR.
Matlack was a three-time All-Star for the Mets and became the only player in franchise history to win an All-Star Game MVP award, sharing most valuable player honors in 1975 with Bill Madlock of the Chicago Cubs.
He was eventually 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 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”.
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 and 1.19 WHIP a winner. In his 6 1/2 seasons with the Mets he accumulated a 26.6 WAR.