Why does nobody remember this guy?
I’ll have to admit, until a few years ago, I didn’t know much of anything about Jon Matlack. I knew he was a Mets pitcher on the ’73 team and that’s about it. It wasn’t until I started digging more into the team’s history that I discovered just how good he was. His greatness has by and large been lost to history, and that’s a shame. Because Jon Matlack was awesome.
Matlack’s game-used resume is a short one. His only material is from 2001, with Mets pinstripe jerseys in UD Decade: The 1970s and UD Legends of New York. UD Decade also featured a patch card (though that is nearly impossible to find) and the Legends of New York jersey has a parallel version numbered to 400. He has no certified autograph cards and only a smattering of uncertified autographs. In the last decade, when every nobody who ever put together a mediocre career has been celebrated in cards, Jon Matlack has not had a single baseball card made. Not one. In fact, since his retirement, there have been only seven officially licensed Jon Matlack cards produced. In addition to the four mentioned above, he had two more in the base UD Decade set and one base card in UD Legends of New York. Seven cards to remember one of the best pitchers in Mets history? How is this possible?
Matlack was taken 4th overall in the 1967 draft, ahead of Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich, Vida Blue, Jerry Reuss, Don Baylor, Davey Lopes, and other stars you’ve forgotten about. I guess he just had the bad fortune to come up at a time that baseball would come to forget. While we remember a disappointing Nolan Ryan getting traded and becoming a star with the Angels in 1972, we forget that Matlack was named Rookie of the Year in that very same year with a performance that was a match for Ryan’s season (according to bWAR at least). He would go on to be named an All-Star three years in a row before getting traded in a complicated deal that gave the Mets Willie Montanez, Tom Grieve, and Ken Henderson. The Mets got nothing out of that deal and the Rangers got a couple of good seasons out of Matlack mixed in with a few mediocre ones. He was through at age 33.
Just a few days ago, Brandon Webb announced his retirement at the age of 33. Webb’s career was shorter and had a longer peak, and while he lost out on Rookie of the Year to a clearly inferior Dontrelle Willis, he did win one Cy Young award and finish second twice. Matlack only managed to get Cy Young votes once, good for a 6th place finish in 1976. Clearly he’s no Webb.
Well, except for that 8.8 bWAR season in 1974 that blows away anything Webb ever did. Wait, what? 34 games started, 14 complete games, 7 shutouts, 265 1/3 innings pitched… Let’s just stop right there. He pitched 14 complete games and averaged 7 innings on the other 20. That right there would get you an MVP award today. Throwing some other numbers out there: 195 strikeouts, 76 walks, 8 home runs allowed, ERA of 2.41… Any way you slice it, that’s an elite season. 0 Cy Young votes. Oh, and his record was 13-15.
How did this compare to his contemporaries in 1974? Well, his 8.8 bWAR led all NL pitchers. So did his 7.4 fWAR and 5.2 WARP. His 2.41 ERA was third behind former Met you’ve never heard of Buzz Capra and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (and just barely ahead of 1974 NL Cy Young winner and future former Met Mike Marshall). His 195 strikeouts were good enough to tie him with Niekro for 4th behind Steve Carlton, Andy Messersmith, and teammate Tom Seaver. 14 complete games put him tied for 5th with Reuss, 4 back of Niekro’s 18, but his 7 shutouts put him one up on Niekro for the league lead. Basically, Jon Matlack was all over the leaderboards in 1974 and certainly one of the top starters in the league. And not a single damn Cy Young voter noticed.
The first place votes that year were split between Marshall, who led the league with 21 saves, 20-game winners Messersmith and Niekro, and 19-game winner Don Sutton, who led the league with 40 starts. Buzz Capra got one token vote to finish at the bottom tied for 9th. Jon Matlack would have to wait two years for any Cy Young votes, coming after a 1976 that wasn’t half as good as his 1974. That’s not to say that he should have won the award in 1974. A case could certainly be made for Niekro, who put up a roughly equivalent performance. Marshall has a good case as well as the top reliever. Buzz Capra and Andy Messersmith had great seasons. But nobody remembered Jon Matlack when it was time to cast votes. Story of his life.
This year, Justin Verlander will pass Matlack’s career total bWAR. Justin Verlander at 29, after 7 seasons, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, MVP, and (supposedly) dating Kate Upton, has yet to surpass an age 30 Jon Matlack. While I’ll be the first to admit that one-size-fits-all metrics are to be taken with a truckload of rock salt, there has to be something to that. Jon Matlack was too good to be forgotten.