By Kevin Glew
Canadian Baseball Network
He’s far and away the most successful Canadian to pitch in Japanese professional baseball.
For six seasons, hard-throwing Vancouver native Scott Mathieson has been conquering Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) batters for the storied Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s version of the New York Yankees.
Since heading to Japan in 2012, the 33-year-old right-hander, whose fastball still registers in the high-90s, has posted a 2.30 ERA, averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and has set the NPB record for most holds by a foreign player.
Last season after registering a 2.24 ERA and striking out 79 batters in 68 1/3 innings, he was named the Canadian Baseball Network’s Pitcher of the Year in the foreign or independent ranks.
So, with a resume like this, why isn't he pitching in a major league bullpen?
“This past year [after the 2017 season] I was set on coming back. I had multiple major league offers to come back and when I left last year, I packed everything. I didn’t leave anything in Japan, it was the first time I brought everything back over because I thought the Giants were going to be rebuilding,” explained Mathieson, at the press conference prior to the Baseball Canada National Teams Awards Banquet & Fundraiser on January 13. “I was talking to a lot of teams over here and I was set on coming back, but again it came down to financial security and the Giants ended up giving me a two-year deal and they probably paid me a little bit more money than they had to.”
So in November, Mathieson inked a two-year contract with the Giants that will run through the 2019 campaign.
“That should be my last two years of pro ball,” he said. “It’s going to be eight years over there when it’s all said and done and that will be it for me.”
After his contract expires, the 6-foot-3 hurler hopes to pitch for Canada in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“The Olympics are my ultimate goal. It would be great to finish playing for the Canadian Olympic team in Japan. That would be icing on the cake,” said Mathieson.
Becoming a dominant pitcher in Japan is not something that Mathieson would’ve envisioned when he was growing up in Aldergrove, B.C. His father, Doug, is the highly respected general manager of the Langley Blaze, which is recognized as one of the best baseball programs in the country. So Mathieson had excellent coaching and by his teens his powerful right arm was attracting the attention of scouts.
He would toe the rubber for the Canadian Junior National Team in 2001 and 2002, which boosted his profile as a prospect, as well as his confidence.
“Being 17 and going down to Orlando with the junior team and pitching against pro guys when you’re still an amateur, it instilled that confidence in me that ‘I can do this,' that I was the same calibre as those guys,’” said Mathieson.
The Philadelphia Phillies would select the Canuck righty in the 17th round of the 2002 MLB draft. Armed with a fastball that touched 100 mph, he gradually evolved into one of the club’s top prospects.
After going 10-3 with a 3.40 ERA in 19 combined starts between double-A and triple-A to begin 2006, Mathieson was called up to make his major league debut on June 17 against the Tampa Bay Rays. He had a solid outing, allowing four runs and striking out five batters in six innings. Unfortunately, less than three months later, in his ninth big league appearance, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
That would be his first of three major elbow surgeries that would sideline him for the bulk of 2007 and 2008. When he finally returned in 2009, he flourished as a reliever at three minor league levels, posting a 0.84 ERA while fanning 34 in 32 1/3 innings.
In 2010, he served as the closer for the Phillies' triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs and notched 26 saves and a 2.80 ERA in 54 contests and earned a big league call up in September. The following campaign he was used as a reliever and a starter in triple-A and posted a 3.28 ERA in 30 appearances before tossing five scoreless innings for the Phillies in September.
By this time, Mathieson had grown disillusioned with his status in the Phillies organization and after the 2011 season, he was sold to the NPB’s Giants.
“Coming to Japan was a fresh start,” said Mathieson. “I didn’t have to hear about how many surgeries I had. I didn’t have to hear about how I was injured all the time and how I was going to blow out [his throwing elbow]. I was at the point where if I blow out, I blow out. I was going to go out there to pitch because that’s what I love to do.”
And his elbow definitely hasn’t blown out, in fact, it’s proven to be incredibly durable. It has allowed him to average 60 relief appearances a season over the past six years and evolve into one of the NPB’s most reliable relievers. And pitching for the legendary Giants, who he helped win a championship 2012, has also afforded him celebrity status in Japan.
“Half the country loves us and half the country hates us, but Japanese fans are a little different,” said Mathieson, when asked when it was like to play for the Giants. “They’re a little friendlier than they can be over here. We have great fans. We have 50,000 fans a game. I mean, you go there on a Wednesday night and there are 49,000 fans in the seats and they’re always positive. I tell everybody the atmosphere is like in between an American college football game and European soccer. They’re standing and cheering the whole game and there’s a band that plays. There are cheerleaders. It’s a whole event. It’s an entertainment event almost. It’s never quiet. It’s a lot of fun.”
And Giants fans have embraced Mathieson, who’s intense and menacing on the mound, but is likeable and approachable away from the field.
“Last year was the first year that I didn’t hit 100 [mph on the radar gun] since I’ve been in Japan,” said Mathieson. “But I can still hit 98, 99 . . . I’ve always had the speed, but now I have the other stuff. I throw more sliders and splits than I do fastballs.”
Over the years, Mathieson has pitched against Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels on December 9 and is being hailed as the Japanese Babe Ruth. This season Ohtani will attempt to be a starting pitcher and DH for the Angels.
“I pitched against him a few times,” said Mathieson. “He was in the other league, but he’s a special talent and I’m excited to see him over here. I hate how much hype there is about him because he’s still young. I think everyone is expecting him to step up and be a Clayton Kershaw and a Bryce Harper at the same time. There’s going to be an adjustment period for him. And I hope that he’s given the time and he gets to make those adjustments. But he has ton of talent. I mean he hits 450-foot home runs and he throws 102 mph and his fastball is probably his secondary pitch. His slider and his splitter are better than his fastball.”
Ohtani’s depature means one less formidable hitter Mathieson will have to face in what will likely be his second-last professional season. His arm is still strong and he enjoys Japan, but he wants to devote more time to his wife, Jennifer, and their two young children, son, Lane and daughter Brooke who are 5 and 2 respectively.
“My kids are at the age where I feel that as a parent figure you make the biggest impact on their lives. I want to be there for them,” said Mathieson. “I don’t want to be 40 years old and look back and my kids are almost grown and miss all that.”
Mathieson resides in Cal Pasco County, Fla., just north of Tampa Bay, in the off-season, but he hopes to visit Canada more when his pro career is over. He has always been quick to answer the call for his country in international competitions. Not only did he suit up with the Junior National Team, but he’s also toed the rubber for Canada in three World Baseball Classics (2006, 2013, 2017). So it’s fitting that he hopes to finish his career pitching for Canada in the 2020 Olympics.
“Some of the best times I’ve ever had playing baseball have been with the national team,” he said.