Establishing a legacy takes a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears filled with long days and more prolonged nights. A greater challenge for any person is valiantly attempting to follow in their father’s footsteps, trying desperately to recreate a path blazed in the past with endless pressure and countless expectations. The questions about lineage and background become overwhelming and at some point, creating distance from that trail seems most apt to take the next step in development. Boston Red Sox prospect Tate Matheny, the eldest son of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, faces this obstacle on a daily basis as his name and pedigree create inevitable comparison.
Growing up in St. Louis where his dad spent five seasons as a big league catcher, Matheny experienced the life of a major league player, toiling in clubhouses and gaining invaluable experience for his future. With his dad constantly on the road, Matheny developed the skills expected of a leader, assisting his four younger siblings. At Westminster Christian High School in St. Louis, Matheny played for assistant coach Andy Benes, a former Cardinals pitcher and teammate of his father. Matheny responded nicely during his senior season, batting a robust .412, with a school record of 11 home runs. Matheny’s success at Westminster led to the Cardinals selecting him in the 23rd round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Believing there was more work needed to be done to refine his game, Matheny chose to attend Missouri State University and proceeded to hit to a slash line of .336/.396/.459 in his freshman year. After striking out 47 times in 229 at bats, Matheny decided to improve his plate discipline entering his sophomore year, and while his batting average dropped six points, his on-base percentage jumped to .421 and his slugging percentage reached the .528 mark. His banner season earned him USA Baseball Collegiate National team honors along with the Willis Award, as MSU’s most valuable player. Matheny’s adjustments forced pitchers to take away the inside part of the plate, leading to a greater number of walks and being hit by pitches at a greater clip in his junior season. Matheny’s team would fall one game short of the College World Series in 2015, but the adjustments made to reach that plateau led to a fourth-round selection by the Boston Red Sox in the June draft, affording him the chance to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow. Matheny recently spoke with Baseball Essential about his first professional season with the Lowell Spinners and the hurdles he faces living up to his namesake.
BASEBALL ESSENTIAL: As many people are aware, you are the son of St. Louis Cardinals manager and former catcher Mike Matheny. Did having the opportunity to visit big league clubhouses and be around the game as a kid help serve as an invaluable learning tool that most players never have?
TATE MATHENY: “Yeah, absolutely. I got to go down to the stadium a lot with my dad as a kid growing up. Not a lot of kids get to do that and like you said, it is invaluable.”
BBE: Your toughest challenge in your professional career is being able to escape your father’s shadow. What obstacles does a player face when they come from a background like this?
TM: “For me it is not necessarily anything. My dad does not put any pressure on me at. He just wants me to go out there and have fun every day. I think [other] guys whose dads have played in the big leagues may feel that pressure, but I don’t. I just come out every day and want to have fun and do whatever I can do to help the team win.”
BBE: After being drafted by the Cardinals in the 23rd round out of high school, you attended Missouri State and as a freshman hit .336 but struck out 47 times in 229 ABs. The next season you hit for the same average but cut down those strikeouts. What adjustments did you make to become a more complete hitter?
TM: “I started to narrow down my strike zone to pitches I wanted to hit and I think it was a big benefit. Not chasing pitches out of the zone. Just trying to get my pitch and just drive it and it really paid off for me.”
BBE: In your junior season at Missouri State, hitters began to pound pitches on the inner half of the plate, resulting in getting hit a number of times, but you still finished with a .428 average. What does a hitter need to do to be able to turn on the inside pitch, knowing its speed and velocity?
TM: “You just need to be ready for it. If that is what you are looking for, a pitch on the inner half, you must be ready to get the hands out inside the ball and keep the barrel out and really drive the ball.”
TM: “Benintendi has been big for us this year. You saw him hit a home run. Cosart’s been throwing the ball well lately. These guys are great. They are going to continue to mature as players and continue to fine tune their game and see them keep getting better and better every year.”
BBE: Growing up in Chesterfield Missouri, you the eldest child in a family of five kids, all of whom around the same age, were you able to develop the leadership skills you have today from being in that situation?
TM: “Yeah, absolutely. I have three little brothers and my sister. With my dad being gone a lot as a kid, my leadership skills were definitely put into practice there, especially when I got older and my dad left again to go manage. I don’t know how much it helped or anything, but I am sure it was a little bit of a help.”
BBE: At Westminster Christian Academy High School in St. Louis you played for former major league pitcher Andy Benes. How much of an influence was he on your baseball career and did you have any tutelage from others with big league pedigree?
TM: “I got to learn from guys on my dad’s team. Guys like Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay. Definitely guys who have helped me develop where I was before I came here. Picking their brains about what minor league life is like and the things to get through it. They are all really nice. They are great guys. They have helped me a lot.”
BBE: As a kid you also developed a deep love of hockey. Where did the passion for the sport develop and did you ever envision yourself playing hockey on a professional stage instead of baseball?
TM: “Yeah, I think it came from when I was a kid. My grandparents had season tickets to Blues games. I just fell in love with it. I taught myself to skate when I was four and yeah I actually quit baseball my junior year of high school to play hockey. That’s where I thought my best chance was to make it to the professional level, but I just stuck with baseball for a while longer and here I am now, but I love hockey very much. It is probably not my first love but my second one and I really enjoyed playing it.”
Comprised of over twelve hundred potential prospects in a pool of thousands, the Major League Baseball draft is one of the most difficult to accurately evaluate players for a myriad of reasons. Signability, injuries, and diminished performance are all significant risks teams must absorb when determining possible selections. These factors result in uncertain projections and in some cases, colossal gambles. Being able to take a player with family lineage in the game creates more certainty and becomes a much safer pick.
As the son of a former major league catcher and current manager, Tate Matheny has a background few players can even dream about. The energy, leadership, and deep passion for the game can take him to the highest level as a possible starting outfielder or first man off the bench on any given night.
In an era where analytics, sabermetrics, and endless algorithms evaluate every inevitable situation, intangibles remain an inherent quality desired by managers and coaches. Players like Matheny possess those attributes and attain success far beyond their perceived ability, enabling them to achieve lasting success and forge their own mark within the annals of the game.