WALDORF, Md. — In the late-2000s with the San Diego Padres deep in their Moneyball phase, the Sandy Alderson-led front office drafted one polished college pitcher after another with mediocre fastballs, fleeting breaking stuff and of course the required changeup.
But in 2009 an exception emerged on the horizon, in the form of a 6-foot-6, 210-pound Floridian named Mat Latos, The then 21-year-old arrived in the Majors with a big fastball, a quality slider, and very good changeup – and a reputation of being a little crazy. San Diego had drafted Latos in the 11th round of 2006 and signed him after a year of junior college under the now-gone draft-and-follow rule. The local media instantly saw him as a real-life version of Nuke LaLoosh, the famously wild pitcher from the film Bull Durham with a big fastball who wasn’t sure where the ball was going or what he was saying.
While the narrative was compelling and fun, it was also more of a false parallel. Latos always knew exactly where the ball was going and exactly what he was saying.
“My whole take was that people can say what they want about me, but the biggest thing about me is that I don’t care,” said Latos before a Southern Maryland Blue Crabs games in the independent Atlantic League in mid-September. “They can say whatever they want about me, but who I value is the people who know me and are around me on a daily basis.
“I was 21 and in the big leagues and some things got in my head that shouldn’t have been there. Everyone is different and we all mature at a different pace. A lot of times the environment that you are in is a big factor as well. I’m not saying I was wrong on everything back then or that I am an angel now, but I’m going forward.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done and said plenty of stupid things, but the people that are in my life are the people that I care about. Because I know the type of person that I am and so do they.”
Latos pitched for eight different teams in nine major league season, ending with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017. He made 189 starts and struck out 1,011 batters in 1153.1 innings for a 3.64 ERA. He made over $25 million dollars along the way.
Since 2018 he’s been playing in what MLB now calls “Partner Leagues,” spending the last two seasons as the Blue Crabs’ closer.
“People always ask me why I’d want to go to relief after being a starter my entire career. One of the biggest things is my [left] knee couldn’t take the innings to be a starter. I think that I am so over the top in my throwing motion that I have to get my foot down to go over the top, so I land hard on my landing foot.
“Gradually the swelling just started getting bigger and bigger.”
After moving to the bullpen with the Blue Crabs in 2019, he posted a 1.06 ERA in 51 innings. After 18 months off because of COVID, he posted a 2.98 ERA in 42.1 innings this year to take his two-season save total to 49.
Although it seems like he has been around for a long time, Latos is still only 33 years old and moving to the bullpen seems to have worked.
“The interesting thing is my arm still feels great. Initially, I tried to transition to the bullpen with the Blue Jays, but they weren’t having it.
“Now, it’s what I have been doing since I got here. My knee doesn’t swell up and nothing hurts.”
Depending on who you talked to, Latos was either a difficult or different personality throughout his well-documented major league career, but few ever doubted his raw talent. In 2018, in his first stint in the independent leagues with the New Jersey Jackals of the now defunct Can-Am League, Latos was involved in a major on-field fight which got national attention, but since then things have changed.
What would surprise most people about him now is that he has morphed into a quasi-pitching coach in the later stage of his career.
“I am a player-coach, but so is Mat,” said Daryl Thompson, the Blue Crab’s best starter and the team’s pitching coach. “He works a lot with the younger guys, especially on the days that I am pitching. I don’t know who he was earlier in his career, but I love who he is here.
“Mat and I have both been through it and we are trying to teach the guys to be their own pitching coaches. This year, I’ve taken care of the starters and Mat has had the bullpen. Guys know that I have the last word, but they know they can go to Mat and not feel like they are stepping on anyone’s toes.”
Any discussion with Latos about his mechanics will soon make apparent why he is a resource to young pitchers trying to figure it out. He can break down his pitching mechanics with various checkpoints based on feel, and his performance backs up what he’s saying. He’s walked 23 batters in 93.1 innings with the Blue Crabs and averaged less than three free passes a game in nine seasons in the big leagues.
“A lot of times everyone has preconceived notions of who I am,” said Latos on his newfound mentor role. “Daryl was telling me that when I was coming here, they had the ‘Latos Meeting,’ and it was how they were going to handle things if something happened. They kind of put it on Daryl to be responsible for me and Daryl said, ‘Mat is going to do what he needs to do,’ and then he came over to me and he saw how I was, and he let me take control of the bullpen.
“I told him that if he worried about the starters, I could handle the bullpen and he just needed to let me know who he needed to get into the game. Daryl loved it because he thought I was doing the right thing because I was taking care of business on the mound, but also on the field. I was available to all of our guys to work on anything.”
The salaries in the Atlantic League are not great, and by most accounts, Latos is not hurting financially and has a successful custom car business in the offseason, but as someone who grew up with the game, it still has a pull.
“Baseball is something that I really enjoy but right now it’s more like a hobby that I really enjoy instead of a way of life as it was before.”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want one more opportunity at the major league level for a type of “closure” or as Latos laughed “clarification” before hanging up his spikes.
“I would love to be in the big leagues out of the bullpen just to see,” said Latos when asked where he sees his future. “Because I have watched so much baseball and seen some of these kids because they throw 94-98 [mph] because it seems like they are just trying to blow it by everyone instead of pitching and trying to set hitters up.
“I think everyone would want to take advantage of that. I do know in 2019 if you had taken me out of here and put me in a bullpen, I would have gotten outs. I felt everything was great. I had a sub 1.00 ERA for nearly the entire year.
“I have to see how I feel at the end of the year to know if I still want to play. I thought about this being my last year and just concentrating on the business, but with the way that I have been throwing the baseball and how everything feels – I’m just enjoying it after not playing for 18 months.”
One person who definitely sees Latos as belonging back in the major leagues is his teammate and pitching coach.
“Yes, I said the same thing in ’19,” smiled Thompson. “He finished the year throwing 96 [mph] and didn’t give up a run in the second half of the season. He’s about the same this year and my question to all the major league clubs is what are you waiting for?”