April 20, 2024

Breaking the Mold: Matt Tabor's Return to Form Beyond Conventional Training

By Mason Feole

In August of 2023, I received an unsuspecting inquiry from Matt Tabor.

He had surgery to repair a torn UCL that past spring, and needed to build a foundation for 3 months so that he could more easily bring on his onramp process. He wanted to do his foundation building with me, but he had a specific goal in mind; return to his old high-school self.

Matt was a 3rd round draft pick in the 2017 draft. He was a can’t-miss high school prospect from Milton, Massachusetts and he played a role in paving the way for the credibility of scouting the Northeast in the latter part of the 2010s. During the time he was drafted, I remember hearing the stories of just how good he was from mutual friends and teammates. He was GOOD. Up to 97 with a true carry four-seam, excellent feel for competition, and competed in the strike zone. He was a no brainer for the Diamondbacks to take a chance on. However, through a few years in the organization, Matt’s stuff quality was just not the same. He bounced around to a few different training sources, made changes, but never seemed to stick to anything. His largest progression came during the year before his elbow surgery.

Almost a year to the date of overcoming thoracic outlet surgery and dominating his rehab process, changing his arm slot and arsenal as a result. He was metrically much better, but unfortunately needed a second Tommy John Surgery at the end of Spring Training 2023.

The second surgery in 2 years gave Matt a second chance to step back, evaluate and make changes. He spent the better part of 2023-2024 making those changes, as we started in August from the ground up.

The first order of business was creating a rudimentary understanding of how the arm actually moves within the throw. Early on, as seen with most rehab throwers, specifically the elbow, his throw presented in very protective and guarding patterns. These patterns showed signs of a lower elbow through release with the arm being out of the shoulder plane of rotation, a “dart forward” motion and tricep dominant path, as well as an exaggerated flip up that forced his arm to be outside of 90 degrees and drag through the launch phase.

For the first 3 months, Matt performed a variety of drills and constraints that isolated his torso in order for him to learn how to allow the arm to unwind correctly again. Since the goal was to return to his former HS abilities, we patterned his throwing with drills that promoted side bend and those that created a late launch from a non-force flip up that was primed to be more dependent on the turn of his torso, rather than the arm itself. Part of this was getting Matt be more aware of what the glove arm was doing in the throw. By doing this, the goal was to get Matt to be able to own and hold more internal rotation on his glove side to allow rotation to be delayed slightly, giving his arm more time to relax deeper into more natural external rotation rather than forcing it into layback. We used pre-set front arm constraints, variations of plyos weights in the glove, and overloading/underloading the plyos in order to create more awareness for the path.

After three months of revamping basically just the upper half of the throw, Matt decided to stay on board to continue his progression and build up. The next step was learning how to associate the lower half with the upper half more efficiently.

During the beginning stages of the onramp, Matt was able to clean up how his back hip was operating. Rather than extending or trying to create force by pushing the ground away, he was able to feel the difference in allowing leg lift to drop him into the load and allow his back hip to hold external rotation, delaying the pelvis until it was time for internal rotation to take over and clear. Early on, long toss became a great tool to feel and build the ability to do this.

At around the 10 month post operation mark, Matt was further into his mound progression and began the challenge to transfer the new foundations of his throw to the slope at higher intensities. His initial pens were thrown and operated anywhere from the mid to high 80s, but generally upper 80mph range. This was a telling sign, as information that told us the throw at its current state was producing the same outcome as almost every year of his professional career.

That month, he hit 90 mph for the first time. and at the end of that month he was up to 93 mph, sitting in the low 90s. The hardest throwing bullpen of his professional career! However, like many return to throw programs and build ups, he plateaued and started to slightly regress. It wasn’t that Matt started to stray slightly away from the plan in place, but that the end goal seemed much closer than it was for him causing him to push for more a bit earlier than we needed him to. This forced him to try to create more velocity by doing a lot more from a movement perspective, moving faster, creating more of a countermove, forcing the arm into a deeper flip rather than allowing it to be a passive set-up from rotation. He also lacked any ability to create a stop and set up the upper half to “slingshot” forward.

The turning point came with us hashing it out together in person right about at his 11 month mark. A few players had visited Raleigh, North Carolina before heading down to their respective camps for Spring Training. Up to this session Matt had struggled to refind the 91-93 mph range. During this session there was a small bit of frustration built up due to this, but it was also a reminder that the return to throw and rehab process is nothing close to a linear process. Matt was failing to break 90 mph, so we took a step back and rewired the objective. Matt was struggling to control his center of mass during the linear move. He was doing a fine job creating momentum and being athletic down the slope, but he was failing to hold a stack of his ribs and pelvis, and was forcing the torso forward. Essentially, he was trying to create power and energy by working against himself and the real forces at play. Instead, the goal was changed to slightly shortening his stride length, or what he perceived as his stride length in order to set up the pelvis at a more efficient spot once he landed into front foot strike. The slightly altered angle of his front leg allowed him to feel a launch of the torso being the lead leg that allowed him to use the lead leg block, rather than just fake it. From there, we saw the 90s at a far lower intent.

The next step from here was redirecting the direction of energy created by his rotation. Matt had a tendency to get very east-to-west within his rotation. The throw consists of sending energy and force through all planes of movement. All phases of the throw need to all be somewhat effective and efficient in order for peak output to be available. A week later, we changed his constraints to model more of a pull through the sagittal plane. He worked aggressively to understand how to use his rib cage in both flexion and extension.

From there, we cleaned up his workload. Matt committed to making sure that he was not over doing it on days that he needed recovery the most. He was consistently burning through his training taxes, causing him to recover poorly. We shifted to an approach that planned out when his high intensity days would need to be and when he needed to respect the recovery day. This proved to be highly beneficial for him.

The next segment of the jump came from further cleaning up the upper half. The first part was Matt learning to hold his rib cage into flexion longer during the linear move. Matt had always favored shooting straight into extension, forcing himself to open early and leave the arm exposed to drag through into launch. We used a few different javelin feels and rolling variation to create awareness of a more passive arm while holding that flexion. Early on, Matt wanted to cheat it by creating a false forward lean. We reworked the understanding through various mobility work that taught him how to hold a more true positioning.

It “clicked'' during a FaceTime session. Matt and I got together to throw over a FaceTime call, and the focus was on feeling a more passive and relaxed unwind of the arm, driven by rotation of the pelvis. This was aided by Matt’s linear move, setting him up at foot strike to basically do nothing other than allow physics to work. He hit 88 mph on flatground, a PR that fired us both up to say the least. From there, it was a high rise to 95mph.

The next week, he got an opportunity to throw live. In his first live he sat 91-93 mph again. In the next game, he was 92-93 mph and topped 94 mph. The following live, he was 93-94 mph and topped 95 mph for the first time since 2017. The next high intent session was a bullpen that he worked up to 95 mph in. He was BACK.

During this time, Matt was also able to showcase elite stuff. He got his heater back above 19” of vertical movement. Displayed a cutter that breaks stuff models. A plus change up. We also added a curveball that Matt was able to learn fairly quickly to add to the effectiveness of his refound north to south arsenal base. His arsenal is now far more reflective of the one that opened the door to him becoming a million dollar draft pick that the Diamondbacks projected to be a front end of the rotation type arm.

For as much work as Matt did on the physical side, he was sure to work on the mental side. As many understand, myself included, the purgatory that being a released minor league free agent is a type of lifestyle that is not for the faint-hearted or weak. There are daily demons and thoughts that will occur daily, especially for those who are deemed “injured” or past their opportunity. Matt and I spent plenty of hours hashing out the what-ifs, the maybes and discussing all the paths and scenarios. I challenged Matt daily to change his thought processes, to be kinder to himself, and to enjoy the process even though it was difficult. He worked hard to trust certain processes, and to give up the idea that he had to control things outside of his control. Along the way, he had to mature and learn from his past attitudes and processes.

Matt never gave in during the process. I have never seen a player more eager to prove that he belonged back in professional baseball. He put himself out there, did the work, sent out emails and texts, showed out loud belief in himself and his ability, something that many lacked, and made sure they knew he was still good enough and he still wanted the chance to become a Major League player.

In August, I promised him that we would do everything we could to get him back to similar movement and stuff profiles that he showcased as a high school can’t-miss prospect that were lost during his first stint in pro-ball. He has done just that. The famous Boston writer and analyst, Peter Gammons said it best in his recent post, “Post-op, his delivery and velocity returned, the Mariners signed him Monday for their kind of strike-throwing stuff and today he had on their "Dominate the Strike Zone" shirt”. https://x.com/pgammo/status/1775266380922892539

Over the past year, he’s gotten his fastball back to 95 mph, developed a more effective north-south arsenal, created a better system for recovery and improved his throw dramatically.

Matt allowed himself to take his hands off of the wheel and trust a process that he wasn’t always comfortable with. He pushed himself daily to trust that certain things would work even when he did not see immediate results. He escaped the fixed mindsets that were holding him back and forcing him to search for click moments.

As a result, he was able to progress through his rehab and return to throw. Matt dominated his mound progression, built better pen velocity than he ever had with the D-Backs, and threw harder in bullpens and live sessions than any outing in his already successful pro career. Now, he’s got a fresh start and a chance to be the player he can be with Seattle.

I couldn’t be more appreciative and proud of the work he has put in. From driving 3 hours to throw in person, to FaceTime calls, to long conversations about what’s next and what to do on and off the field. The process has been hectic, crazy and fulfilling. And if you know Matt, there has never been a dull moment.

Matt has earned this opportunity.

If you're ready to break out of the conventional training methods and reinvent yourself, reach out to training@connected-performance.com today.

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