Coaching college students in a dimly lit field house in the Midwest was not how Matt White had planned to spend his springs.
If things had gone differently, perhaps White would have helped the Tampa Bay Rays to their 2008 World Series appearance.
Instead, shoulder injuries, three surgeries and a 15 mph drop in White’s fastball led him to seek a different career path — one that found him as the pitching coach for the Michigan baseball team.
When the Wolverines dropped former pitching coach Bob Keller at the conclusion of the 2010 season, few candidates had a better resume than White.
Named USA Today’s Baseball Player of the Year at Waynesboro Area High School (Pa.), White was selected seventh in the 1996 Major League Baseball draft ahead of names such as Jimmy Rollins, Roy Oswalt, Travis Hafner and Barry Zito. White bypassed a scholarship to play at Georgia Tech for coach Danny Hall — who formerly coached at Michigan — and instead chose to pursue a professional career.
Though he was chosen by the Giants, agent Scott Boras finagled a way to get White to sign with Tampa Bay. As White ascended through the Rays’ organization, he earned a spot in the 1999 Futures Game, was named the top-Tampa Bay prospect from 1997-99 and even went to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics.
But before the preliminary games for the Olympics, White’s major league prospects went into a downward spiral as a result of a shoulder injury. Slated to be the Devil Rays’ No. 3 pitcher, White couldn’t pitch in 2001. The next five years, White was constantly rehabbing his arm and struggled to regain his velocity which once reached 97 mph.
In 2006, White retired from professional baseball after seeing his fastball drop to 82 mph.
“I knew that I would never play in the big leagues,” White said about trying to rehab from his third shoulder surgery. “I was kind of caught in-between like a lot of guys that I talked to that get to the end of their career. It is a bit of a grind. Going through rehab is very difficult on your family, your psyche and your body.”
At this point, White wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his career — only that he wanted to go to college and get his degree to keep his options open.
As he took classes at University of Georgia, he had his first foray into coaching.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a coach at first,” White said. “I started coaching at a local high school. I felt the passion for it. I felt like it was something for me.”
White helped himself immensely by staying in good graces with the Georgia Tech baseball team. Even after he spurned the Yellow Jackets for the pros, White continued to stay in contact with Hall, remained involved with the program and even gave money to the team.
This opened the door for him to the Yellow Jackets in 2008 as a volunteer coach. White commuted two hours between Atlanta and Athens so that he could get his degree in Forestry while coaching.
After spending three years with Georgia Tech, White saw an opportunity after the 2010 season when Michigan was looking for a pitching coach.
“I was looking for someone who, if I’m a recruit, I would want to pitch under,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “Matt White was a first-round draft pick and he had played nine years in the minors, which are all important for a young kid who wants to be tutored by that.”
With the help of a strong recommendation from Hall, Michigan chose White as its next pitching coach.
“For him to put himself out there for me, that was a great honor,” White said. “I’m working hard to uphold that standard.”
In his first year, White has put a strong emphasis on the mental aspect of pitching.
Readings and workbook activities might sound like things the Michigan pitchers do when they’re away from the sport. Yet it’s just one of the handful of ways White tries to make them better players.
“He really helped me get confidence and give me the mental approach a pitcher should have,” redshirt sophomore righthander Tyler Mills said. “He really honed up everyone’s mental skills more than anything.”
White’s psychological preparation includes assigning readings from the recently-deceased Harvey Dorfman, like “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching.” He has also delved into the work of Sacramento City Community College’s Andy McKay.
“It’s something that’s not touched on very much, but it’s a big part of separating yourself to be a better player,” White said.
Preparation, however, can only help so much. At the end of the day, the pitchers have to be effective on game day. Michigan’s staff has struggled so far this season on its way to a 2-9 start. The team’s ERA is 6.54 and opponents are hitting .331.
These struggles have made White’s job harder. White places an emphasis on getting pitchers into a routine and having a regular throwing program, but that has been difficult given the team’s struggles. Short outings from starters have forced extra work on the bullpen and the Wolverines haven’t gotten into a steady pitching rotation.
On top of this, White is also trying to get the top-high school players in the country to come to Michigan, as he has been heavily involved in the program’s recruiting.
“It is quite a bit to handle as far as recruiting and keeping up with 19 pitchers,” White said after practice on Tuesday. “I had six guys throw bullpens today and I had six different charts and I had all six guys doing something different. So the planning that goes into that on a daily basis is a lot.
“To get these guys to get better and to get the most out of their talent, it does take a lot of time and you’ve got to be willing to put that time in.”
It makes sense that White puts such a value on the mental aspect of pitching, as he has had to adjust from performing the physical aspect of pitching, to grasping the cerebral aspect.
During an early-season indoor practice, the fastball hits the catcher’s glove and echoes through Oosterbaan Fieldhouse. And although he isn’t producing that familiar sound, Matt White has embraced his new profession — evaluating that pitch. Instead of being a major league pitcher, he can help develop one.
“On his journey, he’s going to be learning too,” Maloney said. “Even though he has a wealth of experience, this level is a little bit different from what he’s been accustomed to. That’s part of the growing curve. I think he’s going to do a great job.”