Nobody Loves Hitting Like Zack Mathis

LSU's third baseman is the best hitter you've never heard of, until now

by Cody Worsham | Digital Media Reporter
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Nobody Loves Hitting Like Zack Mathis

Zack Mathis practically glides across the smooth, green grass of Alex Box Stadium, his smile bright as the blue sky above him on a perfect spring afternoon. 

A few feet behind, Mathis’ teammates jog in the same direction, but they cannot match his speed or his enthusiasm. They can’t see his smile, either, but they know it’s there, because it always is. 

The guy loves baseball. He especially loves hitting them. And as far as he’s concerned, he’s in baseball heaven. 

“I honestly have never seen him without a smile on his face,” says head coach Paul Mainieri. “He just thinks he died and went to heaven, being here at LSU.”

Mathis, LSU’s junior third baseman and three-hole hitter entering Friday night’s opener against Indiana, is very much alive. In fact, this is as alive he’s ever felt, because everything he’s imagined is taking shape, just as he knew it would. The California kid with a sweet swing and a signature smile is living out a dream he’s held dear since he was six years old in Stockton and fell in love with the art of hitting.

Now, it’s time for LSU fans to fall in love with Mathis, a junior college journeyman with a small frame, a massive, ever-present grin, and a world-class swing; a meditator and visualizer who always saw this coming, even when his sight failed him; a reggae and Red Hot Chili Peppers-loving hitting disciple who learned the power of sacrificing his ego and attaining mental dominance; a complex athlete with a simple passion for hitting baseballs as hard and far as he possibly can. 

And, man, can he hit them far. 

MATHIS HAS BEEN blasting baseballs since he was six and fell in love with it – “it,” in this case, meaning not just baseball, in general, and not even hitting, more specifically. 

To be as precise as possible, Mathis fell head over heels with using a bat to launch balls at maximum distances. Singles up in the middle, ground balls through the hole, even extra base hits in the gap, these were merely acceptable byproducts of a deeper passion for ultimate connection, for the sweetest part of the barrel making perfect contact with the perfect portion of the ball, of creating maximum velocity and ideal trajectory and optimal launch angle. 

After games, he’d pester his father or grandfather to pitch to him. They’d outlast the California sun, Mathis – armed with those juiced, big-barrel bats little leaguers love – blasting line drive after line drive into the sinking sun and beyond the stretching shadows – and well beyond the 200-foot fences. He’d keep swinging until it was too dark to see or until some figure of authority asked them to leave.

“I used to get kicked off the field when I was younger because they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed on the field,'” Mathis says. “I’m like, ‘Why can’t I hit on a baseball field? I can’t play baseball on a baseball field?’ It’s how I’ve always been.

“I would hit for probably two hours, and I would just hit them as far as I could. For whatever reason, I just loved launching balls. I just like to swing the bat.”

The type of ball didn’t matter all that much. At home, he and a neighbor would each grab a bat and a bucket of tennis balls. In the street, they’d self-toss and smash rockets back and forth, like a netless, oversize game of tennis. Other days, they’d put duct tape on the asphalt and play wiffle ball, using the neighborhood homes to tally score. Hit the ball on the first deck of a house? That’s a double. Hit it on the second deck? That’s a homer. 

Good genes helped. Mathis coupled his inherent passion for the art of the dinger with preternatural hand-eye coordination and uncommon flexibility. He had the fearlessness of his father, a firefighter in Stockton and Oakland, and the pliability of his mother, a yoga instructor and masseuse who had her seven-year-old son mastering sun salutations with his siblings. 

By high school, Mathis wasn’t very big, but he could rake, and he worked his tail off. His senior season at Bear Creek High School, he was the lone team captain and a third-team all-state performer and first-team All-Area shortstop, leading his squad to their first league championship in 15 years. 

The scouts and recruiters didn’t notice, for the most part. His lone offer to play in college came from the University of the Pacific. It was like the bigger programs Mathis dreamed of playing for on his way to the Big Leagues couldn’t see him. Meanwhile, he couldn’t see the ball.

“My eyes started going bad,” Mathis says. “I didn’t really know what was going on. I kept swinging and missing, and I’m like, ‘I feel like I don’t swing and miss that much.'”

After graduating high school and spending a semester at Pacific, Mathis knew he wasn’t in the right place. He transferred to San Joaquin Delta College – Delta, for short – and took a year off from baseball, going to class and figuring out his future.

Of course, it would be on a baseball field. He just needed a little time north of the border in an RV – and a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers – to figure it out. 

LIKE MOST BALL players, Mathis is not much of a reader.

But the last book he really dug into changed his life. Something about the autobiography of Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, intrigued him. His mother – from whom Mathis inherited his love for the Red Hot Chili Peppers – didn’t let him read it when he was younger, for obvious reasons. But the summer after his season away from baseball, Mathis was looking for answers. 

He moved to Canada to play in a summer league. He lived in an RV in someone’s backyard. He got glasses, and he read Scar Tissue, cover to cover. On the field, he hit .356 for the Weyburn Beavers, including a .415 average in the playoffs. Off the field, he read, listened to music, and learned the value of not caring about the opinions of others. 

“If people don’t like you for who you are,” Mathis says, “you’re not supposed to be around them anyways.

“That’s when I started to figure out how to do things.”

Mathis returned to the baseball field in his second year of college as a redshirt freshman at Delta. Sporting new glasses, a fresh outlook, and his still-sweet swing, he hit .353 with four homers, 61 RBI, and an OPS near 1.000, drawing the attention of several college coaches.

The final piece of puzzle came the following year, however, when he met Adam Heether. A former Long Beach State standout and 11th round pick in the 2003 draft, Heether befriended – and later worked with – MLB All-Star and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson. Heether had taken up coaching hitters and had worked with one of Mathis’ Delta teammates on his swing, and Mathis, always a student of swings, wanted to pick his brain. 

“I knew exactly what I was trying to do, but I didn’t know how to do it,” Mathis says. “He knew. He was the key to unlocking whatever was in me.”

They talked about swing paths and launch angles, but they talked about confidence, too. About rhythm and tension and frequency and vibrations. It was science and art and mysticism, equal parts physics and metaphysics. 

What Mathis liked most about Heether was that he wasn’t a hitting coach with rigid ideas, a strict adherent to an inflexible system. He took what Mathis was good at and helped him construct his own approach – at the plate, in life.

“I was trying to figure out exactly what my body was doing, the tension level in my body,” Mathis says. “I couldn’t think cookie cutter. I wanted to know exactly what my body was doing.”

They trained just before the start of the 2019 season, and Mathis called the first game of the season “an awakening day.” Something clicked. 

Suddenly, balls were flying off of his bat like never before. His swing oozed confidence. It was quasi-spiritual, supernatural almost. Mathis would visualize something – a towering homer into the woods – and the next day, it would happen. It would keep happening. 

“I absolutely went off,” Mathis says. “I would feel like I wasn’t even swinging, and balls were disappearing into the trees.”

Yes, he had improved physically. He was a bit stronger, and the enhanced vision didn’t hurt at all. But Mathis credits his sophomore surge to his internal work with Heether. He got better in between the ears, and it was paying off at the plate. Heether taught him to think with supreme confidence – “training mental dominance,” they call it. It’s a combination of looseness and joy during preparation, plus extreme focus and undeniable swagger inside the batter’s box. 

I’m the best dude here, the baddest dude in the world – That’s what you have to think,” Mathis says. “I would think that before, and then it would go away,  because I was scared, like, ‘I’m not supposed to think this.’ Adam was like, ‘No, you’re supposed to think like that.’

“It just opened up my mind.”

It opened up his output, too. By season’s end, Mathis would more than double his home run total from the previous year – 4 in 2018 to 10 in 2019 – while elevating his OPS to 1.118, thanks to a .108 increase in his slugging percentage. The scouts took note. Mathis just kept studying. 

“I tried to study the best hitters, what they did with their swing, because there’s a reason they’re the best,” he says. “Then, you tie that to the mental side. And it takes you to a whole different dimension, basically. It’s a certain frequency you can get on. If you’re on this high frequency, you’ll get 100 percent better results, just thinking you’re better. Even guys that would come hit with us, they would show up, and once their mind was unlocked, they just took off.”

Like a ball disappearing into the trees. 

BRIAN WHATLEY WANTS to be clear: Mathis is an athlete. A damn good one, in fact. 

At 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, Mathis may not look the part, but trust Whatley – an assistant coach at Delta and a former catcher for the Long Beach State teams that squared off against Skip Bertman‘s Tigers at the College World Series in the early ’90s – when he says the kid is physically elite.

It’s why, after watching Mathis turn a double play one day last spring, Whatley approached Mathis with an unorthodox offer.

You ever thought about catching? 

To Whatley, a backstop guru who also runs DNA Catching, where he trains the finer points of the position, Mathis was a perfect fit for a catcher’s mitt. As the game moves toward an automated strike zone, Whatley figures, the position will place a premium on catch-throw and hitting over pitch framing.

Mathis could hit – everyone knew that. Whatley thought he could catch, too. 

He was right. 

“He picked it up so dang fast,” Whatley says. “The flexibility and mobility, which is usually the hardest thing to get over with conversion guys, he had no problems. He was phenomenally flexible, had zero hip mobility or ankle mobility issues.”

Thanks, yoga. 

He could sling it, too. A good “pop time” – how long it takes a catcher to throw to second base – is under two seconds. Roberto Perez, the 2019 AL Gold Glove winner, had an average pop time of 1.96 seconds last season for the Cleveland Indians. 

The first time Whatley timed Mathis’ throws from home to second? 1.92 seconds.

“He looked at me, and he goes, ‘I’ve got more in the tank,'” Whatley laughs. 

By day’s end, Mathis was down to 1.81 seconds, which Whatley says would probably translate more to a mid 1.9 in game – “which is pretty phenomenal,” he says. 

So phenomenal, in fact, that the Minnessotta Twins used their 38th round pick last year on Mathis. As a catcher. Who had never actually caught in a game. 

“They fell in love with him,” Whatley says. 

Mathis has no plans to catch this year at LSU. Third base and shortstop are his likeliest spots, though he did offer his services behind the plate to Mainieri, who politely declined, given the Tigers’ abundance of depth ther.e 

Still, it goes to show: Mathis is more than a lethal bat. He’s got quick, slick hands and a big arm. He’s a high IQ defender who takes good angles and knows where to be. He swiped 23 bags in 100 games in junior college and walked more (56) than he struck out (41).

He is – and this is the highest compliment Whatley can think to dole out – “just a baseball player.”

“Zack is one of the lost arts,” Whatley says. “He’s so instinctual. His IQ for baseball is off the charts. Everything comes natural.”

The catching experiment was fun, but Mathis’ swing is what blew the scouts away. BlastMotion, a company that markets a popular swing analysis tool, came out to Delta one day last year and worked with the team. After testing Mathis, their west coast sales rep pulled Whatley aside.

“His analytics were off the chart,” Whatley says. “Rotational acceleration, on plane efficiency, everything was off the chart. Their sales rep was like, ‘Look, I work with a lot of MLB guys. I have never in my years seen these types of numbers, especially on a college kid.'”

Word got out. The day Mathis decommitted from Cal State-Northridge following a coaching staff change, Whatley was on the golf course with Delta’s head coach, Reed Peters. 

They didn’t finish the round. They were too busy answering phone calls. 

“We got phone call after phone call after phone call,” Whatley says. “South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, Oregon offered him as a catcher. We couldn’t get through holes.”

And eventually, LSU called.

It’s coming. 365

A post shared by Zack Mathis (@hackmathis) on Jan 28, 2020 at 8:22pm PST

SOMETIMES,” MAINIERI SAYS, “the best things happen in the wake of disappointing things. It’s just the way life is sometimes.”

When blue-chip signee Christian Cairo left campus after a single day to sign with the Cleveland Indians, Mainieri and recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain had to scramble to find a replacement on the infield. 

As they scoured through their contacts, they got a recommendation from Eric Coleman, the head coach of the Danville Dans in the Prospect League and a keen observer of California junior college baseball: Zack Mathis

They did their research. They saw he was drafted, and they saw his numbers. They scoured video, and it was clear, as Mainieri says, “he always got his money’s worth at the plate.” Eventually, Mainieri called Peters, who had succeeded Mainieri as Air Force’s head coach before moving to Delta.

“Reed had nothing but great things to say about him,” Mainieri says.

Finally, Cain called Mathis. The bad news: when he answered the phone, Mathis was already on a visit to South Carolina, and he had visits to Florida State and Texas Tech already scheduled. The good news: when Mathis realized who was calling, he basically canceled all future plans. 

“Nolan called me and said, ‘You want to come on a visit?'” Mathis remembers. “I’m like, ‘Of course I want to come on a visit.'”

The next week, Mathis came to campus and committed to the Tigers. A few weeks later, he landed in Baton Rouge with one bag and realized, Man, I’m on my own, now. Bear Creek, Pacific, Delta – all were within a few miles of each other. After basically living at home or out of his car for most of his life, he was entering a new world. 

You might call it baseball heaven, where the fields have lights, the cages have no holes, and no one threatens to kick you off the field for playing baseball.

“When I come here,” Mathis says, looking around Alex Box, “it’s like I wake up.”

“He played junior college ball last year, and, it’s not any kind of knock, but they don’t have the resources like we have at LSU,” Mainieri says. “People are taking care of the field for him. He’s used to taking care of the field himself. He gets nice uniforms to wear for practice. He’s hitting white baseballs. He just thinks he died and went to heaven, and he just loves to play. 

“I’ll tell you, LSU fans are gonna fall in love with this kid.”

They’ll love his swing, which impressed Mainieri so much in the fall and through January practices that he inserted Mathis directly into the heart of his lineup. They’ll love his glove – he’ll start the season at third and has worked hard to improve his defense, Mainieri says. 

“When I recruited him, he talked about how much he loved to hit, that he spends every waking possible moment in the batting cages,” Mainieri says. “I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to focus on defense as well.’ And you know, he’s surprised me with his defensive skill. It’s really good. He’s taking a lot of pride in his defense, and there’s not an intrasquad game that goes by where he doesn’t stand out in some way.”

They’ll love his quirkiness – he rocks rec specs and reggae music, meditates and does yoga, and believes fervently in the law of attraction. They’ll love his nickname, Hack, and the way he signs autographs without his last name, like Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist. 

They’ll love his work ethic, too – his hitting coach certainly does. 

Zack Mathis loves to hit,” first year assistant Eddie Smith says.  “He absolutely likes hitting more than anything in the world. And he’s down the cages every night like clockwork. I think that passion that he brings every single day, that confidence that he has, it’s really been contagious for our whole team and I think it’s gonna allow him to be pretty successful here.”

How successful? Whatley wouldn’t put a ceiling on his potential. Not after watching him tear up the Big 8 last year.

“I would not be shocked if he came out of there as an All-American and probably one of the top three to five hitters in all of NCAA baseball,” Whatley says. “That wouldn’t even surprise me one bit. If somebody were to ask me right now who’s the best hitter in baseball, I would say, probably top five, Zack Mathis, and you’ve never heard of him.”

They’ll love his attitude – supremely confident in a game that demands nothing less, but humble enough to listen and appreciate. He loves the art of hitting, which means he respects it. That’s how he knows he’s far from mastered it. 

“He’s better than most hitting coaches that are out there now,” Whatley says. “He probably knows more, but he will always listen. He’ll have you explain the philosophy, and then he’ll ask you, ‘Do you mind if I explain my mental approach or what I’m looking for, what I’m doing?'”

They’ll especially love his gratitude. He plays the game like we would, if we could go back and do it again, for just one day. Just because he always envisioned himself playing on the biggest stage doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful to be there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Mathis believes gratitude for the things you love most keeps them closer to you, makes them stick to you more. 

And he loves nothing more than playing baseball. 

“I’ve really been trying to feel grateful for whatever I’m doing,” Mathis says. “Not a lot of people get to come experience this and experience what I’ve been able to.”

Most of all, they’ll love his love – for the game he plays, and for the craft he aims to perfect. They’ll love his smiles, and they’ll love his hits. 

They’ll get plenty of both this spring. Mathis has already seen it happen, willed it into existence. The balls coming his way have no choice: they’ll fly as far as he wants them to.