When the 2020 baseball season finally begins, Matt Blake ’07 will put on the most famous uniform in sports history, the white, pinstriped pants and shirt with the interlocking, navy blue NY over the heart. It is the uniform worn by the New York Yankees for 108 years, the same one used by Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter.
At different times this season, Blake will step out of the Yankees dugout and trot to the pitcher’s mound, a destination that could scarcely have been predicted for someone possessing degrees in psychology and philosophy from Holy Cross. Yet, there he will be, the new pitching coach for the New York Yankees, discussing strategy with some of the best pitchers in baseball in one of the most revered sporting venues in the world.
His path to Yankee Stadium was not traditional; coaches at that level are almost always former professional players, although Blake did play four years of varsity baseball at Holy Cross. Neither all-star nor benchwarmer, he has combined that athletic experience with the skills and inspiration he acquired in the classroom to become a trailblazer in his field, a coveted asset by one of the biggest brands in sports. Incredibly, it was only five years ago that he was coaching high school baseball in Massachusetts.
His degrees are not usually associated with coaching, and when people discover that Blake studied psychology and philosophy, they are almost always surprised. Blake has a ready answer. “When people ask, ‘Do you use this? Do you use your education at all?’ I say, ‘Only every day.’ I deal with humans every day trying to solve problems,” he says. “I have a really strong foundation in decision making, trying to understand problems.”
Even his parents, Carroll and Terry, had initial questions about his major: “My career was in mechanical engineering, so that’s what I went to college for,” Carroll Blake says. “My wife went to school for business and finance. Both of those courses of study lead to a career path in the professional world. Here we are, I’m an engineer, my wife is a business major, and we have this child who wants to major in psych and minor in philosophy. Where the hell did this kid come from?”
Blake clearly remembers a course he took in his early years on campus, Human Nature, Ethics and Society, taught by Professor Mark Thurman. The subject matter and class discussion struck a chord.
“When I got to Holy Cross, I obviously didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wasn’t really that interested in finance, accounting, economics; that just wasn’t the way my brain was wired to focus. Psychology, sociology, philosophy courses resonated a little bit more for me because of the conversation, the dialogue we were having in those classes.”
For Thurman, it all makes sense; he’s not that surprised to see that his former student utilizes the foundations laid in those courses. “The kind of skills that one develops in the kind of courses that Matt took are really richly transportable,” Thurman says. “They may not appear to be. Some people might say, ‘Gee, a course of that sort sounds kind of abstract. What does that have to do with concrete reality in real lives?’ I think they have lots to do with it.”
On the baseball field, Blake was used mostly as a relief pitcher, a crafty lefty who had excellent control, says his former Holy Cross coach, Craig Najarian. Najarian also remembers Blake being invested in learning about the nuances of coaching, asking questions about strategy decisions.
After graduation, Blake first tried a sales job in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire, and also began a somewhat informal business of pitching instruction on the weekends. In his mind, an internal game of tug-of-war had begun.
“I was doing the sales job and I was basically building up this private pitching instruction business on the weekends,” he says. “I would be sitting at my desk wondering how am I going to do this for 40 more years?”
His initial foray into coaching came with his father when they coached a group of Concord 15-year-olds to a championship. “It was magical,” Carroll Blake says.
In addition to his private instruction business, Blake started coaching pitchers at Massachusetts’ Lincoln- Sudbury Regional High School and the New England Roughnecks, an amateur team. Through a mutual friend, he soon partnered with Eric Cressey, who ran a high-performance training business in Hudson, Massachusetts. He became Cressey Sports Performance Center’s pitching expert and, not long after, his students emerged as some of the best professional prospects in New England.
That’s when the Yankees first noticed Blake. New England area scout Matt Hyde realized some of the pitchers he considered pro material had been coached by Blake. Hyde and the Yankees gave Blake his first job with a professional team and he assisted Hyde in conducting tryouts and evaluating amateur players.
At this time, Blake began developing the use of video into his coaching.
“I knew there were things I wanted that I didn’t have as a player, just learning about mechanics and how the body is supposed to work,” he says. “I did a lot of research.”
Pitchers who trained under Blake at Cressey became some of the most successful in New England. The Yankees benefitted, drafting several of them, and the Cleveland Indians noticed, too, when one of their pitchers, Cory Kluber, trained at Cressey. The Indians were the first to offer Blake a full-time job in professional baseball. He was named the Indians director of pitching development and was fairly quickly promoted to assistant director of player development, overseeing the development of pitching strategy for the organization.
With the Indians, Blake was able to fully fuse the use of video with the analytical research that’s available in abundance to major league teams.
“I was learning more about the body and what it was supposed to move like in a holistic, universal sense,” Blake says. “Then, how do we train it? What does that mean with the throwing motion? I was doing a lot of video analysis on my own, watching deliveries and learning more about them. I was probably on the front end with the high-speed cameras coming, the utilization of the computer to help do this.
“I was one of the first who had an understanding of anatomy, kinesiology, because of working with the Cressey guys, and I was technologically approaching it with the computer. That was the backbone of what my instruction was. When I got to Cleveland, it just continued to build with more analytical information on what a performance should look like.”
His reputation grew among pitchers and Major League Baseball decision makers. When he was named Yankees’ pitching coach in November 2019, Trevor Bauer, a former Indians pitcher now with the Cincinnati Reds, quickly took to Twitter to praise him: “He’s awesome. One of the smarter guys I know. Knows a lot about pitching. A lot about development. Good communicator. Really excited for him getting this opportunity and pumped to see the results.”
Bauer’s tweet speaks to the reputation Blake had developed, and it intrigued Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman.
“He’s got an extensive knowledge of pitching,” Cashman told the press after making the hire. “The way he communicated resonated with me. … At pencils down (after the interview), I was, like, ‘I think this is the guy.'”
Blake will be a guy under pressure this season. He will be held accountable for the inevitable ups and downs that are certain to occur in a six-month-plus season of 162 games.
“Anytime you move into a new role, especially this, which is probably as great as a role you could pick for a pitching coach, it’s in the spotlight. You actually question yourself, ‘Am I ready for this role?'” Blake says. “But, like with anything, I’ve prepared myself by doing all these other things … The more you get into the process, the less nervous you are about it; you’re focused on the work at that point. I feel really good about our situation right now. Every time we get to a new point in the season, whether it’s spring training, opening day, playoff stretch, you’re going to encounter a new level of anxiousness, but it’s part of the gig.”
As he deals with the different personalities, the criticism and the credit and the glaring spotlight of attention that New York provides, he’ll continue to reach back to his time at Holy Cross, knowing that the lessons he learned there have helped him attain what he has.
“I think the psychology degree and the courses I took, the philosophy degree and the courses I took, gave me a good way to interpret the information in front of me,” Blake says. “To make good use of decision-making processes, to hopefully make better decisions as you get more information, whether it’s dealing with people and different group dynamics or zeroing in on a specific problem. I think it gave me a well-rounded arsenal of skills to attack the modern society. It just happens to be baseball-focused.”
Written by Joseph Sullivan for the Spring 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
Editor’s note: As of press time, Major League Baseball has delayed the start of the 2020 season indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.
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