Very few pitchers ever recover from the yips or at least make it back to the majors. But despite a five-year absence from pitching in the bigs, 29-year-old lefty Tyler Matzek not only rebounded from his severe stint of performance anxiety but this season, he’s been the Braves best reliever.
The Braves signed Matzek — a former 11th overall pick by the Rockies in 2009 — to a minor league contract last August, just a few months after his release from the D’Backs organization, where he appeared in just three games for their Double-A Jackson team. Once with the Braves, Matzek pitched a game in Double-A Mississippi before finishing up the campaign with five games in Triple-A Gwinnett, where he allowed ten runs in ten innings (though, he struck out 13 batters in that span). Altogether, Matzek’s 2019 season was rather underwhelming. Across nine relief appearances and 15 innings, he posted a bloated 7.20 ERA while finishing up with 21 strikeouts and ten walks.
However, as the Braves entered the offseason and Spring Training came back around, Matzek at least had a potential redemption story going for him. As a former first-round selection in the MLB draft, but with very little to show for since his 2014 season in Colorado, Sports Illustrated’s Bill Shanks authored a profile piece on Matzek this past May, titled Could Tyler Matzek be an option for the Braves?
Here’s how Shanks’ spring write-up ended…
“When baseball resumes, it’ll be interesting to see if the Braves give Matzek another chance. He looked like someone who had found himself, and there’s a reason he was the 11 pick in the first round of the amateur draft 11 years ago.”
Good call, Bill, because the Braves did give Matzek another chance, and the veteran definitely made the most of it.
Cranking up the heat in 2020
Last Friday, when I wrote about the excellence of the Braves’ bullpen this season, I kicked things off by detailing Matzek’s changes to his pitch-mix:
“So far in 2020, the 29-year-old Matzek got completely rid of his changeup and is throwing his 94-mph four-seam fastball over 67% of the time, which is more than twice as much as he did during his last big league season — all the way back in 2015 with the Rockies. And the drastic change is paying off as Matzek’s heater is currently holding opposing batters to just a. 203 AVG and even lower .168 expected AVG. The 29-year-old — and former 11th-overall pick (2009 draft) — is easily having the year of his life as a pro pitcher.”
Trashing that changeup — a pitch he threw at a rate of over 20% while with Colorado in 2015, though only used against right-handed batters — has been a blessing for Matzek this season as he’s replaced his offspeed offering with a newly-developed cutter. However, the lefty didn’t just remove his offspeed offering; he also doubled the usage of his four-seamer and halved the rate in which he throws his slider, which has allowed him to feature what it is that got him drafted so high out of high school 11 years ago: his velocity.
Matzek added two ticks to his heater in 2020 (92.3 mph up to 94.3), including roughly four inches less of drop between the time the pitch leaves his hand to when it crosses home plate, thanks to a 300-RPM increase in spin-rate. If not for a bit of batted-ball luck, Matzek would’ve held opposing batters to a sub-.200 AVG with the pitch this season — managing an expected-AVG of .171 — though he’ll have to settle for an actual .225 AVG.
His two breaking balls went through an overhaul as well as Matzek has added more vertical break and horizontal sweep to both pitches. His curveball, which he’ll mostly throw against right-handed batters, has allowed a .167 AVG during the regular season, while his slider a .240 AVG.
And then that brand new cutter has just been icing on the cake, given Matzek hasn’t allowed a single hit when throwing the pitch this year (batters went 0 for 7). Adding that cut-fastball not only made him a better pitcher, but by exchanging his changeup for it (a pitch he only threw to RHB), he now has a much more diverse offering in terms of battling both righties AND lefties.
Matzek now has four strong pitches in his repertoire, and according to FanGraphs’ Pitch Value, all of them rated positively in 2020, including the eighth-highest rated fastball in the National League.
But it’s the results that have made the biggest difference. In a bullpen featuring high-dollar relievers like Will Smith and Mark Melancon, it’s Matzek — who will earn $208,704 in 2020 — that has been the most effective.
From out of the game to one of the NL’s best
With the score locked up at zero in the 11th inning of the Braves/Reds game on Wednesday, Matzek replaced Darren O’Day with the bases loaded and two outs. He swiftly struck out Cincy’s Mike Moustakas to end the threat, before getting out of his own jam in the 12th when he punched out three-straight batters (after allowing back-to-back singles to begin the frame). It was a huge 1.1-innings of work for Matzek, though it’s essentially what he’s done all season.
Check out several rate stats he wound up finishing within the NL’s top-ten in during the 2020 campaign:
- 0.8 WAR (t-4th)
- 1.92 FIP (5th)
- 4.3% HR/FB (t-3rd)
- 0.31 HR/9 (2nd)
- 13.34 K/9 (9th)
- 29.0 IP (2nd)
- 25.8% Hard% (7th)
Those kinds of numbers are a far cry from what Matzek put together as a left-handed starter with the Rockies in 2014 (his most-recent full major league season) when he struck out just under seven batters per nine and maintained a 4.05 ERA. And it was difficult to expect that he’d ever improve on that performance, either, given Matzek’s final big league game came in just his fifth outing of the 2015 season, featuring an early-May start that ended with him lasting just two innings against the D’Backs; a demotion to the minors following that 58-pitch start, involving 17 earned runs over 13.2 innings to end the season, which didn’t allow Matzek another chance in the majors.
By 2017, at the age of 26, the 6-foot-3 pitcher was even considering quitting baseball altogether. For his sake and for the Braves, though, thank goodness he didn’t. Per FanGraphs WAR, Matzek put together the fourth-best season by a relief pitcher in 2020. Now that’s a helluva comeback story.