Tyler Matzek Is Beating the Yips and NL Hitters

As bullpen cogs go, Tyler Matzek has been an indispensable one for the Braves in each of the past two seasons, helping them win back-to-back NL East titles and get within one win of the World Series — and this time around, perhaps to outdo that. The 31-year-old lefty has become the Braves’ “Everyday Eddie” in October, pitching in all eight of the team’s postseason games thus far and generally dominating. His performance has been all the more impressive given his backstory, an odyssey that took him from being the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2009 to taking leave from the team six years later due to performance anxiety issues to pitching for an indy-league team called the Texas Airhogs before returning to the majors.

So far this October, Matzek has pitched a total of 8.1 innings, nearly all of them high-leverage, for a unit that has delivered a postseason-best 2.60 ERA in 34.2 innings — 10 fewer than any of the other three remaining teams, if you’re looking for a commentary on the stability of the Braves’ rotation relative to those of the Dodgers, Astros, and Red Sox. The starters’ comparatively strong performance (2.55 ERA, 3.25 FIP, and five or more innings five times) has allowed manager Brian Snitker to line up his bullpen to best effect, and that’s generally meant calling upon Matzek and righty Luke Jackson ahead of lefty closer Will Smith late in the game. After the Braves’ 9-2 victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday night, during which Matzek pitched a scoreless, 14-pitch eighth inning when the margin was still just three runs, Snitker gushed, “Our bullpen guys… all they do is answer the phone and get ready. And I ride them. I told them all they got saddle cinches on their sides because I have tightened that thing so hard riding them. They have done a great job.”

In his 8.1 innings, Matzek has allowed four hits, four walks, and two runs while striking out 13 (39.3%) on the strength of his fastball/slider combination. The runs and two of the walks came in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, and they weren’t entirely his fault. Summoned in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game — the earliest he’s entered any of this year’s postseason games — he struck out Albert Pujols with two outs and a runner on third, then returned to pitch the seventh where he lost a 10-pitch battle to Mookie Betts, whom he walked before striking out both Corey Seager and Trea Turner on three pitches apiece. During Seager’s plate appearance, Betts stole second, so Snitker ordered Matzek to walk Will Smith (the Dodgers’ catcher, not the Braves’ closer) and then called upon Jackson. The intentional walk backfired, as Jackson hit Justin Turner with a pitch to load the bases, and then served up a two-run double to Chris Taylor, giving the Dodgers a 4-2 lead and charging the runs to Matzek’s room. The Braves would come back to tie the game after Dave Roberts‘ ill-fated and puzzling decision to use Julio Urías to pitch the eighth inning, and to win in the ninth via Eddie Rosario’s walk-off single off Kenley Jansen.

Even with that hiccup, Matzek has held the Dodgers to a 1-for-12 showing while striking out seven. Aside from the walk to Betts, he’s held the Dodgers’ spark plug to an 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two popups, gone 3-for-3 in striking out Trea Turner (twice with runners in scoring position) and 2-for-2 in striking out Seager. All but his Game 2 strikeout of Seager have come via his slider; that one came via his four-seamer. Here’s the montage:

In the Division Series, Matzek held the Brewers to a 3-for-16 showing with a double, two walks, and six strikeouts. In both Games 1 and 2, he created and then wriggled out of a pair of two-on, two-out eighth-inning jams by striking out Avisaíl García, first with the fastball and then with the slider; the latter whiff was preceded by his two-on, two-out strikeout of Tyrone Taylor on a slider to end the seventh:

A year and a half ago, it would have been very difficult to envision Matzek thriving in this role for the Braves, even given that he had turned some heads in spring training before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. At that point, Matzek was nearly five full years removed from his last major league outing, and nearly 11 years removed from being chosen by the Rockies with the 11th pick out of a Mission Viejo, California high school and signed to what was then a franchise record bonus of $3.9 million. He had gone through quite a number of ups and downs just to get to that point.

After being drafted, Matzek climbed slowly through the minors, armed with a plus fastball and slider but prone to bouts of wildness. He walked 46 hitters in 33 innings at High-A Modesto in 2011, resulting in a demotion, and upon returning to that level, walked 95 (14.6%) in 142.1 innings, surviving to post a 4.62 ERA only because he struck out 153 (23.6%). By that point he had fallen off of prospect lists, but improved command and control helped him reach the majors. Debuting on June 11, 2014, he threw seven innings of two-run ball against the Braves, striking out seven and notching a win. His first punchout victim, in fact, was none other than current teammate Freddie Freeman, who went down looking at one slider and later chased another:

Though he went just 6-11 for the 96-loss Rockies, Matzek delivered a thoroughly respectable 4.05 ERA and 3.78 FIP (94 ERA-, 95 FIP-) and 1.9 WAR in 117.2 innings. He kept his walk rate to 8.9%, and his homer rate to 0.69 per nine; his groundball tendency was a good fit for the harsh environment of Coors Field. At the outset of 2015, however, he walked 19 batters in 22 innings, and was first sent to Triple-A Albuquerque, where he walked seven out of 12 batters in a single one-inning appearance. He had the yips, and he couldn’t get rid of them. After about a month of extended spring training, his control problems continued, as he walked eight in 2.1 innings spread over three appearances at Low-A Boise. The Rockies sent him home to California, where he worked with a specialist.

“I had some mental triggers that kept coming up,” Matzek said later that year, upon returning to Albuquerque. “I had some anxiety on the mound. I would just kind of lock up mentally.” His return was a mixed bag; he walked 10 in 10.1 innings, but struck out 13 and held batters to a .114/.311/.257 line and just four earned runs.

Matzek’s problems returned in 2016, first at Modesto and then Double-A Hartford; he walked 33 in 26.2 innings. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster along the way, and became a free agent at the end of the season. Spring trainings with the White Sox (2017) and Mariners (2018) didn’t pan out, and he nearly gave up because, as he told the Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders last year, “In 2017, when I wasn’t getting picked up by anybody, I was back home in California, playing catch. Or rather, I was trying to play catch, throwing the ball all over the place.” He was ready to quit and go back to school save for the encouragement of his wife Lauren to keep pushing.

After being released by the Mariners, Matzek pitched for the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association in 2018, but the numbers weren’t encouraging (5.89 ERA, 15.5% walk rate in 88.2 innings). He went to spring training with the Diamondbacks in 2019 but made just three appearances before being released in mid-May. Returning to the AirHogs, he took the advice of team president Billy Martin Jr. (yes, the son of the late manager) and returned to the higher arm slot he had used earlier in his career. “That one little thing changed my command and my (velocity) — everything,” he told Saunders. Continuing:

“Then I just continued to throw, throw, throw. I think that got the yips out of me… It also enabled me to relax. I wasn’t thinking about the mechanics anymore. I was just thinking about pitching and my delivery got much smoother. It was easier than it had been in a long time.”

After posting more promising numbers (2.64 ERA, 13.4% BB%, 37.3% K% in 30.2 innings) for the AirHogs, Matzek signed with the Braves in mid-August of 2019 and made six appearances for Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Gwinnett, striking out 24.5% while walking a comparatively normal 9.4%, a performance that caught the eye of former Rockies manager Walt Weiss, now the Braves’ bench coach. In Grapefruit League action last spring, he threw 4.2 scoreless innings while striking out 10 and walking just one; his punchouts included the Red Sox’s Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez. Initially sent to the Braves’ alternate training site last summer, he was selected for the big league roster and made his triumphant return to the majors with a scoreless eighth inning in a 14-1 blowout against the Mets on July 26, bookended by strikeouts of Yoenis Céspedes and Luis Guillorme.

Matzek made 21 appearances totaling 29 innings in 2020, posting a 2.79 ERA and 1.92 FIP, highlighted by impressive strikeout and walk numbers (35.5% and 8.3%, respectively); he allowed just one homer. He was stellar in the postseason, allowing just one run in 8.2 innings while striking out 14 and walking just three; the lone run was a Seager solo homer in the fourth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, the game that began the Dodgers’ comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit.

It wasn’t until this season that Matzek consistently worked in a setup role, but he did and was quite effective, pitching to a 2.57 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 63 innings. He wasn’t quite as effective at getting batters to chase outside the zone, as his O-Swing% dropped from 36% to 30.2%; his strikeout rate dipped to 29.2% and his walk rate crept up to a gaudy 14%, but five of his 37 passes were intentional, elevating that rate by 1.6 percentage points.

Before his bout of the yips, Matzek’s four-seam fastball averaged 93.4 mph and his slider 83.5 mph; when he returned last year, the heater was up to 94.5 mph, and this year it climbed to 96.0 mph. Even in this age of high velocity, not many lefty relievers consistently throw that kind of heat; among those with at least 300 four-seamers thrown, Matzek’s average velo ranked eighth in the majors, 0.1 below teammate A.J. Minter. More importantly, batters hit just .192 and slugged .288 when making contact with his heater while whiffing on 22.6% of swings. His .275 wOBA against the pitch tied for fourth among lefties:

Most Effective Four-Seam Fastballs From Lefties
Pitcher Team Pitches % Avg Velo AVG SLG wOBA
Josh Hader MIL 631 65.5% 96.4 .103 .171 .195
Jake McGee SFG 791 90.1% 94.9 .194 .333 .244
Bailey Falter PHI 329 59.6% 91.9 .217 .313 .254
Tyler Matzek ATL 753 70.7% 96.0 .192 .288 .275
José Quijada LAA 366 73.3% 93.6 .176 .250 .275
Lucas Gilbreath COL 447 61.1% 93.3 .189 .292 .277
Génesis Cabrera STL 534 44.7% 97.6 .164 .273 .282
Jarlín García SFG 501 50.0% 93.1 .190 .397 .283
Caleb Smith ARI 471 22.8% 91.5 .174 .302 .283
Kolby Allard TEX 309 15.0% 91.5 .197 .366 .283
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 300 four-seam fastballs.

Perhaps even more impressively, Matzek’s heater ranked among the majors’ 20 most valuable according to Statcast — inclusive of those from pitchers of both hands, either starting or relieving:

Most Valuable Four-Seam Fastballs
Player Team Pitches PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff % Run Value RV/100
Carlos Rodón CHW 1301 301 .199 .336 .275 29.7 -26 -2.0
Robbie Ray TOR 1866 471 .222 .431 .316 24.0 -22 -1.2
Freddy Peralta MIL 1219 309 .156 .308 .277 30.9 -20 -1.7
Logan Gilbert SEA 1307 324 .254 .401 .311 21.6 -19 -1.4
Gerrit Cole NYY 1399 312 .225 .398 .289 27.6 -19 -1.3
Walker Buehler LAD 1403 336 .202 .366 .295 20.3 -18 -1.3
Max Scherzer WSN/LAD 1316 299 .193 .359 .281 30.7 -18 -1.4
Liam Hendriks CHW 761 157 .216 .379 .265 30.3 -17 -2.2
Josh Hader MIL 631 137 .103 .171 .197 40.5 -16 -2.5
Trevor Rogers MIA 1251 325 .222 .344 .306 26.8 -15 -1.2
Lance Lynn CHW 1051 238 .187 .297 .255 32.5 -15 -1.5
Jacob deGrom NYM 704 175 .158 .303 .219 30.0 -15 -2.1
Zack Wheeler PHI 1360 339 .224 .317 .279 26.0 -14 -1.0
Drew Rasmussen MIL/TBR 781 200 .221 .337 .282 25.0 -14 -1.8
Tyler Matzek ATL 753 188 .192 .288 .282 22.6 -14 -1.9
Trevor Bauer LAD 723 178 .175 .364 .300 25.3 -14 -1.9
Trevor Richards 3 Tms 602 146 .159 .333 .251 23.3 -14 -2.3
Paul Sewald SEA 644 165 .180 .320 .262 33.0 -13 -2.1
Kevin Gausman SFG 1583 421 .257 .416 .331 19.5 -12 -0.7
Ian Anderson ATL 1025 246 .216 .349 .287 21.1 -12 -1.2

I’m not sure why Matzek’s wOBA doesn’t match the value from the Statcast search, but you get the idea. The pitch was very effective, though much more so against righties (.236 wOBA, 23.6% whiff) than lefties (.326 wOBA, 20.8% whiff). Meanwhile, his slider held hitters to a .131 AVG, .213 SLG, and .203 wOBA with a 52.5% whiff rate; the pitch, which averaged 84.7 mph and which he threw 26.8% of the time, was more effective against lefties (.093 wOBA, 53.7% whiff) than righties (.245 wOBA, 51.9% whiff). Overall, like many other members of the Braves’ staff, he was more effective against batters of the opposite hand, holding righties to a .239 wOBA and lefties to a .293 mark. Even against the lefty-heavy Dodgers, Snitker has maneuvered it such that Seager is the only such lefty Matzek has faced, that after Brewers lefties walked twice (Christian Yelich and Jace Peterson) and went 1-for-2 (Kolten Wong) in the Division Series.

Like Daniel Bard, who returned to the majors last year after his own battle with performance anxiety led to a seven-year absence from the majors, Matzek’s comeback is a compelling one on a human interest level. That he’s performing so well when the stakes are so high — the Dodgers led the NL in scoring and had the third-highest wRC+ against lefties — makes it that much more impressive.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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kylerkelton
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kylerkelton

He’s been incredible. Thanks for writing about him because he definitely deserves the recognition.