Rockies left-handed pitching prospect Tyler Matzek will make his major league debut on Wednesday, five years and two days after he was taken with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. It has been a long and interesting road to the highest level for Matzek, who has seemingly been around forever but is still just 23 years old.
The product of Mission Viejo, Calif. began his pro career with a bang, posting a 2.92 ERA in 89⅓ innings for Asheville in 2010 at the age of 19. However, the warning signs were there; Matzek struck out almost a batter per inning but walked 6.2 per nine. In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have been too surprised when a jump to Modesto proved too much for him the following season; though just 20 years old, Matzek issued 46 walks in 33 High-A innings, prompting the Rockies to send him home to work with his high school pitching coach in an effort to help him regain his form.
The strategy paid dividends for Colorado in 2012. Matzek lowered his walk rate to six per nine innings while striking out 153 batters in 142⅓ frames in his return to Modesto. Sure, he was still wild, but Matzek also experienced a ton of success in a league filled with players more than two years older than him, on average. A promotion to Tulsa in 2013 helped Matzek realize the value of throwing strikes and allowing the batter to make contact. His strikeouts dipped all the way to six per nine innings, but Matzek walked a career-low 4.8 per nine while posting a respectable 3.79 ERA in 26 starts.
That brings us to 2014, wherein with Triple-A Colorado Springs, Matzek has lowered his free pass rate even more, surrendering just 4.2 walks per nine innings while regaining his ability to strike batters out, as evidenced by a whiff rate of 8.2 per nine. He's still prone to one of his classic blowup outings in which he can't find the strike zone, but those have become much less prevalent, particularly away from altitude.
So, what can we expect from Matzek now that he's making the biggest jump of his career? For one, he's probably going to get left-handed batters out. Since 2011, Matzek has struck out 22 percent of the lefties he's faced while surrendering an OPS of just .692. Because of the walks, lefties have reached base more than 36 percent of the time against Matzek, but they've largely failed to square up anything, slugging just .330 and homering on only 3.3 percent of fly balls.
On the flip side, Matzek might have some trouble against righties. The on-base percentage is only a few points higher, but right-handed hitters leave the yard much more frequently --11.6 percent of fly balls result in home runs -- against Matzek, contributing to a slugging percentage just south of .400. In addition, the high strikeout rate that Matzek has against lefties doesn't necessarily apply to opposite-handed hitters; he struck out 60 righties and walked 63 in Tulsa last season.
We don't have a lot of pitch f/x data on Matzek, but scouts have opined for years that he has tremendous stuff -- particularly a low-90s tailing fastball and a good slider that can reach the mid 80s -- and can miss bats on a regular basis when he's commanding his pitches well. One of his issues is finding consistency in a delivery that often has him landing toward first base, MLB.com's Bernie Pleskoff noted last December, which correlates with opening up too early and leaving the ball up and away to right-handers and up and in to lefties.
If Matzek doesn't work out as a starter due to his consistency issues, he'll almost certainly be a useful reliever due to his ability to get left-handed hitters out and flashes of dominance in short bursts, an opinion shared by several people close to the organization and well-informed scout types such as Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks and ESPN's Keith Law.
Either way, the man the Rockies paid $3.8 million to be part of their future will finally be in the big league spotlight on Wednesday. If he even comes close to the success Triple-A teammate Christian Bergman had in his debut on Monday, it will be hard to contain the excitement that is naturally attached to a player with Matzek's perceived upside. If the outing doesn't go well, remember that Matzek is either the same age or younger than every pitcher on the 40-man roster not named Jayson Aquino, who is currently pitching in High-A.