Editor's note: Leading up to Purple Row's 10th birthday, several of the site's former writers have agreed to make a brief comeback. We hope you'll enjoy these articles as much as we will.
Back in spring training, the Rockies had a lot of people shaking their heads when they announced that Kyle Kendrick would wear the mantle of being the team's Opening Day starter. While still somewhat of a strange thing, the announcement made a bit more sense when they also revealed that Jorge De La Rosa would be the starter for the home opener.
DLR posted a 3.08 ERA at Coors Field in 2014, held batters to a .664 OPS, and posted a 10-2 record over 15 home starts. Over the offseason, DLR's success at the notoriously hitter-friendly/pitcher-destroying Coors Field was oftentimes mentioned, creating a sort of "Coors Field Ace" persona for him. Really, when you think about it, finding a Coors Field Ace has been the story of every noteworthy Rockies pitcher over the past 20 years.
There hasn't seemed to have been a single mold of pitcher that really works in Colorado.
De La Rosa is the current version of the Coors Ace; his mix of average-ish strikeout and above-average groundball rates provide the ideal of keeping the ball out of play, and when it is in play, groundballs for effective outs with the Rockies' strong infield defense. However, when De La Rosa started the season on the 15-day DL, the Rockies turned to the next pitcher who showed favorable numbers at Coors Field: Tyler Matzek.
Tyler Matzek's story with the Rockies is a relatively long and interesting one. Matzek was drafted 11th overall by the Rockies in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of Capistrano Valley HS. After an unpolished but solid rookie debut with the Asheville Tourists in 2010, Matzek hit a brick wall in 2011, starting the season in Modesto but returning to Asheville after walking 46 batters in 33 innings in the California League. When his numbers didn't rebound in the next 3 starts in Asheville (15 walks in 8 innings), Matzek returned home to California to meet with his pitching coach, Lon Fullmer, to work on his mechanics.
Stepping aside from Matzek specifically, it's somewhat important to discuss Matzek's delivery and mechanics and the school of pitching he's come from.
Now, I'm sure many of you reading this know this already, but Lon Fullmer is a certified Marshall Baseball pitching coach, and if you know anything about former MLB reliever Mike Marshall, it's that his pitching techniques are controversial, to say the least. I won't dive heavily into the mechanics of the Marshall technique, as I'll likely misrepresent it, but if you watch the motion, it seems relatively unnatural as compared to what we're accustomed to seeing from a MLB pitching motion.
What makes it especially interesting, however, is the lofty claim that using Marshall's system will completely prevent arm injuries.
Unusual windups and pitching motions aren't the newest thing on the block, as we've seen pitchers such as Chad Bradford and Byung-Hyun Kim achieve some amount of MLB success as extreme submarine sidearmers, and we've also seen pitchers such as Tim Lincecum of the Giants and Josh Outman of the Braves (formerly of the Rockies) with their own distinct pitching motion.
While Bradford and Kim displayed a very bizarre motion as compared to the typical overhand or ¾ arm slot that most pitchers will utilize, Lincecum and Outman's unique motions tend more to be about the full delivery and how to move one's arm to actually deliver the ball. Both of these pitchers used unique full-body motions to attempt to maximize the entire body's motion to generate the forward momentum for the pitch while throwing the ball in as straight a line toward home plate as possible. The idea seems to be (from what I've read, anyhow), that by delivering the ball in such a "straightforward" fashion, you reduce the amount of torque on your elbow needed to snap off your pitch.
These unusual pitching motions aren't widely accepted, and are downright eschewed by most MLB organizations. In Outman's case, he adjusted to a more traditional windup as he was advised that throwing with an atypical motion would seriously hurt his draft potential. Ironically, after adjusting his delivery, Outman underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009 and is currently on the 60-day disabled list with Atlanta following an undisclosed shoulder problem in spring training. Lincecum, interestingly enough, worked with his father this offseason to get his mechanics back to the point of being a strong starting pitching candidate on the 2015-2016 Free Agent market.
Coming back to Matzek, after working with Fullmer in 2011, the once prized Rockies prospect came back to a not perfect, but very improved conclusion to that year with Asheville. As he ascended the Rockies' system, it became apparent that control would still be an issue, but less drastic. His first season back in Modesto, Matzek still walked six batters per nine innings, but that number dropped to 4.8 BB/9 in Double-A and 4.2 over 67 innings at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Over 128 MLB innings, that figure has sunk all the way to 3.4 BB/9. His 2014 season with Colorado resulted in a 4.05 ERA over 118 IP (20 appearances, 19 starts), punching out 91, walking 44, and allowing only nine homers. For those of you keeping score on Fangraphs, that's a 3.78 FIP, powered by a .312 BABIP and 8.3% HR/FB -- or in other words, Matzek's numbers don't suggest a drastic amount of luck in his results, good or bad.
Moving forward, Matzek still has a lot of work to do as a MLB pitcher. So far this season, he needs to attempt to get his fastball command up to snuff (as he's somewhat avoided it in his two starts in 2015, relying mostly on his slider and curve/change combo), but part of that could be attributed to home opener jitters skewing his miniscule sample.
But almost more importantly, Matzek's continued health could be the absolute key to his significance in this organization. You see, Matzek has yet to visit the DL (quickly everybody start knocking on every wood surface visible), which really keys into one of the major problems the Rockies have had with pitching.
It's one thing to say that the Rockies aren't good at developing pitchers, and it's another thing to point out how often Rockies hurlers gets hurt. Roll back the clock all the way to Mile High Stadium, and we have David Nied, selected from the Braves in the 1992 expansion draft, whose elbow gave out and effectively ended his MLB career.
Fast forward to 2002 Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings, who was relatively healthy for the Rockies (he did miss about 10-12 starts in 2005 due to a finger injury) and promptly exploded upon being traded to Houston. Jeff Francis, drafted ninth overall in 2002, won 17 games in 2007 over 215 regular-season innings, finished ninth in the Cy Young voting, and watched his shoulder fall apart after a very sore 2008 season.
Ubaldo Jimenez, who had a magnificent 2010 for the Rockies, saw his performance (and velocity) drop off drastically in 2011. While he may have not spent any major time on the DL, the current form of Ubaldo Jimenez is a far cry from the 100 mph beast who had people citing Bob Gibson in 2010. Now the Rockies have Eddie Butler in the rotation, Jon Gray in Triple-A Albuquerque, and Kyle Freeland and Tyler Anderson in extended spring training working on shoulder and elbow issues, respectively.
Mentioning all of the Rockies' top prospects who may or may not have injury problems isn't intended to say that the team's pitching future is doomed. If anything, everybody's pitching futures are doomed, as the common mindset from the sports medicine community is that pitchers are likely to get hurt. It just comes with the territory. Some pitchers dodge the injury bug, most won't. It's an issue.
When it comes to Matzek, my expectations are somewhat different than, say, Gray. With Gray, I have normal highly-touted pitching prospect expectations: I want to see him come to the majors and dominate and be awesome and possibly the best in franchise history; you know, normal expectations that I'm sure I won't let me down. With Matzek, however, I'm just watching to see how his career goes, how his first few MLB seasons turn out. When you have an organization that has such trouble keeping pitchers healthy -- and a high draft pick that utilizes a pitching system designed explicitly to keep pitcher injuries from happening -- well, I can't help but see a connection there.
When Matzek fell to slot nine in the 2009 draft, I'm quite sure that the Rockies swept him up out of interest in a high-caliber pitching prospect. I couldn't tell you if they were fully aware of his unique pitching style or simply that he had one (they knew; they had to have known). But it seems that the organization has been willing to think outside of the box with how they've handled Matzek, and I think that giving him such an opportunity to reach the majors helps both Matzek as well as the Rockies.
Obviously, taking whatever steps are necessary to help a $3.9 million, first-round draft pick realize as much of his potential as possible seems the correct choice, but it's not out of the lines of possibility that other organizations might have worked more to have Matzek pitching with traditional mechanics, perhaps stalling him out in High-A. Whatever the rationale, the Rockies are getting a first-hand look at a Marshall-style pitcher coming out of high school and making the majors. The only other Marshall pitcher (unless more have surfaced that I haven't found) that has made the majors was Jeff Sparks, who pitched 30 innings for the Rays between 1999-2000.
As a quick and final aside about Marshall pitching, I find it to be the most bizarre thing to attempt to research. Pitchers using the Marshall system swear up and down by it, citing relief of arm pain and gains on their fastballs, yet we see almost none of them on track to reach the majors. It's a circular argument, if you're willing to dig through the varieties of baseball message boards debating the efficacy of the system. The proponents cite the above-mentioned injury relief and performance improvements, and the opponents counter with the lack of system success.
The counter-counter argument sounds very "tinfoil hat" in that Marshall pitchers are shut out of drafts and not given the opportunities that more traditional pitchers may receive, so we can't really judge the pitching system in terms of MLB success. It's a shame that for something that's so anecdotally wonderful that we don't have more data points, but on that note, we're talking about people's career livelihoods and earning potentials, so it seems a bit callous to just wish for more Marshall pitchers purely to see if it works or not.
Steering back to Matzek again, and hopefully aiming for a conclusion here, what the Rockies have is the most successful pitcher in MLB history to implement the Marshall style of pitching (even if it is hybridized) with exception of Dr. Marshall himself (he still holds the all-time MLB mark for pitching appearances in a season at 106 in 1974 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he also won the Cy Young award). This could be amazingly important for a pitching-starved organization that is looking for any edge it can get to churn out MLB pitching. This could also mean absolutely nothing outside of the microcosm of Tyler Matzek's career.
I personally won't say if I "buy into" Marshall's system -- I wouldn't dream of making such a statement with my general lack of knowledge of actual pitching mechanics -- but it's certainly interesting to explore. When combined with the extra oversight at each minor league level of the organization, I think that a willingness to work with unconventional pitching styles could give the Rockies an extra tool in their evaluative belts and an additional avenue down which they could go to continue bolstering pitching depth in their system. If a weird delivery could return a mid-rotation pitcher who turns in 175 IP a season at roughly average production levels but picked in a later round due to other teams passing over with concerns about said delivery, I think that could be a market inefficiency for the Rockies to capitalize on.
There's a lot of "maybe," "might" and "could" throughout this article. The Marshall system of pitching doesn't have a lot of supporters, and yet we have a pitcher in the majors who could be the talking point for further adoption of "injury-free pitching". Matzek doesn't even pitch with the full Marshall delivery. Maybe this entire discussion is barking up the wrong tree. But who knows, maybe these MLB data points can suggest more about whether this is something the Rockies are willing to work with and potentially exploit, or maybe this is just another story of another baseball pitcher who has an approach different from the norm.
Either way, this adds that much more intrigue and interest in the future success of Tyler Matzek and whether his career points to him being a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher for a time, or whether he's leading a draft and development charge that changes the look of Rockies pitching.