Tyler Matzek isn’t broken, but he is bent.
The left-hander is in the midst of his sixth year pitching for the Colorado Rockies organization. His time with the team has been something of a roller coaster ride; he’s certainly seen his share of success and failure. For Matzek, the line separating the two has remained the same: walks. He’s always had good stuff and has shown the ability to strike a batter out; but he’s also demonstrated that good stuff means nothing without the being able to find the strike zone. The total loss of command in the majors this season spurred a demotion to Triple-A Albuquerque. In one start there, Matzek walked seven batters in a single inning of work. He’s currently taking time off from competitive baseball.
The Rockies have a lot more information about Tyler Matzek than we do. We’re confident they’re using it to diagnose and attempt to solve Matzek’s issues, and we hope to see him back in a Rockies uniform soon. In the meantime, we want to use the information available publicly (mostly from the wonderful BrooksBaseball.net) to offer our own analysis. Our emphasis will be on Matzek’s mechanics, the bugaboo of his professional career that can dismantle his command.
The essential question in such an analysis is this: what’s different? The answer is fairly straightforward, although that doesn’t mean the solution is. Matzek’s release point this year is different than it was last year. Horizontally, Matzek’s release point is increasing. The release point distance in the chart below denotes the distance from the center of the rubber. Interestingly, this trend is not new to 2015. It began last season. Note his horizontal release point during June, when he made his debut, and for the remainder of the season. The upward trend is clear. While Matzek began 2015 with a horizontal release point similar to the one with which he finished 2014, it continued to increase slowly. It should be noted that "May" in this and all other charts refers to a single start.
Vertically, his release point has dropped, meaning that while he’s releasing the ball further away from the center of the rubber, he’s also doing so closer to the ground. It’s important to acknowledge both horizontal and vertical release as interactive properties. While Matzek’s horizontal release point to start the 2015 season resembled the end of 2014, his vertical release point at the beginning of 2015 dropped. The change applies to all of his pitches. While the alteration is not dramatic—less than an inch for each of his three pitches—small differences can have significant influence on results.
The change in Matzek's horizontal release point is one that's pretty easy to decipher and is also less likely to be a significant cause for his loss in command. Here's a look at where he started his motion from a start in July 2014, when his horizontal release point was the lowest, and where he started his motion in his lone start in May 2015, when it was at its highest.
What this shows us is that Matzek has moved from the extreme right-hand side of the rubber in 2014 to almost exactly the center in 2015. The reason for this is unclear, but one hypothesis is that it was done in an attempt to make the angle tougher on left-handed hitters. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, a simple adjustment like this isn't a mechanical change and likely isn't something that would cause a spike from the 3.38 BB/9 he had last July to the 10.17 BB/9 he has posted between the MLB and Triple-A levels in 2015.
Vertical release point, on the other hand, is a completely different story. When looking purely at the release point data, it's easy to think that less than an inch of difference is negligible and disregard it. In some cases, that might even be a logical thing to do. In Matzek's case, however, it's the only tangible change we have that coincides with his loss of command, so it's worth looking into.
Since we're talking about less than an inch of change, the differences are going to be subtle. For instance, Matzek certainly hasn't changed his arm slot from last season to this one, so we can eliminate that as the cause right away. Instead, what it looks like is a small change that started a chain reaction and threw his command completely out of whack.
The 2015 version of Matzek has a delivery that is just a little bit quicker than 2014 Matzek. A quicker delivery on its own is not necessarily a problem, but for Matzek it has been. The change has caused his front shoulder to fly open early, which in turn has caused his arm to lag just a bit behind the rest of his body. With his arm behind everything else, Matzek has not been able to get on top of the ball the way he did in 2014.
July 20, 2014
May 6, 2015
Instead, the ball has come out just a bit to the side, creating a slightly lower release point and, more importantly, an extreme lack of command, especially on the arm side of the plate. Notice in the GIFs that, in 2014, Matzek's arm is already starting to come forward when his front shoulder opens up toward home plate. In 2015, his arm is still all the way back when his shoulder opens. It can be tough to see from watching the pitching motion, but it is made abundantly clear by looking at his zone profile, particularly on fastballs. He has missed to the arm side of the plate (the right side of the charts below) on 38.4 percent of his fastballs in 2015, four times as often as the 9.6 percent we saw from him in 2014.
Something else Matzek has dealt with has been the times where he, either consciously or subconsciously, has been aware of this issue and overcompensated for it by holding onto the ball just a touch too long and missing on the opposite side of the plate. Further evidence of this being the issue is Matzek's increased slider usage in 2015, a pitch that is less susceptible to this problem.
In terms of results, the vertical release point appears more important than the horizontal. Despite changes to Matzek’s horizontal release point in 2014, he maintained consistency regarding balls in and out of the zone. Whether a ball or a strike, he released it from the same horizontal position. Matzek disrupted that consistency in 2015. During April, his pitches outside of the zone were a touch further from the center of the mound than those that ended up in the zone, but during his disastrous May start, his pitches inside the zone were at a greater horizontal release point. Remember though, for both of these months, his horizontal release point increased, which suggests that it does matter, even though it’s not as significant as vertical release point.
Throughout 2014, Matzek released his pitches that ended up inside of the zone at a higher point than those that landed outside of the zone. It appears that he has better command with a higher release point. Significantly, his vertical release point during his 2015 starts fell. Matzek struggled a bit with command over his first four starts. He even walked six batters in five innings on April 21. It almost seems as if Matzek attempted to elevate his release point during the May start in which he walked six in two innings. That he walked six in two innings indicates that doing so did not work.
It makes sense for him to elevate these critical fractions of an inch. Over the course of 2014, Matzek appeared to have fixed the problems that plagued his minor league career. All the while, however, his release point was unstable and he increasingly relied on throwing sliders. But that doesn’t mean poor results. In fact, Matzek’s results in September—a 16 percent strikeout rate and an eight percent walk rate—were excellent, even in the midst of change. Problems emerged when Matzek didn’t freeze those changes, and he began to release the ball lower than before.
Lately, Matzek has been working with Isotopes pitching coach Daryl Scott, Rockies director of pitching operations Mark Wiley, and minor league pitching coordinator Doug Linton. There is no timetable for Matzek's return to game action while the group works with the 2009 first-round pick to get him "back to the basics," according to MLB.com's Thomas Harding. One of those basic tenets of successful pitching appears to be elevating Matzek's release point fractions of an inch. The subtlety of the change likely makes the solution all the more difficult.
Matzek isn’t broken. But without him participating in games, we're all left to wait to find out if the coaching and time off from competitive baseball can bend him back into shape.