Modesto, Calif. -- It's not a stretch to say the last 18 months have been among the most difficult in Tyler Matzek's life. The lefty is just 25 years old, still young enough to impact the Colorado Rockies again one day, and yet a maddening inability to throw strikes created by a very public bout of anxiety has left the pitcher quite literally fighting for his career.
"It’s like a fight every day," Matzek explains calmly in the High-A Modesto Nuts clubhouse before their game against the High Desert Mavericks on Wednesday. "You just keep pushing forward, keep being positive, and know things are going to turn around. To be honest, I think things are starting to turn around, and they are moving around in a hurry. I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made."
The daily fight has now gone on for the better part of fourteen months for Matzek, with the Rockies sending him to Triple-A Albuquerque, short-season Boise, and now High-A Modesto along the way in the hope that the promising left-hander could right himself in low-pressure environments. The organization even sent Matzek home to attempt to clear his head. After all, the anxiety he's experiencing is far more complicated than just commanding pitches.
"The things I’m going through are a little more than just throwing strikes," Matzek understates, looking back on the last year of his career. "Every day we work to do that, but yeah, it’s a little more in depth than that."
The pitcher entered spring training a dark horse to impact the Rockies' big league club in some way, but the same issues resurfaced and the lefty found himself once again struggling to throw strikes.
"In spring training, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t good," he admits. "I wasn’t even really able to just throw a bullpen."
After a few weeks of back field work away from the pressure of game situations, the Rockies sent Matzek on a rehab assignment to Modesto. When that ended, the club optioned him straightaway to Modesto, ensuring that—at least for the time being—he'll be fighting to resume his career in the California League. Thus far this summer, Matzek has been facing just a single batter every outing, in the hopes that managing small re-entries into game competition will slowly benefit the big leaguer.
So far, so good.
"I'm a hell of a lot closer to the big leagues than where I was," Matzek says, looking back at the last few weeks he's spent with the Nuts. "I'm back to throwing balls how I should be, throwing strikes, feeling good on the mound, controlling the heart rate on the mound, keeping myself calm, really just being able to pitch. I’m really happy with where it’s going."
The stats back him up; while his numbers are far from impressive, especially considering his experience and the level of competition, Matzek's appearances have been good lately when put into context. After walking the single hitter he faced in each of his first three appearances (May 11, 13, and 16), Matzek hasn't walked another since. In his last six games entering Sunday, he's faced seven hitters, allowing only a double while striking out one. On Friday night, he faced two hitters for the first time all season, retiring both in front of a sellout crowd at John Thurman Field. But Matzek, a smart and well-spoken man, doesn't put too much stock into the results.
"When I feel good, and I feel 100%, I’m happy with the outing," Matzek says. "If I feel not right, then it’s not a successful outing for me. I don’t care what the hitter does or where the ball goes, it’s how I feel out there. But I’ve been feeling great in the last handful of outings, I can’t even tell you. It’s been going really well."
Facing two hitters for the first time on Friday night may have tipped the Rockies' cap for their future plans with Matzek. Even though the long-term plan remains to return him to a starter's role, in the short-run he is destined to face one (and, perhaps now two) hitters per outing as he regains confidence and better understands the mental keys that will make him successful. For the Rockies' part they are keeping a close eye on Matzek, but not too close, instead opting to let him work through his daily lumps alongside his Modesto teammates.
"We have an overall rough outline of how it’s going to go, and then we talk every two weeks or so and set forth a more in-depth two-week program," Matzek reveals about his goals within the organization. "We do that every two weeks. And then we have an overall long-term goal and schedule set up as well."
Eventually, ideally, that long-term schedule will send Matzek up the organizational ladder and away from Modesto. Hopefully, that means Denver again one day soon. But thankfully, his Nuts teammates are already embracing him regardless of his unique path to Modesto.
"It’s great to talk to him just to hear his experience, hear what he’s gone through, and just to hear the way that he’s thinking when he talks about certain situations," Nuts starting pitcher Ryan Castellani (No. 19 PuRP) says. "Even when we’re struggling, he knows how to get guys going and amp us up, because he’s been there, all the way up to the big leagues. He’s been through tough games, tough stretches, and all that experience comes into play and he’s very knowledgeable about getting through tough situations and dealing with the constant adversity that goes on in the minors."
Matzek seems to take solace in being just another member of the team, rather than a guy with a target on his back. It's less there's that Major Leaguer who couldn't throw strikes that got demoted to Modesto and more look, there's another guy in the Nuts' bullpen.
"I’m just another player," Matzek shrugs. "I play baseball. We’re all here on the same field, we’re all doing the same thing. When you can put your pride aside and just go out there and work hard, and kick ass, that’s when good things happen."
All that only serves to tell half of Matzek's story, though. Sure, pitching well in Modesto will soon send Matzek back to Triple-A, and then perhaps the Major Leagues, but the lefty didn't just overcome some simple command problem in the last few months.
"It would take a long time," Matzek cautions politely when I press him about the mental aspects of his comeback this year.
"I mean, we have time, and we could talk about it," he quickly adds, "but it’s a little more in depth than just, 'oh, go out there and throw strikes.'"
That attitude—the jeers from those that don't understand why Matzek can't just 'go out there and throw strikes'—comes ultimately from a place of ignorance, often from fans who don't understand the degree to which a good (or bad) mental outlook can impact a professional athlete's career. And so the nuance and uncertainty behind his incredibly personal anxiety issues is too often lost on a portion of the public that doesn't get why Matzek just can't throw strikes.
"Some people get it, and some people don’t," he offers. "I think some people think it’s just 'grab a ball and throw it.' Well, yeah, I wish it were that simple. But then there are some people who are like, 'yeah, what you’re describing is something that I’ve been through, and that makes sense.'"
"It doesn’t have to be through sports, it can be anything in life, but when you experience that higher end anxiety, you really feel what it feels like to have a total lock up of your body, where you feel physically like you can’t move it," Matzek continues. "It doesn’t matter how much you want to throw the strike, it’s just not gonna fucking happen. It’s as simple as that."
Life lessons abound here. For fans of the game, to better and more sensitively understand the nuances of mental performance in baseball. For front offices, to better understand how to appropriately deal with these issues and get the best out of their players. For players themselves, to better learn how to navigate mental detours and continue their livelihoods. For the rest of the Nuts, as they observe a man fighting to keep playing baseball—to keep doing the exact same thing they are trying to do—one batter at a time.
And for Matzek, to gain empathy for those from all walks of life experiencing anxiety disorders.
"It flares up for me in sports, but I know now that it flares up for a lot of people in other aspects of life," Matzek says about anxiety. "I’ve heard a bunch of different stories, with a bunch of different people. It’s my support system, and I’ve had a lot of good support systems from a lot of people."
One of the most obvious support systems—and the one Matzek is clearly the most thankful for—comes from the Rockies themselves. Never giving up on their former first round draft pick, the organization has proven to Matzek their desire to be patient and helpful along his arduous 15-month journey, and for that, he couldn't say enough about their loyalty.
"Most organizations would have just said ’on to the next guy, we lost this one, unfortunate, but on to the next guy,' but they trusted me and believed in me to stick by my side through this whole process," Matzek says of the Rockies.
"[Keith Dugger, the Rockies' trainer] was the one that I really felt had my back," he adds. "He said he’s experienced it with some other players and he saw me going down the same path, and he wants to stop it before it gets any worse. He’s been in my corner this whole time along with the rest of the organization. They have been by my side 100% and I can’t thank them enough for it."
The best way Matzek can thank the Rockies, besides finishing the comeback tale he's trying to weave, is to impact the next generation of young pitchers looking up to him every day in Modesto. Whether he realizes it or not, he's already doing a stellar job in that role.
"No one knows how long he’s going to be here, but he’s with us, and he’s riding the bus with us every day," Castellani offers. "He’s a great human being. He’s not trying to be above anybody, he just helps you if you need it, he’ll talk to you whenever you want, and he’s a part of this team. He’s even in our ping pong tournament, so yeah, it’s awesome."