PALM SPRINGS, Calif – In the fall of 2017, Tyler Matzek was facing an uncertain crossroads: continue to try and work his way back to a Major League mound, or move on in life and understand that while he accomplished something that so few people ever do, he would not be able to get back to the highest level. The former first round pick of the Colorado Rockies nearly gave up on baseball after throwing just 22 MLB innings in 2015. The hard-throwing lefty had developed the yips, baseball terminology for suddenly and inexplicably losing the ability to throw a baseball with any certainty of where it was going. The yips afflicts pitchers, catchers, infielders and can be overcome or potentially career ending. Some players return but are never the same. It’s a mental block. It’s baseball’s version of extreme anxiety and it kept Matzek out of baseball for over two years.
In 2017, Matzek began toying with the idea of a comeback. That led him to Driveline in Seattle, WA where he began to rebuild himself as an athlete and a pitcher. He needed to learn how to throw and pitch all over again. At Driveline, he was able to workout indoors and work with some of the top pitching minds in the industry. This allowed him to focus on the little things like mental approach and pitching mechanics without facing hitters and competition. But baseball players don’t earn a living by perfecting a mental approach or mechanics. They make a living on the field facing competition. So following encouraging results at Driveline, Matzek ultimately made the decision to head to the California Winter League following a discussion with longtime player, coach, and professional manager Dan DiPace in Pasadena, CA. DiPace, who has perhaps attended more CWL seasons as a coach and manager than anyone else, saw Matzek throw a bullpen and knew that he was looking at a Major League arm. After hearing Matzek’s story, DiPace knew that the CWL would be the perfect environment for Matzek to re-enter a competitive environment and play in front of the dozens of MLB scouts and professional managers that attend the league. The CWL is where Matzek would begin the next part of his journey back to Major Leaue Baseball.
Following the 2018 CWL, Matzek signed with the Seattle Mariners. Seattle had seen him at Driveline and was aware of his story and strong desire to make a comeback. The last test that Matzek needed to pass was facing live hitters, which he did for a month at the CWL. As is life in baseball, however, nothing is certain. Matzek was released from minor league camp at the end of March and ultimately spent 2018 in the American Association with the Grand Prairie Airhogs, with mixed results. In 2019, Matzek bounced around after signing first with the Arizona Diamondbacks before being released and heading back to Grand Prairie before ultimately being signed by the Atlanta Braves. The Braves were willing to really let Matzek develop and struggle and learn and eventually thrive. Their faith paid off.
In 2020, amid the coronavirus crisis, uncertainty about an MLB season even occurring, and unique roster rules that allowed Matzek to make the Braves Opening Day roster perhaps as one of the last few players under consideration, Matzek quickly extablished himself as a key piece on a stacked Braves roster. Matzek wasted no time in his first MLB action of the season, throwing 1 inning on July 26th and striking out two hitters. The rest of the regular season would be more of the same. Strikeout after strikeout. Dominant appearance after dominant appearance. Matzek quickly moved from “last man on the roster” to “pivotal bullpen arm.” At the end of the regular season campaign, Matzek racked up 43 strikeouts in 29 innings with a 2.79 ERA.
The Braves would go on to reach the NLCS, leaning on Matzek and his newfound 98+ MPH fastball to put away game after game in the late innings. Only a Braves’ baserunning error against the Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS would stand between Matzek and the World Series. For the postseason, finished with a microscopic 1.04 ERA over 8.2 innings pitched. He gave up just 6 hits, and struck out 14 of the 34 batters he faced. For 2021, Matzek has established himself as a member of the back of the Braves bullpen. Comeback complete, Matzek now sets his sights on the future, saying “The ultimate goal is to have 10 years in the big league and be a hall of famer,” Matzek said. “I mean, that’s everybody’s ultimate goal.”