Much has been written about the hot pitching prospects in the Colorado Rockies systems. You are all familiar with the Jon Grays and Eddie Butlers of the world. Before they were tormenting hitters and being anointed the next hope of an oft-discouraging pitching staff, they were preceded by a hot prospect in his own right.
Tyler Matzek was the Rockies first round choice in 2009, going 11th overall out of Capistrano Valley High School in California. He did not play in 2009 after signing in mid-August to a then record bonus since surpassed by Gray. Making his pro debut in 2010 with Asheville, Matzek made 18 starts around a stint on the disabled list at the end of August. Heading into the 2011 season, Matzek was considered the Rockies’ top prospect and 33rd rated prospect in all of baseball. He spent 2011 at both Asheville and Modesto, struggling mightily as a Nut before gaining traction at the end of the season with Asheville, throwing four straight outings of 7+ innings pitched. Matzek repeated Modesto in 2012, and then climbed to Double-A Tulsa for all of 2013.
Now in his fourth season of professional ball, Matzek is in the rotation for Triple-A Colorado Springs, and laying his own claim for a mid-season call up to the big show. The knocks on Matzek have always been his average to below average off-speed pitches, a lack of control, and the subsequent elevated pitch counts limiting his innings during starts. These question marks and results on the field have led him to fall slightly off the radar behind Gray, Butler, and Tyler Anderson as pitching prospects. Both Baseball America and MLB.com list Matzek as the 12th ranked prospect in the system. Colorado had him pitch out of relief in the Arizona Fall League this past fall, and ultimately, the bullpen may be where Matzek makes his biggest contributions as a member of the Rockies.
In the meantime, can Matzek contribute as a major league starter? Could he fill in as a replacement for a struggling starter? Could he profile as bullpen help? Can he shine in the shadow of Gray and Butler? Can I squeeze an entire paragraph out of rhetorical questions? Let’s break down the numbers on Matzek, and find out exactly what we have waiting in the wings.
There are two AAA leagues in minor league baseball, the Pacific Coast League (PCL from here on out) and the International League. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox play in the PCL. Due to a variety of factors (altitude and its effect on pitching being one), pitchers in the PCL have a tendency to throw more breaking balls than fastballs compared to their brethren in the International League. For a pitcher like Matzek, this puts him slightly behind the eight ball, as his curve is average and his slider offering rates slightly lower than that. This isn’t necessarily saying that Matzek is focusing on throwing inferior pitches, but rather there may be a focus on improving those pitches, which if inconsistent, can lead to variances in command. The scouting report on Matzek for PCL hitters serves as a reminder that the fastball is the best offering and to wait out the breaking balls.
As mentioned, Matzek has always had trouble commanding the strike zone. He would debut with a BB/9 ratio of 6.2 despite effectively dominating hitters in Asheville in 2010, see that climb into the 8’s in 2011, and then see steady falls in each year since. So far in 2014, Matzek has shown his best command yet, walking 4.3 batters per nine innings. To coincide, his K:BB ratio is playing to a career high thus far, at 1.79 compared to the 1.61 registered in Modesto in 2012. Unfortunately, a common theme with strikeouts is also high pitch counts, but the lowered rates here would illustrate Matzek has been able to command those pitches when pitching in tough spots, throwing them for strikes when it counts.
Matzek has always had time on his side, and continues to display growth and maturation moving up the ladder. He has played every level at more than two years below the weighted league average, and is pitching his age 23 season nearly four years younger than the average pitcher throwing in the PCL this season. While age is not necessarily a determinant of future success, it seems that history can show us that Matzek should continue making progress as he heads toward his athletic prime.
It isn’t a secret that the Rockies have placed a greater emphasis on ground ball pitchers, playing in Coors Field it pays to keep the ball on the ground rather than airborne. For further reading on groundball pitchers I’d point you to my colleague Juan Pablo Zubillaga’s piece on pitching at Coors Field. The below chart, from mlbfarm.com, illustrates batter results vs. Matzek this season. The chart further reinforces that Matzek is throwing extra pitches as a “strikeout artist” and not inducing ground balls as much as organization philosophy would like. As the command continues to develop, conventional wisdom would suggest Matzek needs to locate more pitches down in the strike zone earlier in the count, producing more ground ball inducing swings from hitters. In a note from the obvious column, the ability to induce those ground balls will further reduce Matzek’s pitch count, allowing him to reach further into games.
How does all of this translate to pitching at Coors Field you ask? Well, we turn our attention to park factors to look for any correlation between pitching in Colorado Springs and Denver. As mentioned above, the Pacific Coast League is more hitter-friendly, with Colorado Springs near the top of that list. As has been well documented, Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in the majors. While it doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect what Matzek has been dealing with in 2014, we can look at the 3 year park factor of Security Services Field and see that it is listed at 111, with Coors Field coming in at 118. Anything showing above 100 is considered hitter friendly. This data tells us that both parks trend heavily towards hitters, with it getting more difficult on the pitcher jumping from AAA to the majors. What this suggests to us is that if Matzek were to make the trip north on 25, we should expect regression from the numbers he has posted thus far on balls in play. Those long fly balls or line drives listed in the chart above could begin falling into the gaps for base hits or even climbing the fence. The outward effect this has can be countered again by Matzek continuing to better locate pitches, limiting mistakes up in the zone or hanging in the middle.
Thus far, I’ve made it sound like Matzek has peaked and nothing but doom awaits him as he approaches the majors. That would be missing the underlying point throughout this dissertation, as continued growth and development by Matzek can enable him to turn a corner and develop into the top ranked pitcher he entered baseball as. If Franklin Morales struggles this season continue even now that he has moved to the bullpen, it would not be far-fetched to think that Matzek could outperform Morales, even given some regression as he makes the leap. Updated Zips projections, courtesy of our friends at Fangraphs, show Morales posting K/9 and BB/9 ratios of 6.64 and 3.85 respectively, with a FIP of 5.55. These projections would result in Morales posting a WAR of -0.7, effectively making a replacement level pitcher worth more to the Rockies. Thus far in 2014 at AAA, Matzek has gone 7.99, 3.99, and 4.36 in the same categories. Given league average performance on the balls in play against Matzek, it’s completely reasonable to suggest that he would fare no worse than Morales has to this point in the season. With Butler getting the call to the bigs and forcing Morales into the bullpen, the hope is Morales is more effective in the new role. If not, and with Matzek’s experience pitching in relief from the Arizona Fall League, Matzek could be on the horizon as a reliever as well.
In the long run, if Matzek is to contribute to this season’s iteration of the Colorado Rockies, it may be in the bullpen. If Matzek’s off-speed pitches are average or worse, trying to sneak through a lineup 2-3 times per outing may prove to be difficult. Limiting the length of outings can also allow Matzek to put more into his fastball, as shown in the Arizona Fall League, where he regularly sat at 93 and even reached 95, as opposed to the 87-91 range seen from him as a starter. Pitching from the bullpen would also lighten his pitch count workload from the walk issues that continue.
There is still work for Matzek to do in terms of development as a pitcher, especially one ready for pitching half his games in such a hitter friendly environment. If he can continue making the strides in lowering the walks issued by locating and commanding his pitch offerings, Matzek will be ready for the next step sooner than later. It should be no surprise if Matzek is able to step on the rubber at Coors Field and make a solid contribution for the Rockies at some point in 2014, but even spending the season at Colorado Springs and prepping for a 2015 debut would be alright for a pitcher who could use a sprinkle of additional seasoning whether that is as a starter or coming out of the bullpen.