After years battling yips, Matzek tries comeback

Once a top prospect, first-round pick says 'the game was taken away'

March 8th, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- could have walked away from baseball when his seemingly promising career was wrecked by performance anxiety. Or, more precisely, the yips. But had he run from that tough period of his career, he would have denied himself the opportunity to construct what is now a chance to achieve the realization of an improbable dream.

Five years removed from his most recent Major League experience and just six months removed from a second independent league stint with the Texas Air Hogs, Matzek is a feel-good story in Braves camp. The former first-round pick (selected by Colorado in 2009) was not even extended a non-roster invite. But while pitching in a few Grapefruit League games as a Minor League extra, the left-hander has at least created reason to question whether he could open the season in Atlanta’s bullpen.

“A few years back, I just said I don’t want to be out of baseball,” Matzek said. “I’m going to keep going until I get back. I want to look back when I’m 70 or 80 years old and say I gave it everything I had. That’s really the only thing that is pushing me. I don’t want to look in the mirror and be upset with any decision that I made.”

Matzek’s decision to persevere has reunited him with Braves bench coach Walt Weiss, who managed the lefty with the Rockies. Weiss was there when Matzek enjoyed a celebratory Major League debut against the Braves in 2014, and he was there in ‘16 when the Rockies excused the pitcher from Spring Training with hopes he could overcome the mental demons that had robbed his control.

So, it’s understandable why Weiss was filled with joy when he saw Matzek pitch 1 1/3 scoreless innings during his spring debut against the Blue Jays on Feb. 25. But there may have been even more reason to be excited on March 1, when the 29-year-old hurler struck out four of five batters faced over 1 2/3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox. He replaced Mike Foltynewicz in the second inning and promptly ended a threat by striking out Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez.

Given where things stood with his control over the past few years, it’s important to note Matzek has not issued a walk while totaling 3 2/3 scoreless innings in three Grapefruit League appearances.

“I’m so proud of this kid,” Weiss said. “I was there during some of his darkest days and it was really tough. I was there when he debuted and there was so much promise. We were like, ‘this is our guy and this guy is going to be at the top of our rotation for the next however many years.’ It was heartbreaking. He’s a great kid, which made it that much tougher.

“But I’ll tell you what, watching him in the outings he’s had for us this spring, I’ve been like a little kid just watching him. I feel like it’s my son out there. Just watching him perform and do well, it’s just unbelievable.”

Taken by the Rockies with the 11th overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, Matzek spent a couple of years regarded as a top prospect and struggled a bit before debuting on June 11, 2014. He allowed two runs over seven innings against the Braves that day, striking out seven, and recorded a single off of Julio Teherán.

As Matzek posted a 4.05 ERA over 20 starts during his rookie season, he had an 18.1 percent strikeout rate and 8.8 percent walk rate. But his control suddenly disappeared the next season, when he either hit or walked 21.6 percent of 102 batters faced. He was optioned to Triple-A after five starts and continued to be doomed by the yips.

“When you’re throwing it behind hitters and have no idea where the ball is going as a lefty, that’s usually a pretty good indicator something is wrong,” Matzek said. “I feel comfortable now. I feel that is over with. I’m just ready to start this next chapter of my career.”

After years of meeting with various doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, Matzek came to the realization perseverance is the best remedy for what is clinically recognized as performance anxiety. He felt he had overcome the yips when he went to Spring Training with the D-backs last year. But he needed time to fix mechanical flaws from many years spent fighting to regain his control.

By the time Matzek spent some time with the Air Hogs last summer and then signed with the Braves near the end of the season, he felt he was finally right both physically and mentally. He’s a longshot to begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen, but his underdog story will be one to follow as the year progresses.

“The game was taken away from me for a little while,” Matzek said. “I’m just happy to be back and have the chance to compete at any level.”