Tyler Matzek became a postseason legend a year ago, helping to pitch the Braves to their first World Series of the 21st century. He will hold a special place in all of our battered, over-stressed sports hearts for the rest of time. One can argue he recorded the three biggest outs for Atlanta, ever.
Sadly, 2022 was not the encore Matzek or the Braves were hoping for.
Matzek’s return to the majors has been written about at length at this point. The Braves signed him to minor league deal in late 2019, and he made the expanded roster out of the “summer camp” preseason in 2020. The rest is history.
What were the expectations?
Postseason domination aside, Matzek was a quality reliever since returning to the majors. He put up 0.8 fWAR in just 29 regular-season innings in 2020 (and was even better in the postseason that year), and 1.1 fWAR in 63 innings in the regular season of 2021. If there was one concern, it was that his 2021 xFIP- was not great at 94, but he was still expected to be a high-quality, higher-leverage arm heading into 2022.
2022 results, a.k.a., The Man Who Sacrificed His Elbow and Shoulder
After The Night Shift seemingly pitched every inning after the fifth during the Braves’ World Series run, doing so took its toll on at least two of the members.
In addition to Luke Jackson needing Tommy John Surgery in the spring, Matzek dealt with frequent issues during the season. He never looked right on the mound and his velocity dip was concerning, even if somewhat expected after the extreme workload the previous October. In May, Matzek hit the Injured List with shoulder inflammation. It would be more than two months until he returned, and the results were never particularly encouraging. In 33 innings after the shoulder injury-related IL stint, he posted a perfectly fine 3.00 ERA, but the underlying peripherals were a mess; only a 19 percent strikeout rate, an alarming 14.6 percent walk rate, combining for a 4.14 FIP and 5.37 xFIP.
Matzek’s struggles mostly went under the radar as the Braves had a stellar bullpen for much of the year, but it was a real bummer to see him be so ineffective, even in low-stress situations.
With the season winding down and Matzek seldom pitching in the biggest games of the year — he did not throw a single pitch against the Mets in the final weekend series that determined the NL East — it was reported he was undergoing Tommy John Surgery. It was the cherry on top to a frustrating year for the southpaw. He will miss the entire 2023 season and look to be ready to go in Spring Training 2024. To his benefit, Matzek will now have a full 18 months to rest, recover and rehab given the calendar.
Overall, Matzek finished his season with -0.1 fWAR in 43 2⁄3 innings. His line for the whole season included an 85 ERA- that was well below his 114 FIP- and a ghastly 140 xFIP-.
What went right? What went wrong?
Suffice to say, nothing really went right for Matzek. A silver lining is that somehow his run prevention never sunk to the depths of his performance, but that’s not much of a consolation prize given that everyone knew he wasn’t right the entire season.
Some combination of shoulder and elbow issues appear to have seriously sapped his velocity and control over the course of the year. He missed the zone a ton, and hitters whiffed on strikes way less often than before. He lost about two ticks on his fastball, and as it became more hittable, hitters had an easier time sitting on a slider that caught the zone, or just waiting out an easy-to-punish four-seamer.
Despite all that, though, Matzek somehow finished 2022 with positive WPA, and actually had more shutdowns (nine) than meltdowns (four). Probably his crowning moment of the season came on August 9, as he closed out an extra-inning win against the Red Sox. As the Braves’ sixth pitcher of the game, he retired the not-quite-fearsome trio of Kevin Plawecki, Jaylin Davis, and Tommy Pham in order in the bottom of the 11th, getting a groundout and two strikeouts in the process. It was an amazing outing in a season that had few of them, and came at the right time: it was one of just six outings for the year where he entered in high leverage.
One of his other high-leverage outings came on July 10, a game that eventually ended in an extra-inning, walkoff win for the Braves. But, way before the game ended, Matzek had another all-too-rare awesome outing: with the Braves down by a run in the seventh, and Darren O’Day making a bad situation worse by putting runners on the corners with one out, Matzek put out the fire:
Let’s just all ignore that the ball Josh Bell hit came off the bat at well over 100 mph. Matzek stayed in, threw a perfect inning, and then Austin Riley both tied the game in the eighth and walked it off in the 12th.
(Random weird fact: the single highest positive WPA play for the Braves recorded while Matzek was on the hill was Jon Berti getting thrown out on an attempted steal of third after he hit a leadoff double in the seventh in a tie game:
The Braves went on to win this one, too, by a run.)
Still, there were signs even early on that Matzek just didn’t have it. On April 27, he had one of his worst outings of the year, spilling three runs to the Cubs in extra innings, in a sequence that included an RBI single by Willson Contreras, a wild pitch, a Patrick Wisdom homer, and another single. It wasn’t one of his high-walk games, but it was still ugly, and a sign of things to come.
On November 18, the Braves signed Matzek to a two-year deal worth $3.1 million. The deal includes a club option that would pay Matzek $5.5 million in 2025 if picked up, and has no buyout. Matzek will spend 2023 rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery before trying to get back on the horse and return to his dominant form in 2024 and beyond.