Hi Seedings to Stars readers. I’m Robbie Knopf, primarily a writer for Rays Colored Glasses, the Rays blog here at FanSided, but I’m going to start contributing to Seedlings to Stars on at least a once per week basis. For a little background on me, I’m a sabermetrics guy who got interested in scouting in an attempt to determine the validity of some of these statistics on a case by case basis. To warn you in advance, I’m not afraid at all to get technical, although I’ll try to explain every stat I use as well as possible. Now that we’ve gone through that, let’s get to what everybody at Seedlings to Stars wants to hear about: prospects.
Tyler Matzek has lost control. That’s a fact. The past two seasons, Matzek, the Colorado Rockies‘ first round pick in 2009 who signed for a 3.9 million dollar bonus, has walked batters at a rate so bad for a pitcher with his potential that’s it’s ridiculous: 7.6 walks per 9 innings. Unbelievable. Sure, Matzek has struck out 9.6 batters per 9 innings and has posted a nice 0.7 HR/9 as well. But the 7.6 BB/9 cancels all of that out and his FIP reflects that as it comes in at a horrible 4.71. His ERA wasn’t too much better a 4.64. OK, I have now stated the obvious: Matzek’s horrible walk rate has doomed him the past two years. But is Matzek’s control really this bad?
Well, you have to think that a pitching prospect of Matzek’s caliber will be able to turn himself around. Matzek has the stuff of a frontline starter, especially as a lefty. He throws a low to mid-90′s fastball with some nice late downward movement, a sharp slider that starts like his fastball before disappearing down in the zone and in to right-handed batters, and a sinking changeup that down and away from righties. Matzek’s motion helps him hide the ball really well as hitters don’t see the ball into a split-second before he delivers, but he accomplishes that by throwing across his body, something that has at times completely messed his control by messing up his release point. Matzek rebounding in 2012 has a lot to do with him getting a more consistent release point and simply throwing strikes.
But the stats on Matzek seem to paint a much worse picture. When a typical pitcher has control problems, he posts a 5.0 BB/9, maybe a 5.5 BB/9. Matzek’s has been 7.6 including a ridiculously bad 8.9 mark in 2011. Why has that happened? As it turns out, the ridiculously-high walk rate was at least partially due to factors out of Matzek’s control.
According to Minor League Central, Matzek threw just 51.3% of his pitches within the zone in 2011, which he started at High-A Modesto in the California League before being sent back down to Low-A Asheville in the Sally League to try to figure himself out. A weighted strike percentage between the two leagues he played in (based on how many pitches he threw at both levels) was 68.4%, an enormous difference. But while that’s not exactly what you want to see, zone percentage isn’t necessarily the most important thing when you’re talking about a pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff like Matzek. All he has to do is throw enough strikes with his fastball to sell his slider, which can make tons of hitters come up empty, mostly by the way it breaks out of the strike zone. When hitters swung at Matzek’s pitches in 2011, they made contact just 48.8% of the time compared to th weighted league average of 59.16%. That’s a great sign, and it shows that Matzek’s pitches’ movement wasn’t a problem at all in 2011. Instead the problem was swing percentage: hitters swung at just 52.4% of his pitches compared to the weighted league average of 68.4%. Why did that happen? It was because hitters didn’t expect Matzek to throw strikes and were taking unless they saw a pitch they thought they could drive. Hitters swung at 87.9% of Matzek’s pitches that were in the zone compared to the weighted league average of 88.8%, with the only reason it wasn’t closer to the average being a few absolutely nasty breaking balls hitters simply couldn’t figure out and took for strikes. Even though they swung at so many pitches in the zone, they made contact just 48.2% of the time compared to the league average of 57.1. Just looking at Matzek’s pitches in the zone, he was undeniably dominant. Hitters thought so many of his pitches would be strikes, but instead they came up empty over the half the time. But the problem for Matzek was pitches out of the zone.
Matzek actually threw 58.5% of his pitches for strikes in 2011, a bad percentage, but not unheard of. Gio Gonzalez threw just 60% of his pitches for strikes in 2011 and Ricky Romero was at 61%. If Matzek had managed to stop the lapses where he completely lost his release point and control of his pitches at some point in the season, it would seem that he would have been completely fine. But really that isn’t the case. Matzek’s lapses led to hitters letting any pitch that seemed close go by as well. Listen to this. Batters swung at just 15.0% of Matzek’s pitches outside the zone compared to the weighted league average of 25.0%. At High-A before he was sent down, they swung at just 2.0% of his pitches outside the zone! When they swung, they couldn’t hit anything, making contact just 52.1% of the time on pitches out of the zone compared to the weighted league average of 69.2%. When Matzek could sell his fastball in the zone, his other pitches were able to generate a multiplicity of swings and misses. So pretty much whenever Matzek stayed in the strike zone or could at least establish the strike zone enough to get hitters to swing, which works out to around 65.6% of his pitches, he was an exceptional pitcher. But the problem was that for the other 34.4%, even when he wasn’t wild, hitters just weren’t swinging and were consistently taking balls just off the plate. What could Matzek do if hitters simply weren’t swinging at his pitches just out of the strike zone and just were taking walk after walk even when the pitches were close?
I’m no betting man, but I’d be willing to wager that Tyler Matzek never posts a BB/9 5.0 or higher again as a pro. Rockies personnel are hard at work helping Matzek nail down a consistent release point that will help him throw more strikes, especially with his fastball, and eliminate most of his control lapses. In reality, Matzek’s control problem was blown out of proportion. Most of Matzek’s walks were actualy caused not by his control lapses, but by the feeling that the lapses created, that he could not throw a strike. Once he establishes that he can throw his pitches for strikes, that feeling will quickly be thrown by the wayside. And once he starts throwing more strikes, everything will come together. He’ll get more swings and misses with all his pitches, and his already great strikeout rate will go up even more. Hitters will have to swing at more of his pitches just off the plate, especially in two-strike counts, because any one of Matzek’s pitches could be a in the zone for called strike three. Even when they do make contact, which would probably happen more often than it did in 2011, it will be much weaker contact, leading to more groundballs (Matzek posted just a 39% GB% in 2011). And Matzek’s walk rate will shoot down. Matzek may never have good control, but if he can manage just decent control (say a 4.5 a BB/9), he’ll be dominant pitcher. Matzek still has the potential to be the topflight starter the Rockies saw when they drafted him in the first round. Look for him to start showing that. Watch out for Tyler Matzek in 2012.
For more on the Rockies, check out Rox Pile.