There were a lot of breakout performances for the 2021 Atlanta Braves, both in the regular season as well as the postseason. Austin Riley turned himself into a down-ballot MVP vote-accumulator during the regular season, while the outfield Trade Deadline acquisitions for all got a chance to shine brightly in the postseason. However, no group may have cemented themselves in Braves lore more than the back end of the Braves bullpen, a/k/a “The Night Shift,” and, in particular, reliever Tyler Matzek.
Tyler Matzek’s path back to Major League Baseball was anything but typical. After being draft in the first round by the Colorado Rockies way back in the 2009 MLB Draft, Matzek battled injuries, command problems and the yips, all of which resulted in him bouncing around four different MLB organizations, two separate stints in the American Association, and some work and showcases with Driveline. After his second stint with the Texas AirHogs in the American Association, Matzek had his contract purchased by the Atlanta Braves in August 2019 and he spent the rest of the 2019 season in the minors.
At the beginning of 2020, Matzek made the roster out of Spring Training. It’s kind of weird to think about, but there’s a chance he only made the roster because of how that pandemic-shortened season featured an expanded roster. By the end of the season, though, it was kind of crazy that he was a fringy roster add back on Opening Day in July, asd he put together a stellar season with 2.79 ERA, 1.92 FIP, and 0.8 fWAR to go with 43 strikeouts in 29 innings of work. Matzek was a key part of the bullpen that essentially saved the 2020 season for Atlanta amid a sea of pitching injuries, and he has been a staple at the back end of the Braves’ bullpen ever since.
It was widely expected that the bullpen was going to take a bit of a step back from the unit that was among that absolute best in the game during the 2020 season. Losing Mark Melancon at the back end was potentially a blow, and it was probably unrealistic to expect the various relief holdovers. However, Matzek was still expected to be a key contributor as one of the late inning arms used with regularity to get to Will Smith at the end of the game.
ZiPS projections were not particularly high on Matzek, but it is worth noting that ZiPS factors in a player’s career numbers which, in Matzek’s case, were not super great early in 2014 and 2015. ZiPS projected Matzek to post a 4.11 ERA and 4.35 FIP with 49 strikeouts and 26 walks in 35 innings — basically 0.1 WAR, or 0.2 if extended out to 65 innings. Steamer was more positive, with a forecasted estimate of 0.6 to 0.7 WAR.
2021 Season Results
2021 Season Stats - Tyler Matzek: 69 appearances, 63 IP, 2.57 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 4.01 xFIP, 11.00 K/9, 5.29 BB/9, .255 BABIP, 1.1 fWAR
Tyler Matzek was undoubtedly one of the workhorses of the Braves’ bullpen in 2021, as he had the third most appearances (69... nice) among Braves relievers (behind Luke Jackson and Will Smith who each made 71 appearances in 2021). During a season that saw a lot of uneven performances and volatility from Atlanta relievers, Matzek was steady for the most part, particularly in the second half of the season as the Braves made their run towards the playoffs.
Matzek did walk a ton of batters — 14 percent of those he faced. He also wasn’t much of a groundball pitcher. Those two things combined to give him a fairly pedestrian 94 xFIP-. However, a large chunk of the high xFIP was garnered in June and July, namely a nine-appearance stretch where Matzek walked nearly a quarter of batters he faced. Matzek himself attributed some of his summer struggles to a midseason adjustment done to increase his velocity — which appears to have flopped. When he scrapped it, he went back to being dominant, including an 0.00/0.97/2.03 line in his next nine appearances starting on July 24. While he had some ups and downs like any reliever, he dominated in the postseason as well.
What went right? What went wrong?
The question of what went right is fairly straightforward, as Matzek was a very valuable bullpen piece for the Braves this season. He struck out 11 batters per nine innings pitched, posted a 2.57 ERA for the season and he saw his average four-seam velocity jump up to 96 mph from 94.5 mph in 2020. He did all of that while throwing the most innings he has thrown in a season by a significant margin since 2014, when he was a starting pitcher for the Rockies.
There were some causes for concern from the 2021 regular season, however. Matzek may have been impacted by the infamous “sticky stuff” ban that went into effect in June 2021, as June was one of his worst months of the season (4.66 ERA, .324 wOBA, nine walks in 9.2 innings of work) — it’s not clear whether this or the ill-fated mechanical adjustment, or perhaps both, contributed to the poor showing. Matzek also saw a significant jump in his walk rate during the 2021 season. For the 2020 season, Tyler walked a reasonable 3.1 batters per nine, but that jumped to a much scarier 5.29 batters per nine in 2021 (along with a drop in his strikeout rate as well from 13.34 K/9 in 2020 to 11.00 K/9 in 2021). A chunk of that can reasonably be attributed to the adjustment to the less tacky ball and the big jump in innings for Matzek, but it is worth monitoring going forward given the command issues he has had in the past.
On a pitch basis, Matzek’s slider remained devastating, and his command of it improved. He was better able to get his very hard four-seamer up in the zone in 2021 compared to 2020, and its pitch shape improved... but given that he phased out his cutter altogether, it may have gotten a little too predictable. It was still great, but with him throwing it over 70 percent of the time, the whiff rate and put-away rate on the pitch suffered a bit. Hitters chased it less often, and did more with it when they got it, even if that just meant fouling it off.
Tyler Matzek’s slider had a hilarious whiff rate of over 50 percent in 2021, making it pretty much a top-10 pitch in baseball in that regard. One wonders what might happen if he throws it more often than 26.8 percent of the time.
Road to the Title
Tyler Matzek’s Postseason Stats: 13 appearances, 15.2 IP, 1.72 ERA, 0.87 FIP, 13.79 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
Unless you were hiding under a rock during the Braves’ postseason run, you are all well aware that Tyler Matzek was one of the postseason stars for the World Series Champion Atlanta Braves. The Braves played 16 postseason games in 2021 and Tyler Matzek appeared in 13 of them, giving up earned runs in just two of those games. It is not hyperbole to suggest that his two-inning performance against the Dodgers in Game Six of the NLCS might be in the top five postseason moments all-time for the Braves.
I was in the ballpark and haven't been able to go back and watch the full game broadcast, pitch-by-pitch. This performance by Tyler Matzek is the biggest and best inning I've ever seen from a reliever.— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) November 19, 2021
I know that sounds like hyperbole. But it's not. https://t.co/LU7233N4gh
After that appearance, Matzek made appearances in four of the six World Series games and give up just one earned run in 5 1⁄3 innings of work with seven strikeouts and zero (!) walks.
All in all, Matzek delivered about 60 percent as much WPA in the postseason (1.14) as he did in his 69 regular season appearances (1.99), which is pretty crazy if you think about it. But, even crazier, is that Matzek had 23.71% cWPA in the postseason. Combine that with his regular season cWPA, and you can safely say that Tyler Matzek was a gigantic chunk of the title based on the stuff that happened while he was on the mound. While NLCS Game 6 was the stuff of legend, part of the reason why Matzek accrued so much cWPA is that he just kept mowing down batters — he put up positive cWPA in each of his 13 postseason appearances, and only had 12 games with negative cWPA in the regular season.
Oh, but he wasn’t only a badass in the postseason. Remember September 9 (the Joc Pederson walkoff), when he came in to a tie game, bases loaded, one out, and escaped by doing something like this?
He also gave us the phrase “Night Shift’s ready,” which made some t-shirt companies a whole bunch of money and is going to be a phrase uttered by Braves fans for a long, long time. There was also the whole “he almost got arrested at the World Series parade” snafu, but that ended well and was a lesson that someone probably needs to keep a close eye on the bullpen bus if another World Series parade happens in Atlanta in the next few years.
Outlook for 2022
After two strong seasons and a postseason run for the ages, it is safe to say that barring injury, Tyler Matzek is going to feature prominently in the Braves’ bullpen for the foreseeable future. Matzek is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason and is projected to get $1.5 million according to MLB Trade Rumors. The Braves have a pretty decent track record of agreeing to deals with arbitration-eligible guys before heading to hearings, so it’s reasonable to expect that something will get done soon, assuming the CBA negotiations don’t muck things up beforehand.
As for what to expect out of Matzek in 2022, it seems like he is the real deal and his performance in 2020-2021 wasn’t an aberration. The walk rate/occasional command lapses are definitely worth keeping an eye on, but he has done very well the last couple of seasons and until he stops doing that, he has earned the trust he currently has. Moreover, even if he never threw another pitch for the Atlanta Braves, he would still go down in Braves lore as the guy that finally got the Braves past the Dodgers and as a big (really big!) reason why the Braves won their first World Series title since 1995.