Braves’ Tyler Matzek doesn’t shy away from sharing his mental-health battles

Atlanta Braves pitcher Tyler Matzek (68) delivers during the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Truist Park, Friday, April 19, 2024, in Atlanta. The Braves won 8-3. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Atlanta Braves pitcher Tyler Matzek (68) delivers during the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Truist Park, Friday, April 19, 2024, in Atlanta. The Braves won 8-3. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Before he fired thunderbolts from the pitcher’s mound and helped the Braves bring home the 2021 World Series, Tyler Matzek couldn’t even play catch.

In 2014, Matzek was a Colorado Rockies rookie fulfilling on his promise as a first-round pick. However, a case of the yips, a mental block that eroded his ability to control where he threw the ball, eventually dropped him out of the major leagues and then all the way out of baseball.

In 2017, he tried to make his way back, starting with games of catch with a friend at an empty field.

“I would put my catch partner in front of a net that’s about 40 feet long and 30, 40 feet high and just say, ‘Hey, man, you’re probably going to be shagging more than catching,’” Matzek told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Truist Park on Thursday night.

The story ended well, obviously. With the help of several people, notably a mental-skills coach (Jason Kuhn) with whom he continues to work and his wife, Lauren, Matzek slowly recovered his game and returned to MLB with the Braves in 2020. He played a starring role in the 2021 World Series run as a flamethrowing lefty reliever.

Matzek particularly credits his catcher from the Rockies, Michael McKenry. Their time as teammates long past, McKenry met Kuhn and thought that he could help his friend and called Matzek.

“That one phone call put me back on the right track to where I am today,” Matzek said. “I honestly owe him, him and my wife, all the praise that I can possibly give them.”

And it is McKenry’s example that led Matzek to do things like what he did before Thursday’s game against the Nationals – visit with a 10-year-old boy from Columbia, South Carolina, named Bryson Vaughan whose anxiety battles have created difficulty in his life and intruded on his ability to play baseball.

“Just having somebody who was able to reach out to me and put me on the right track to get me in touch with the right resources was a great example of how I would like to go about doing it,” Matzek said.

And in so doing, and in speaking publicly about his own challenges, Matzek hopes to help end the stigma around mental health and help those fighting mental-health battles.

“I think just talking about it, I think it’s shocking to a lot of people how many people truly deal with anxiety and depression on a day-to-day basis,” Matzek said. “We are so fearful of showing that in society. I just hope that I can be like a candle in a dark room that kind of just brings light to a bad situation and hopefully other people can light their candle, as well. Next thing you know, there’s not a stigma around it anymore.”

About 13% of U.S. adults report regularly feeling worry, nervousness or anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 5% have regular feelings of depression. Among children 3-17, 9% were diagnosed with anxiety between 2016-19 and 4% with depression.

It was through Matzek’s willingness to speak about his experience that he and young Bryson were connected through Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, for which Matzek participated in a video highlighting his challenges with anxiety. Matzek invited Bryson, his brother Parker and parents Ben and Amber to the field, where, for the better part of 10 minutes before the game, he signed autographs, took pictures and offered encouragement.

Bryson, wearing a blue Braves T-shirt and cap and holding his glove with the crook of his left arm, gave Matzek his full attention, looking up at him and hanging on every word. Bryson said that he had some anxiety beforehand because he had never met a major-league player before, but that he was fine once the visit began.

“It makes me feel more comfortable because I know that even he was anxious and then he won the World Series,” Bryson said.

Braves pitcher Tyler Matzek poses for a photo with 10-year-old Bryson Vaughan for Bryson's mother Amber prior to the Braves-Nationals game May 30, 2024 at Truist Park. Bryson has had challenge with anxiety and was invited to the field by Matzek, who has been public about his own mental-health challenges. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

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Credit: Ken Sugiura

Matzek said he told Bryson to try to enjoy the game, recognizing that it can be difficult with his anxiety.

“So I told him the best thing to do right now is just take baby steps and attack the fear that you’re feeling,” Matzek said. “We’re not going to be afraid of that fear, we’re going to attack it. That’s where the bravery comes in. We can start small.”

Matzek spoke from experience, having dealt with his yips by becoming comfortable with playing catch before he could actually begin competing again. And, even then, it was not a direct path back to the majors. In 2018, he played for an independent-league team, the Texas AirHogs. In 2019, he signed with the Diamondbacks’ Double-A team but continued control problems led to his release, returning him to the AirHogs.

There, he was able to figure out a mechanical flaw that brought him to the Braves organization and on the path to Atlanta. However, he also was suffering from panic attacks. That could be traced back to anxiety that he had felt from the time he was a teenager that he had accepted as normal.

When he had the panic attacks, “that’s when I started realizing like, ‘OK, this is not normal that I feel like I’m dying every time I get on a field,’” he said.

He sought out professional help and “everything kind of smoothed out and now I know what normal’s supposed to feel like,” he said.

Matzek is on the injured list with inflammation in his left elbow as he returns from Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2023 season. He had a 9.90 ERA in 10 innings this season before he was sidelined. It’s not ideal, but he has a useful perspective on his situation. It wasn’t so long ago, for instance, that he had trouble just playing catch.

“If I have a bad day now, it’s still like, ‘It ain’t bad,’” he said. “‘It’s not good, but it ain’t bad.’”

It’s a message worth sharing with children like Bryson, especially if he can clean up his grammar. Matzek said he gets a handful of requests each season and always is happy to comply.

Said Matzek, “If I can take a little time out of my day to help somebody in the moment or the rest of their life or whatever it is, just a little piece of information I can pass on to them, I’m absolutely going to say yes to that.”