SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Last year, Rockies left-hander Tyler Matzek was experiencing clarity and success when the season ended.
"I would have loved to play year-round, although my body probably wouldn't have wanted to do that," said Matzek, who finished his rookie year 6-11 with a 4.05 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) after being called up in May, but went 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA in his final six starts. "I'd finally started feeling like I was hitting my stride, then the season ended.
"I started feeling more confident in myself, like I could actually do this up here. I started to do it earlier in the year, but I feel like I really learned toward the end of the year who I am, how I pitch, how hitters are going to approach me and how I approach the hitters."
The development from this point last year was dramatic. Matzek, 24, the Rockies' 2009 first-round pick out of Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif., battled control issues in the Minors. Starting in 2013 at Double-A Tulsa, in the '13 Arizona Fall League and even in Spring Training last year, the Rockies tried to unlock his potential by converting him to relief work.
But Triple-A Colorado Springs needed a starter at the beginning of last season and Matzek grew quickly. Now the Rockies are counting on Matzek in their 2015 rotation.
Development accelerated when Matzek learned new ways to use his slider, his best pitch. He credits catcher Michael McKenry, who caught Matzek at Colorado Springs and was with him as he entered the Majors, with helping set his strategy.
"I'd always had it for the back foot, but what really made the back-foot slider better was when I could flip it in there for a strike, and when I started doing that hitters had to swing at it," Matzek said. "Before, hitters would see slider and they'd just take it."
McKenry said the conversation happened because he noticed Matzek had reduced himself to two pitches -- the fastball and the back-foot slider.
"He was a bullpen mentality guy," McKenry said. "He didn't know it, but he was."
With the slider now used two ways, he has five pitches, including a fastball that tops at 96 mph, a changeup that pulled him through some difficult outings last year and could develop into a weapon, and an occasional curveball.
Matzek quickened his learning by initiating strategy, rather than turning off his mind and following instruction and scouting reports.
"I saw that from Tyler in his Major League debut, which is very unique," manager Walt Weiss said. "He was initiating conversations with McKenry that night. It usually works the other way, not only for your first outing but most of your first year."
Matzek said, "Once I got in my mind, 'This is who I am,' I was like, let's do it."