Do you know what would be awesome? If Brian Matusz turned out to be related to 1970s NFL player and semi-famous 1980s actor John “Tooz” Matuszak (Caveman with Ringo Starr and Olivia Newton-John!). What, you don’t remember Tooz? Oh, man, you really missed out. I’m kind of surprised to learn that he isn’t that Ogre guy from Revenge Of The Nerds. No matter, I guess I should probably stick to writing about Brian Matusz.
Last night, the 25-year-old southpaw played a key roll in the Orioles 3-2 victory over the Yankees. Matusz had a bit of a shaky beginning to his appearance, but when he came back out for the eight he got three straight outs after giving up a single. It was a big moment for Matusz, who after being a hot prospect and showing some promise as a starter in 2010, had his pumpkin turn into an unmitigated disaster in 2011. This discouraging trend carried through to this season, until he was transitioned to the bullpen near the end of the regular season by manager Buck Showalter.
In his new role with team, Matusz has pitched very well, and after last night, he obviously looks like a savvy inclusion on the Orioles’ post season roster.
Before the 2009 season, Baseball America ranked Matusz as the 25th-best prospect in all of baseball. Prior to 2010, they upped that ranking to number five. With a core group of promising and mostly young position players already competing at the Major League level, like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, it seemed like the Orioles were on the verge of competing with the big dogs of the American League East, if their hot prospects would develop as expected.
They have, of course, made the playoffs, and the position players I mentioned above have been a big part of that (although we’ll have to take a look at Adam Jones’ alleged “superstar” status given that he pretty much reverted right back to being the Adam Jones we know and love after signing his contract). The young pitching of earlier years, however, has not.
Well, Chris Tillman, of all people, actually was good for half of a season (not seeing that lasting, but that’s another story), but really, it was veteran pitchers Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen who held the rotation together with rubber bands. The bullpen was good. But the “young pitching” that was so promising was basically horrible. Former hot prospects Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton had ERAs of 6.13 and 5.16, respectively. The fact that the team not only acquired Joe Saunders and started him in an elimination game pretty much says it all about the Orioles’ 2012 rotation.
And then there was Matusz. He might not have dazzled in 2010, but a 4.33 ERA and 4.05 FIP for a 23-year old over 175 innings was pretty promising when put alongside the glowing scouting reports. However, disaster struck in 2011. Sure, Matusz had some injury issues, but a 10.69 ERA and 7.66 FIP (5.22 xFIP) can’t be explained away by sample sizes and injury hangover. Matusz simply couldn’t get anyone out.
Matusz’ fastball velocity was down under 89 miles per hour in 2011, but that alone doesn’t explain everything. That became apparent this season, when early in the year he had his heater up over 91 miles per hour. However, while Matusz was not as bad as he was in 2011, which isn’t say much, he was far from offering valuable production. In about 84 innings as a starter in 2012, Matuszput up a 5.42 ERA, 5.13 FIP, and 4.95 xFIP. After a mess of start on July 1 against Cleveland in which he walked three, struck out two, and gave up five runs in four innings, he was demoted to Triple-A.
Then, when Matusz came back in August, it was as a reliever (after a few relief outings in Triple-A to prepare him). The move to the bullpen was immediately effective, and although it was in just 13-and-a-third innings, Matusz impressed: 1.35 ERA, 1.89 FIP, 1.91 xFIP. His strikeout rate rocketed from 15.7 percent to 40.4 percent, while his walks dropped from 9.6 percent to 6.4 percent. Now, given the sample size, these numbers probably don’t describe his true talent, but it remains not only impressive, but, not all that shocking.
Why is that?
The simple old answer: it’s easier for most pitchers to pitch in relief. Without the responsibility of going through the lineup more than once, a pitcher can focus on his best pitches. In Matusz’ particular case, it seems that after he came back as a reliever, he almost completely cut the sinker (his least effective pitch in 2012) out of his repertoire. Without having to worry about endurance, pitchers can also let it fly a bit more, although the uptick in fastball velocity was pretty slight in Matusz’ case (he was sitting a bit under 92 as a starter this year, and was a bit over 92 as a reliever).
Perhaps more importantly (and this often relates to pitch usage), the reliever can be put into the game in matchups that favor him – usually platoon matchups. Matusz has always had trouble against right-handed hitters. He does have a change up and curve ball that he throws against them, but frankly, they kind of suck. His curve in particular tends to get knocked around. However, seeing mostly lefties as a reliever, Matusz can focus on his fastball and, above all, his devastating slider.
The idea that a pitcher will perform better in relief than as a starter is pretty well established, even before we get into looking at Pitch f/x. There have been a number of studies done, including Sean Smith’s collected data, which sort of went by the wayside when the Mystery Team hired him as a consultant. However, it basically pointed in the same direction as The Book’s research, also parsed by Tom Tango as The Rule of 17:
Basically, use the “rule of 17”: difference in BABIP is 17 points higher as starter. K/PA is 17% higher as reliever. And HR per contacted PA is 17% higher as starter.
Can Brian Matusz eventually leave the bullpen and still turn out to be a good starter? I don’t know. That’s one for the scouts. At this point in time it’s not important. What is important is that Baltimore maximized their resources by using him as a reliever, right now.
No, he didn’t have much experience in that role, and he had been terrible as a starter. However, the Orioles had reason to believe that he could be effective coming out of the bullpen, especially against lefties. They accepted the general principle that pitchers do better in relief than as starters. They also had a reason specific to Matusz – whatever his other problems, Matusz’ slider had always been poison to left-handed batters. By giving him the opportunity to use his best weapon, the team has reaped the benefits.
It’s worth mentioning that his current role with the club could be used as something a tryout, a way to look at Matusz in relief now and see if it’s not a better role for him in the long run. With Matusz getting more expensive as he moves into arbitration years, trying him as a reliever will keep his price down, whereas trying him as a reliever in a couple of years might not be cost-effective, even if he is good at it, as he would be in line for arbitration rewards as a starter.
However, that’s all secondary at the moment. Flags fly forever, but why blow resources on a left-handed reliever from the outside when there’s already a potentially good one in the organization, especially in a season that’s unlikely to be repeatable. Just one more smart, little move in a series of smart, little moves that have culminated in success for the Orioles this season, without costing them very much at all.