**Correction: Matusz is under team control through 2016 since he's a Super Two player. That means he is eligible for arbitration for four years instead of three. My mistake.
For many fans, Brian Matusz's name is near the top of the list of expendable Orioles in 2015. As he enters his third and final arbitration year, he will receive a slight raise on his $2.4 million salary from 2014. MLB Trade Rumors projects that he'll earn $2.7 million.
The Matusz story is far from an uncommon path -- failed starter becomes useful reliever. After making his last start for the Orioles on July 1, 2012, he was converted to a reliever. He was dominant after returning to the O's that September, and he followed that up with a solid 2013 season as his first full year as a relief pitcher. He wasn't spectacular (1.0 fWAR, 0.7 bWAR), but he was particularly adept at retiring left-handed batters (.225 wOBA vs. LH; .330 wOBA vs. RH in 2013). For the most part, that skill has served Matusz well.
In 2014, Matusz's ERA was slightly lower than in 2013 (from 3.53 to 3.48), but there were some worrisome signs. He struck out nearly a half batter more per nine innings (from 8.82 to 9.23), which was one positive. But his walks per nine also rose slightly (2.82 to 2.96), his HR/FB rate normalized (5.6% to 9.2%; career 10.5%), and his groundball percentage dropped by about 5% (leading to more fly balls). After giving up only three home runs in 2013, Matusz allowed seven in 2014. He was worse not only against right-handed batters (.372 wOBA), but also left-handed batters (.276 wOBA). The 50-point wOBA jump against lefties is the bigger concern, since Matusz's job, at the very least, is to retire those same-handed hitters. Those struggles contributed to an underwhelming 0.3 fWAR/0.0 bWAR season.
Another concern is that Matusz's pitch velocity dropped across the board. Via Brooks Baseball:
Perhaps the velocity decline played a part in Matusz throwing fewer four-seamers and sliders in 2014. His four-seam fastball usage dropped by 3%; his slider usage dropped by just 1%. He mostly replaced those pitches with more change-ups and curveballs. Matusz uses his slider much more against lefties; in 2013, he threw lefties four-seamers 55% of the time and sliders 39.8% of the time. He occasionally threw them curveballs (3.9%). But in 2014, he opted for nearly twice as many curveballs against lefties (7.4%) while throwing fewer four-seamers and sliders.
After posting a career high whiff rate in 2013 (12.3%), Matusz recorded whiffs 9.5% of the time in 2014. That's still the second-highest whiff rate of his career, but he may not repeat that 2013 number again. Opposing batters also didn't seem to mind expanding the zone against Matusz. They chased about 2% more pitches outside the zone in 2014, but they made much better contact (from 62% to 65.7%). Overall, hitters made much better contact, too (from 74% to 79.3%). And yet, as noted above, Matusz posted a higher K/9 than in 2013.
Looking at one season's worth of data, particularly for a reliever, is not necessarily all that meaningful. It can also be misleading and confusing. But Matusz has only been a full-time reliever for two seasons, and he's never been as good as those 13.1 innings out of the bullpen in 2012. During that stretch, Matusz's 12.83 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, and 1.89 FIP are pretty similar to the numbers Andrew Miller posted in 2014 in 62.1 innings (14.87 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 1.51 FIP). But Matusz wasn't nearly that good in a larger sample in 2013 and certainly wasn't last year. Miller is in a different class, and that's why he's about to get a lucrative three- or four-year deal in free agency.
With Matusz, the O's have three options: 1) keep him; 2) trade him; or 3) non-tender him. Paying nearly $3 million for an OK reliever is not the worst thing, but it's also not the best use of resources (as Pat discussed a couple days ago). Even if the O's were able to deal him, at best they would receive a marginal prospect in return.
Most likely, Matusz's usefulness as a reliever is somewhere between his 2013 and 2014 seasons. Considering that phenomenal stretch when he first started pitching out of the bullpen in 2012, that has to be considered a moderate disappointment. At least he'll always own David Ortiz.
Photo via Keith Allison