13 March 2014

Is Brian Matusz a Realistic Starting Rotation Option?

For the past year and a half, Brian Matusz has been an effective reliever out of the Baltimore bullpen.  Since his switch to a full time bullpen role in August of 2012, he has thrown 64.1 innings, with a 3.08 ERA.  He has been especially good against left-handed batters during this time, holding them to a .225 wOBA in 2013.  But as good as Matusz has been out of the bullpen, it’s easy to feel disappointed in how his career has turned out to date, considering what was expected of him when he joined the Baltimore Orioles organization.
Brian Matusz (photo via Keith Allison)

Matusz was drafted #4 overall by the team in 2008, one pick ahead of San Francisco Giants catcher, Buster Posey.  At the time, Matusz was considered the top college pitcher in the draft, who threw 4 good (although none were great) pitches with excellent control.  He debuted in ESPN’s Keith Law’s 2009 Top 100 Prospects List at 28, with (at the time) having the upside of a number 1 or 2 starter.  According to Law, the biggest issue that could keep him from reaching that ceiling had to do with his fastball, which didn’t have enough movement, allowing opposing hitters to square it up if he didn’t locate it.

Everyone in Baltimore knows what happened next.  After debuting briefly in 2009, Matusz had an encouraging 2010 season, which (following his final 8 starts where he had a 1.57 ERA) led to high expectations heading into 2011. Tthose expectations were not met when Matusz had one of the worst pitching seasons in major league history, throwing only 49.2 innings, with a 10.69 ERA.  His struggles continued in 2012 (5.42 ERA in 84.2 innings pitched as a starter).  However, after being optioned to the minors in early July of that year, he returned in late August as a key member of the bullpen, and he’s been there ever since.

This offseason, it’s been mentioned several times that Matusz was aiming for a spot in the rotation, and that the team is open to that idea.  However, this idea isn’t new.  Ever since his conversion to the bullpen in 2012, there’s been talk of Matusz returning to the rotation.  Prior to the 2013 season, the team stated he was a starting rotation option, but he wasn’t selected, which either indicated that he could better fill a need in the bullpen, or the team didn’t have any confidence in him being an effective starter.  Despite losing out on a rotation spot last spring, the story has never really died, despite the increased competition in 2014.

But is a move back to the rotation the right move for Brian Matusz?  And more importantly, is it the right move for the 2014 Baltimore Orioles?  The issue with Matusz has always been whether or not he has the ability to retire right-handed hitters.  Even during 2010, they hit him significantly better than lefties.

The key to Matusz being an effective starter is for him to get right-handed batters out.  And his key to getting right-handed batters out is an effective change-up.  While Matusz throws a fastball or slider roughly 84% of the time as a reliever, he mixed in quite a few more change-ups while starting.

We’re dealing with small samples here, but let’s take a look at some batted ball profiles for Matusz’s change-up over the years*. 

Batted Ball Profile of Brian Matusz's Change-Up Against RHB
*Note: All data from TruMedia.  2009 excluded because batted ball profiles were not available
There is some fluctuation between the percentages of ground balls to fly balls, but overall, I don’t know if there is a significant difference there.  In fact, he gets more groundballs throwing his change-up, which means he’s likely doing a good job of locating the pitch down and away to right-handed hitters.  The one thing that jumps out is the decreasing miss percentage, but this is probably a function of his decrease in pitch usage since turning into a reliever.  Based on this information, it’s possible that the change-up hasn’t been the reason for his struggles against righties.

If that’s the case, then it’s likely his fastball.  The dip in his fastball velocity in 2011 probably isn’t new knowledge to most of you, but here is a refresher.

The decline in his fastball velocity over his first 3 years in the league is incredibly steep, especially for someone pitching in his age 22 to 24 seasons.  Obviously, the intercostal strain he suffered in the beginning of the 2011 season didn’t help (he was on the disabled list for 63 days), but it’s tough to blame a season that bad on his injury (or plain old bad luck for that matter).  His velocity returned to 2009 levels in 2012 and 2013, however, most pitchers show an increase in velocity when they move to the bullpen (see Tommy Hunter), so it’s not a foregone conclusion that he would throw at 2013 levels of velocity if he moved back to the rotation.

That decline in velocity had big negative consequences for Matusz.  You already know how bad his line was, but this figure helps give understanding as to why.

That lack of velocity took away his ability to challenge right-handed hitters.  And when he attempted to challenge them, the lack of movement and velocity allowed batters to turn on those pitches and hit them VERY hard.  Again, it’s difficult to say just how much of that velocity loss and ineffectiveness was due to injury.  But the fact that he’s gotten his average fastball velocity back up above 90 mph in 2012 and 2013 (even in relief), is a positive sign.

So is Brian Matusz a realistic starting rotation option? Based on this information I think that he is, as long as he demonstrates that he can consistently throw his fastball in the low 90’s without a significant drop-off as the game goes on.  Will he be given that opportunity in Baltimore in 2014?  I don’t think that’s likely.

There were already a large number of potential rotation options prior to the beginning of the off-season (by my count, there were 10 including Matusz).  Some of those options were more of a long-shot to make the rotation than others, but after adding Ubaldo Jimenez, Suk-min Yoon, and Johan Santana, the competition looks even stiffer.  Additionally, with Troy Patton serving a 25 game suspension to start the season, it’s going to be tempting (and probably smart) for the Orioles to put Matusz in the bullpen, especially considering his recent success there.

If the Orioles were not planning on contending for a playoff spot this year, I would put Matusz back in the rotation and see how he performs.  Unfortunately for Matusz, the Orioles are looking to win now, and I’m not sure they can currently afford to experiment with Matusz in the rotation.  This is unfortunate as he could potentially provide increased value from the rotation, or at the very least improve his stock as a potential trade chip for the team to deal at the deadline.  Brian Matusz deserves one more chance as a starter.  Whether that chance comes with the Orioles is another question.

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