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March 28, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

The Mysterious Brian Matusz

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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The day I begin to believe Brian Matusz's major-league career is over is a hot, slick, late August afternoon in Brooklyn. A friend and I have just finished moving a refrigerator into my apartment and are now returning the Zipcar he rented in Park Slope, and as he drives, I have my phone tuned to the audio feed of the last game the Baltimore Orioles would play that season in the state of California—a Sunday matinee pitting the Orioles' Brian Matusz against Jerome Williams of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

In late August, the Angels still have something to play for: they're only four games behind the Texas Rangers in the AL West and only three games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card hunt. They don't know it yet, but their fortunes won’t improve; they'll play slightly better than .500 ball through the first few weeks of September, but slightly better than .500 ball doesn't catch the hottest team in the league—Texas would go 19-6 in September 2011—or the Rays, who have taken to hunting the Boston Red Sox like 25 light-hitting Ahabs. This Sunday afternoon, though, the Angels' season still has a glimmer of hope, even if it is just a trick of the light.

On the other hand, it's been midnight in Baltimore since May and the witching hour since late June—from June 21st to July 15th, the Orioles managed a putrid 3-17 record; then they won a couple games, lost a couple more games, and launched into one of those weird, quirky outcome patterns that means nothing but is kind of marvelous to look at in its consistency. From July 29th to August 14th, the Orioles played 16 games, and their fortunes fared as follows: W-L-L-L-W-L-L-L-W-L-L-L-W-L-L-L. Fans were virtually guaranteed a win and a three-game sweep every four days. This August afternoon might very well be the nadir of Baltimore's season; neither the men in the visiting clubhouse in Anaheim nor the fans of their team have any way of knowing that they're in for the most magical September in the last 20 years. All they know is that it’s August, it’s hot and miserable, and they just keep losing.

Brian Matusz most recently stepped on a major-league mound five days earlier, when he was the losing party in a 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Oakland Athletics up the California coast. That night he went 6.2 innings, allowing eight hits (one HR) and six runs (all earned), walking three and striking out five. For Matusz, like most pitchers, this was a disastrous outing—but unlike most pitchers, it also brought his ERA for the year down. Matusz stepped onto the mound on August 16th with an 8.77 ERA in 25.2 IP, and by virtue of not imploding completely until the 7th, was able to bring that down to 8.63. That start marked the first and last time that Matusz would lower his ERA in an outing in 2011.

As I follow along on my phone, things go well for Williams, who is making his return to the majors after being out of the league since 2007. He goes seven strong innings, allowing only six hits and one run, a Matt Wieters solo shot to right field to open the seventh. He strikes out six, walks none, and earns his first major-league win since Sept 25th, 2005—almost six years earlier. In the bottom of each inning he pitches, Williams locates his fastball well and then builds off those fastballs with his slider, while at the top of each inning, Brian Matusz gets knocked all over the park.

Matusz's outing lasts only four innings, and when it ends, it's a mercy killing. His first inning is strong enough—it's scoreless, at least—though the man playing third base, Blake Davis, is actually a second baseman by trade, and it shows. He misplays the very first ball that comes his way, will miss a Matt Wieters throw later to allow an unearned run, and will fail to get to a few more balls over the course of the afternoon.

More startling than how poorly his start goes is how lucky Matusz is that it doesn’t go worse—just about every ball in play is a line drive or a deep fly, and when he finally gets out of the fourth inning after 84 pitches, it's only on back-to-back deep fly balls by Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter, neither of whom is a particularly imposing hitter these days.

By the time we turn the car in, Brad Bergesen is letting Howie Kendrick put the final nail in the afternoon's coffin, and Brian Matusz's season ERA has ballooned to 8.92. It will not remain that low for long. Matusz will make four more starts in 2011; in two of them, he doesn’t make it out of the fifth inning, while in the other two, he barely makes it out of the first. When the dust settles on the season, Matusz holds the all-time record for a seasonal ERA by a pitcher with 10 or more starts: 10.69.

***

As Baltimore fans have reminded themselves often this offseason, Matusz broke that record by only .05 points; the last man to hold it pitched to a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings in 2000, and if Matusz’s career path follows his, Orioles fans would be pleased as punch. Then again, just because Roy Halladay was able to reinvent himself into a likely Hall of Famer doesn’t mean Brian Matusz can, too, especially when the only real thing the two men have in common is that they were briefly allowed to be very bad at baseball at the highest possible level.

While the end of Matusz’s 2011 at least temporarily convinced me that he was effectively done as a credible major-league starting pitcher, the jury is still out on him, and I’m more than open to being wrong. Less than a month ago, I said something to the effect of “anyone who thinks they can predict Brian Matusz’s season is a liar or a fool.” I still believe that to be true, even with the weighty rider that he’s far more likely to continue to be Matusz than to magically transform into Roy Halladay. However, the Baltimore lefty’s stock has risen a tick recently, and if you glance at his spring training box scores, you’ll see why: he’s sporting a shiny 9:1 K:BB rate (18K, 2BB), which looked even better before he walked his second batter on Sunday. (It was 16:1 as of March 20.)

Based on that peripheral rate, the question has been posed: Is Brian Matusz “fixed?” The answer remains the same as it was this time last month: “Who knows; but all else equal, pray for rain.”

I wanted to accumulate as much data as possible in the already infinitesimal sample size of spring training baseball before trying to evaluate Matusz’s showing in camp, and now, with the season starting this week in Japan and Opening Day in the States right around the corner, I’ve run up against the wall. Matusz might make one more start in the later part of this week; if he does, it will be no more conclusive than what came before, because even during this most special time of the baseball year where nothing means anything, Matusz’s “nothing” is particularly scattershot and useless. Here are his five starts in camp to date:

March 5, vs. Pittsburgh:                 2.0 IP, 6H, 3R (3ER), 3K, 0BB

March 10, at Philadelphia:             4.0 IP, 3H, 0R, 4K, 0BB

March 15, at Detroit:                      4.0 IP, 2H, 0R, 6K, 0BB, 1HBP

March 20, vs. Philadelphia:           5.0 IP, 7H, 1R (1ER), 3K, 1BB

March 25, at Philadelphia:             4.2 IP, 6H, 3R (3ER), 2K, 1BB, 1HBP

The bite-size byline on those numbers is impressive—3.20 ERA, 18K, 2BB in 19.2 IP—but there’s a lot to question about these performances even beyond the small innings count. For instance, that March 20th start looks decent on the surface, but Matusz induced three GIDP after either walking a batter or giving up one of his seven hits. When he became a punching bag last year, Matusz’s problem was never that he walked too many guys or that he lost the strike zone; he could find the strike zone very easily. He didn’t even see that big of a drop off in his strikeout rate (7.3 per nine in 2010 to 6.9 in 2011).

His problem was that when hitters connected, they destroyed him: .384 BABIP, .372/.430/.693 (1.123 OPS) against. It wasn’t even a velocity problem: Matusz began last season throwing much slower than he had before partially due to a strained back muscle, but by the time midseason rolled around that was fully healed, and he was back into the low 90s where he usually sits. So Philadelphia’s already-anemic lineup getting a whole mess of hits off him and not cashing in on them only because of a trio of timely double plays doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

But then there’s that Detroit game. Aha, one might say, this is spring training, after all. Sure, it was Detroit, but what batters did he actually face? In the spirit of full discretion, here is Detroit’s lineup from that game and how it fared against Matusz.

  1. CF Austin Jackson: 0-2, E3, K.
  2. RF Brennan Boesch: 0-2, GIDP 6-3, G6-3.
  3. 3B Miguel Cabrera: 1-2, 1B, G5-3.
  4. 1B Prince Fielder: 0-2, F8, K.
  5. DH Delmon Young: 1-2, K, 1B.
  6. C Alex Avila: 0-2, 2K.
  7. SS Jhonny Peralta: 0-0, HBP.
  8. 2B Ryan Rayburn: 0-1, GIDP 4-6-3.
  9. LF Andy Dirks: 0-1, K.

That’s a fairly respectable lineup from a team looking to contend in the AL Central. It’s also only four innings of work in March, but let’s pretend it means something either way for the next couple paragraphs. Alex Avila is no pushover at the plate; depending on your feelings on whether Mike Napoli “counts” given that he’ll be splitting time between catcher, first base, and designated hitter this season in Texas, Avila is among the top two or three catchers in the American League offensively. He has a spring training OPS of .690, sure, but don’t ruin the thought exercise yet.

Matusz also got four other guys to strike out once, though the three who weren’t Prince Fielder were relative lightweights at the plate. However (and remember, we’re just pretending this matters) there’s something concerning for Matusz buried in these four innings against Detroit, something that presages his Philadelphia outing five days later: four men reached base against him, two on singles, one on a HBP and another on an error, and of those four, half were immediately erased by a double play—Jackson, the error, was negated by Boesch grounding into a double play just after him, and Peralta, who was not taken out in a conventional double play but who was out at second during the same play in which Rayburn was retired at first due to some sort of baserunning mistake.

That second one functions pretty much exactly like a double play for argument’s sake, but Matusz has been so lucky that we don’t even need it; counting the Mike McKendry GIDP from Matusz’s first start of the spring, the Boesch GIDP in the March 15th game, and the three GIDPs from March 20th game against the Phillies (Mayberry, Frandsen, and Galvis), Matusz is getting a GIDP once every 3.94 innings in spring training. The “best” starting pitcher at delivering GIDP in the majors last year was Matt Harrison, who induced 30 in 185.2 IP—that’s one GIDP every 6.19 innings. Even if one accepts that there’s a modicum of pitcher-determinism there, it’s merely that players who induce groundballs and let guys on base are more likely to have a lot of GIDP, and that bodes poorly for Matusz going forward for the simple reason that while he’s been very talented at putting people on base, he’s never really been much of a groundball pitcher—in the one moderately encouraging season he had in the majors, 2010, he had a 18.8 LD%/36.2 GB%/45.0 FB% batted-ball split.

The worse he pitches—the more his changeup doesn’t change and his fastball doesn’t move—the more those numbers tilt towards fly balls; last year, more than half the balls put in play off him were in the air, and less than 30 percent were on the ground. Flyball pitchers can survive at the top levels of professional play, but not when they’re being hit as hard as Matusz was—one of every five flies hit off him was a home run.

Note that Matusz has also hit two batters, something he’s not normally prone to and which effectively doubles his spring training pool of “runners reaching base due to inefficient or suboptimal pitching” outcomes. So that 9:1 K:BB is better expressed as a 4.5:1 K:(BB+HBP).

Regardless of whether he’s induced five or six double plays in under 20 innings of spring training ball, there’s no real reason to believe that sort of defensive luck is going to continue given who he is, how he pitches, and what he’s done to date when the games count. If Showalter and Duquette pencil Matusz into the Oriole rotation to start the year, I’ll support their decision, but that’s more due to a lack of other options than the strength of Matusz’s candidacy. An Opening Day rotation of Hunter/Arrieta/Chen/Hammel/Matusz is acceptable less because of the resurgence of Brian Matusz and more because alternatives like Dana Eveland, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Chris Tillman don’t inspire much more confidence, and when Zach Britton gets off the DL, that number-five starter is probably going back to the bullpen or Triple-A anyway.

There are still a few more days left before camp breaks. Showalter has been more reticent than most any other manager in the league to commit to naming five guys for his rotation, let alone ordering them, so there’s no way of telling where Matusz will end up until he travels north. Whether that’s north to Triple-A Norfolk or to the back of the major-league rotation in Baltimore, however, we can stop pretending now: in the end, 18 strikeouts, two walks, and five (or six!) double plays in March tell us absolutely nothing about Brian Matusz.

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