In 2010, Brian Matusz had the kind of rookie season that gets people excited. With a 4.30 ERA and promising K/BB numbers, it was easy for fans and front officer staff members alike to get stars in their eyes. Maybe the Orioles had finally hit gold with the fourth overall pick! His fifth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting all but confirmed that Matusz was scheduled to be the next great Oriole pitcher. He followed up his first campaign with an abomination of a season: 12 games started with a 10.69 ERA earned him a quick trip to the minors and a spot in the bullpen ever since. After two successful seasons as a lefty specialist, some fans are clamoring for Matusz to be given a shot at rejoining the rotation. I’m here to tell you that’s a bad idea.
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Brian Matusz wasn’t the only member of the cavalry to drop off after a great first outing. A look at those two articles can be a little depressing, but his fall from grace shouldn’t have been that surprising.
Matusz is a flyball pitcher, plain and simple. Even as a LOOGY, he has never come close to scratching a GB/FB ratio of 1.00 or even the Major League average of 0.81 (via baseball-reference.com). Perhaps not surprisingly, flyball pitchers fare worse than their neutral or groundball counterparts against most types of batters:
Curiously, flyball batters are the only ones that flyball pitchers seem to do well against when compared to their neutral and groundball pitching counterparts. Against all other types of batters, flyball pitchers fare worse.
It’s hard for extreme flyball pitchers to sustain the type of success Matusz had in 2010, when he posted a 0.58 GB/FB ratio, for one really simple reason: flyballs tend to leave the ballpark. The league average HR/FB rate is about 10%, and until a pitcher proves that he can consistently defy league trends, he can be expected to regress to the mean. Brian Matusz held a low 6.8% HR/FB ratio in 2010, one that we should have expected to be unsustainable given his flyball tendencies.
Not surprisingly, Matusz’s HR/FB rate regressed – actually pretty far past the league average in the other direction. In his horrendous 2011 campaign, Matusz saw over 16% of his fly balls leave the ballpark. He ended up giving up nearly as many home runs in 12 starts in 2011 as he did in 32 games in 2010 and allowed a staggering 3.3 home runs per nine innings.
What drove Matusz’s success in 2010, then? Good things happened at a rate that we should have known was unsustainable: Brian Matusz got lucky. Really lucky. His BABIP in 2011 was .295, not really a far cry from the league average of .300, but substantially different than his .317 career BABIP. The only other year in which Matusz held a similar BABIP was 2013 (.294), when he was used in specific matchup situations.
Also disconcerting is that Matusz did worse despite seeing platoon advantages more often: 24% of the time in 2011, Matusz pitched to a left-handed batter compared to 22% of the time in 2010. His stats have rebounded only after facing platoon advantages more often (28% of the time in 2012 and 54% of the time in 2013).
The biggest problem with Matusz moving to the rotation is his ability to get right-handed batters out. Even in 2010, the southpaw allowed righties to bat 50 points better against him than lefties (.266 vs. .218). The difference between righties and lefties in 2011 was still just 60 points, but Matusz let all batters reach base via the hit far more often (.387 vs. .327). He also walked righties far more often in 2011, but was able to keep that pretty consistent in 2010. His numbers against righties were livable in 2010 but have worsened to the point that Matusz is only effective against lefties. In 2011, he wasn’t effective against anyone.
Brian Matusz’s true talent likely falls somewhere between these two extremes. He’ll never be consistently worth 3.0 bWAR as he was in 2010, but he won’t be as bad as his -2.3 bWAR in 2011. In 2012, Matusz saw some of his biggest problem statistics regress to the average while rate statistics that were steady between 2010 and 2011 continued to move very little, indicating that those numbers are his true baseline. If we want to use 2012 to estimate his true potential based on these limited figures, Brian Matusz is a below-average pitcher: 2012′s 0.0 bWAR, 87 ERA+, and 4.69 FIP just don’t inspire much confidence.
Why I’m Wrong
Well first and foremost, I’m wrong to say that Brian Matusz shouldn’t be given the opportunity to earn a starting spot. Every borderline pitcher that could marginally improve the Orioles rotation should be given the opportunity to win one of five coveted roles in the rotation. Giving up on a talented player would be foolish, especially one as talented as Brian Matusz. If he earns it and is decidedly better than other starting options, why shouldn’t he be given the chance to help the team by starting?
Also, the same regression argument can be used to point out that 2011 was probably the absolute unluckiest that Matusz would ever be. Flyball pitchers give up fewer home runs per fly ball, for instance. Even if Matusz couldn’t keep up a 6.8% HR/FB ratio, he’d be expected to post a HR/FB ratio of less than 10%. It was really unlikely that he’d allow home runs on 16% of fly balls consistently.
Flyball pitchers tend to have a higher BABIP as well, since ground balls are easier to turn into outs. Even with a BABIP over .300, Matusz could very well have been at or below average for extreme flyball pitchers.
Two huge and significant differences between Matusz’s best year and his worst were two of the most commonly cited problems with pitchers who get inconsistent results: in 2011, Brian Matusz walked more batters and struck out fewer. He walked batters a full 1.5 percentage points more often in 2011, nearly 10% of the time. FanGraphs describes that walk rate as “Awful,” whereas in 2010, Matusz was merely “Average.” That jump is a lot more meaningful when Matusz was giving up as many home runs as he did. He also struck out batters 15.5% of the time in 2011, compared to 18.8% in 2010. He just plain gave up too many walks, hits, and home runs in 2011. Without any other relevant data in play, or a sinister mustache, it’s hard to say which Brian Matusz is the real Brian Matusz and which is the evil twin.
Matusz was also just 23 during his best season and 24 during his worst. He was still developing physically and rounding out his game. He may have been aided by his newness in 2010 and hurt by there being a book on him in 2011, but it’s conceivable that learning to beat the book simply took Matusz a year or two. Some pitchers never figure it out at all.
And finally, a decent starting pitcher is worth more in a trade than a lefty specialist. I’m not even convinced that a lefty specialist is worth the $2.4M (!) that Matusz will make in 2014 considering that he was worth 0.7 bWAR in a full season in 2013. However, a decent starting pitcher with a salary that reasonable and another year of arbitration remaining might fetch a decent return in a trade. He’s certainly too expensive to have such a specialized role in the Orioles bullpen for the long term, so if the team can brand him as a competent starter and flip him for something of value, it’s better than letting him leave in free agency.