Yesterday, I started this series by looking at one of the most disappointing position players in all of baseball last year — no, not Alex Rios, Pedro Alvarez — so it’s only fair to look at pitchers next.
A player can be disappointing or overrated without actually being bad, it’s really more of a question of the expectations he was facing going into the season. Brian Matusz was disappointing to be sure, but he was also just flat out bad. Like Alvarez, he had shown some promise in 2010 when he went 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP and the expectation was that he would build on that in 2011. Instead, he posted the highest ERA since 1901 by a pitcher who made at least 10 starts, 10.69, and added a WHIP of 2.11. Matusz has a host of other associated stats that make him look terrible, but perhaps the most telling is his OPS+ against. Opposing hitters posted an OPS+ of 204 against him; no hitter has posted a full season OPS+ of 200 or greater since Barry Bonds did it in 2004. Matusz turned every opposing hitter into Bonds circa 1993.
Prior to 2011’s unmitigated disaster, Matusz had 40 starts that made it seem as though he might be able to hack it, even in the unforgiving AL East. His numbers weren’t great, 15-14, 4.37 ERA, and a 1.37 WHIP over the course of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but that type of performance is not unwelcome from a young pitcher. It also isn’t good enough to push Matusz onto the radar of more than AL-only or deep mixed players, so the question isn’t just “Was 2011 a fluke?” it’s also “Realistically, what’s his upside for 2012?”
As to question the first, I’m comfortable saying that Matusz’s 2011 was abnormally bad. Even if every break had gone his way, he still would not have pitched well, but a .382 BABIP and a 20 percent HR/FB ratio do indicate that he was both a) giving up really hard contact and b) getting some bad luck thrown in there. His 5.22 xFIP still isn’t good, but it’s fully five runs lower than his actual ERA, so it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll be better in 2012, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be good.
There’s no question that the intercostal strain that sideline Matusz until June really set him back, but it’s tough to tell the extent to which it continued to plague him even after he made his debut. What is clear is that because of his diminished velocity, Matusz wasn’t getting anyone to miss his fastball. Hitters whiffed on just over 3 percent of Matusz’s fastballs according to TexasLeaguers and fastballs accounted for just under half of the pitches he threw. His diminished velocity also meant that the difference between his fastball and his changeup wasn’t much, just 6 MPH on average, so while hitters were fouling off his fastball, they put his changeup into play at a 22.5 percent rate. When a pitcher can’t beat hitters with his fastball or fool them with his changeup, it gets pretty hard to develop a workable game plan and Matusz paid dearly for it.
As you can see from the far right side of the graph, in three of his final six starts, his average fastball velocity was at or above 90 MPH and while it didn’t change the outcome of those starts much, it does give some hope that he can get back to his 2010 level of effectiveness, which is a good start on the road back to fantasy relevancy.
Being able to come into Spring Training healthy will be as big a boost to Matusz as anything. He’ll have a chance to build up his arm strength in meaningless games and start the season at the same level of preparedness as everyone else. That, combined with the potential return of his velocity, is the biggest reason I have hope for him next year. Working against Matusz is the fact that he plays in the AL East. Even if he really seems to find the feel for his slider and changeup, he’ll still have to deal with competition that punishes mistakes with brutal efficiency, and it is for that reason that any expectations I have for him in 2012 are tempered. I don’t see his immediate ceiling any higher than an ERA of about 4.00 and a WHIP around 1.20 without the added benefit of a ton of wins to bolster those rather mediocre rate stats.
Like Alvarez, Matusz is a highly regarded prospect who doesn’t have a long minor league track record, but who has a solid pedigree, for whatever that’s worth. I’m not closing the door on Matusz just yet, he just 24 after all, but I can’t see him being a world-beater this year. If everything goes right, he gets back to average this year and going into next year we’re back to where we were prior to 2011, speculating on what his career ceiling is. I just don’t see him making the jump from the worst ERA in history to top-of-the-rotation starter in one season, not when he has to do his work in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. For AL-only players, I can see Matusz being worth a back-of-the-rotation slot if you believe in the talent the Orioles clearly think he has, but for even deep mixed players, there’s just too much pitching talent to make him worth the gamble from day one.
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