Ah, a Friday before a long weekend rolls around, and it should be time for a waiver wire piece. How many of us are just furiously setting our lineups for a weekend away, though? Let’s instead take a look at a pitcher giving some people fits this year.
Brian Matusz is only owned in 24% of Yahoo leagues, and for good reason – he has had some clear faults that are plaguing him this year. While his strikeout rates (7.66 last year, 7.41 this year) and walk rates (2.82 last year, 3.29 this year) have been largely similar, and it’s easy to point to his inflated BABIP (.370) as the reason for the poor ERA this year, there is clearly more going on. Even taking into account his poor-ish strand rate (63.9%), ZiPs RoS calls for a 4.70 ERA, and it looks like we can blame his groundball rate for a good portion of that.
Matusz is only inducing 32.8% of his contact on the ground, and that is good for second-worst in the league (to Kevin Slowey). It’s not good to be a fly-ball pitcher in the American League, and in Baltimore in particular (1.616 park factor for home runs so far this year). There are some mitigating circumstances in this case, though. For one, Matusz was not a worm-burner extraordinaire in the minors, but he did put up an okay 48.1% career groundball percentage in his short time passing through the system. Also, only five qualifying pitchers in baseball last year had a groundball rate under 35%. The message there is that either Matusz will induce more groundballs or he won’t qualify for the ERA title.
Helpful, eh? Well, here’s something more interesting: it may have to do with his pitching mix and possibly his curveball in particular. That may seem strange to say about a pitch that he has only thrown about 10% of the time over his career, but the curveball was also his only positive pitch by linear weights this year. Why is he throwing less often this year if it was, by at least one statistic, the best pitch he had last year?
It seems he’s struggling with it. Last year the pitch found the strike zone 58.3% of the time and got 8.3% whiffs according to Texas Leaguers. This year those numbers are 52.5% and 6.1% accordingly. Since 8.5-9% is usually average for whiff rate, his curveball went from average to below-average in one offseason. Then again, his changeup is getting 21.7% whiffs this year, which is elite. Perhaps he really should just be throwing the changeup more. If so, the news that he’s throwing the changeup 18% of the time this year versus 12% of the time last year should be good news (according to Texas Leaguers / MLB data).
In any case, we have a guy with an above-average ability to strike people out, average control, and at least one elite pitch by whiff rates. Those good qualities are balanced by a poor groundball rate, and a pitching mix in flux. Here’s a bet that he does figure out that mix, brings that groundball rate into ‘average’ territory, the luck stats regress toward the mean, and Matusz magically becomes a better pitcher. That pitcher may only be a matchups pitcher in mixed leagues right now, but deep keeper league managers should take heart. There’s something to like about Matusz still.
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