On Matusz, Halladay and the Hall of Fame

On Sept. 19, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz pitched his way into the throngs of infamy. By giving up six runs in just 1.2 innings, Matusz officially put up the highest ERA in the history of baseball for any pitcher who has recorded over 40 innings.

Surely, this is no small feat.

It’s not entirely clear where Matusz went off the rails. At one point, he was considered a pitching prospect who certainly had respectability, if not stardom, within his future. As history has shown us—more on that shortly—it is entirely possible that he still does.

This time last year there was a small contingent supporting Matusz as an AL Rookie of the Year candidate and he eventually accounted for three percent of the votes. In what is a truly remarkable turn of events, Matusz is currently the subject of consistent ridicule from Orioles observers who, if they had it their way, would send him to a land where throwing a baseball is forbidden or, at the very least, a prosecutable offense.

At 24 years old, in my mind, all is not lost for him. Let’s not forget that it was only three years ago that Matusz was drafted fourth overall by the Orioles. Given that he won’t hit free agency until 2016—he’ll be 29 then—the Orioles still have time to turn Matusz into a player, though pitching in the AL East isn’t exactly your typical “positive work environment.”

Given that it takes serious talent and even greater mettle to cut it in that division, Matusz draws comparisons to a couple of former Toronto Blue Jays.

The first is Chris Carpenter, a first-round draft pick out of high school for the Blue Jays in 1993. He didn’t make his major league debut until his fourth year in the system, at 22 years old. and it didn’t get easier after that. Carpenter struggled in five years as a Jay, always showing just enough to make people believe he could be that ace but never giving you enough to believe you’d see it for yourself. After that fifth season Carpenter hit the shelf with elbow problems and didn’t make another appearance in a Toronto uniform.

A year away from the game did wonders for Carpenter as he wound up with the St. Louis Cardinals. The rest is history. Three All-Star appearances and a Cy Young award later, he is a fixture among the elite pitchers in the National League and at 36 is having a renaissance of sorts, posting his highest strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2006. A shift from the AL East to the NL Central did wonders for Carpenter’s career and it didn’t happen until the age of 29—the same age Matusz will be when he is no longer under Orioles control.

The second Blue Jay who comes to mind is the venerable Roy Halladay, currently of Phillies fame. The Halladay-Matusz comparison is an interesting one: Matusz’s sparkling 10.68 ERA breaks the previous all-time high of 10.64 held by none other than Harry Leroy Halladay.

Coincidentally, both pitchers were 24 when they flirted with the horrific. In Halladay’s case it earned him a ticket to Single-A where he rebuilt his pitching mechanics with legendary Jays pitching coach Mel Queen. The result has been eight All-Star appearances and two Cy Young awards with a potential third coming shortly.

So all is not lost for Matusz.

What is interesting about Matusz’s record is the slate it wipes clean for Halladay. No longer will he be burdened with the title of “worst ERA ever.” He’ll simply have a bad year on his record. He had pitched less than 200 innings to that point in his caree,r so who can really blame him. He was just a kid.

Jays beat writer John Lott of the National Post had an interesting tweet on Tuesday, “I see O’s Brian Matusz has broken Roy Halladay’s record for worst single-season ERA, thereby erasing the last impediment to Doc’s HoF bid.” While he was being facetious, in many ways this is true. Roy Halladay is no longer the legend who had one of the worst seasons in history. While some may critique my usage of the word “legend” there, and it certainly may be premature, if you fast forward to look through history’s eyes, it’s clear he will be seen that way.

Among pitchers from 2000-09, only Randy Johnson had a higher Wins Above Replacement value than Halladay—Johnson was worth 55.8 wins compared to Halladay’s 53.8—and since the start of the current decade Halladay leads the pack with a value of 14.7 WAR. Halladay’s 68.5 WAR in 11 seasons is even more impressive when you consider that he wasn’t above replacement value in the year 2000, since he was too busy setting the wrong type of ERA record. In other words, from a value perspective, Roy Halladay is the greatest pitcher of this era.

As an aside, I understand that this is a lofty claim. Clayton Kershaw is only starting to come into his own, Tim Lincecum is fantastic (and has a championship!), Felix Hernandez is dominating on a bad team, Justin Verlander is (like it or not) an MVP candidate.

That being said, it’s hard to ignore Halladay as being the current holder of that title regardless of whether he’s a unanimous choice. Since his “season-which-will-no-longer-be-discussed-thanks-to-Brian Matusz” (2000), Halladay has never had a Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) above 1.35 (that was the 2004 campaign when Halladay was shelved due to forearm problems induced by his original cutter grip), has never averaged more than 0.9 home runs per nine innings (HR/9), and has had the least walks per nine innings in all of baseball (BB/9). And now, with the lone “Worst” tag removed from his permanent record, Halladay will be remembered as the pitcher who was unstoppable during the early 2000s.

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Matusz has nothing to worry about except finding his game. One day he’ll have his own Brian Matusz that will come along and make us all forget about how bad the real Brian Matusz was in 2011. Going forward it’s all about patience and pitching—not twitter reactions. That Chris Carpenter guy turned out all right, didn’t he?

If making the Hall of Fame is about being a quality ball player, Halladay should punch his ticket to Cooperstown now because there’s a seat waiting for him among the greats.

It’s a good thing nobody banished Halladay to the world of forbidden pitchers a decade ago. They’d have no idea what they were missing.

References & Resources
All WAR statistics came courtesy of Fangraphs.
John Lott’s twitter account: @LottOnBaseball

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Braves Fan
Braves Fan

I’m going a little off topic, but there was a third Blue Jay by the name of Woody Williams, who went to the NL just before Carpenter and pitched fairly well. Had they stuck around with the Blue Jays (and pitched as well as they did after they left), those turn of the century Blue Jays would have seriously challenged the Yankees in the AL East, especially with the offense that they had.

Señor Spielbergo
Señor Spielbergo
Interesting comment, Braves Fan. People forget this, but the turn-of-the-century Blue Jays _were_ serious contenders – they finished just four games out of a playoff spot in both 1998 and 2000, and were the last AL team to be eliminated in ‘98. 1998 was Woody Williams’ last season in Toronto. After that year, he was traded to the San Diego Padres for Joey Hamilton, and in 2000, he had a 3.32 ERA for San Diego over 17 starts from July on. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays had a pitcher who compiled an ERA of 7.25 over that same stretch, including 11… Read more »
Señor Spielbergo
Señor Spielbergo

Then again, maybe not… while the ‘00 Jays won only four fewer than the year’s eventual World Series Champions, their Pythagorean W-L was only 77-85.