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Brian Matusz and Jarrod Washburn Offer Fantasy Dilemma

Tuesday night in Detroit offered two different pitchers on two teams on opposite ends of the success cycle. It was an intriguing matchup for baseball fans and a game that had relevancy for fantasy owners, too.

The Tigers, who came into the contest with a two-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central, started Jarrod Washburn, a trade deadline acquisition from the Mariners. Washburn, a veteran lefty, is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career. His 2.64 ERA was the lowest mark of his 12-year career, one that he posted thanks to a career-best 1.068 WHIP.

The Orioles, languishing in last place and under .500 for the 12th consecutive season since cutting ties with Davey Johnson, started Brian Matusz, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2008, who was making his major league debut. While Washburn has one of the slowest average fastball velocities in the majors, Matusz came in with a reputation as a fireballer, a pitcher capable of reaching the mid-90s with his fastball.

Both pitchers seemed to be the right choice for their clubs. Detroit, in the thick of a pennant race, needed a reliable veteran to come in and help stabilize its pitching staff. Baltimore, going nowhere in the AL East, needed to find out about its hot-shot youngster, one who dominated two levels of the minors this season.

But should fantasy owners treat these pitchers the same way that major league clubs did? Should the contender always go with Washburn, while the teams bringing up the rear just focus on the upside potential of the rookie?

A look at the raw stats of Washburn would intrigue any fantasy owner. He came into Tuesday with 8 W, 2.64 ERA, 1.068 WHIP and 79 Ks. But a deeper look into his numbers revealed a pitcher exceeding expectations. Washburn had a .249 BABIP and a 79.5 percent strand rate while with the Mariners. His FIP checked in at 3.76, more than a run higher than his ERA and his xFIP would have been even worse due to his below average HR/FB rate.

To make matters worse, Washburn was moving from a pitcher’s park in Safeco Field to a more hitter-friendly home stadium in Comerica Park. When it first opened, Comerica had a reputation as a good pitcher’s park. However in recent years it has played differently. Baseball-Reference.com gave it a a multi-year factor of 102 (97 for Safeco) and StatCorner gave it a 97.3 for runs (95.1 for Safeco).

Lifetime, Washburn had a 3.91 ERA at Safeco (66 starts) compared to a 5.33 ERA (eight starts) at Comerica. This year was no different, as Washburn was 5- 2 with a 2.31 ERA in Safeco. His numbers in Detroit can be dismissed somewhat as a sample size issue but there is no question that his numbers in Seattle were slightly better than his career ERA of 4.04. In his eight seasons with the Angels, Washburn had an overall ERA of 3.93 but his lifetime ERA in Anaheim is 4.60, suggesting that Washburn was not able to simply take advantage of his home park.

The first outing for our two pitchers with their new clubs was not a good omen for Washburn owners. He allowed six runs in 5.1 innings, including two homers, in his first home start for the Tigers. Meanwhile, Matusz was everything for which owners could have hoped. He struck out five batters in five innings, allowed just one run and picked up the win.

PitchFX showed that Matusz averaged 92.07 with his four-seam fastball and had a max velocity of 93.8 on his 52 offerings. He threw 16 change-ups, with an average speed of almost 10 miles per hour slower than his fastball. Matusz also displayed a slider, curve and two-seam fastball. And most impressively, Matsuz threw strikes with each of his pitches, with only 34 balls in 99 pitches. All five of his pitches Matusz had a strike percentage of 50 percent or greater.

It is always dangerous to read too much into one outing. But Tuesday night fantasy owners saw just what a look at the scouting reports and numbers said about each of these pitchers. The scouting reports said Matusz could bring the heat and he did exactly that. And a look at Washburn’s numbers showed a pitcher succeeding to a large degree by luck (BABIP, LOB%) and circumstances (Safeco).

While the Tigers acquired Washburn for their pennant drive, fantasy owners contending for a money spot in their league should do the exact opposite. And while it is a risky move to have a rookie pitcher in your rotation in August and September, contenders might want to consider starting Matusz on a matchup basis as they drive towards a title.