2011 was yet another disappointing year for the Baltimore Orioles. There were some bright spots: Matt Wieters continued to improve both behind and alongside the plate, J.J. Hardy turned in a performance better than anyone had predicted, and Zach Britton had a solid rookie year despite being a groundball pitcher without a good defensive third baseman. But the struggles of Brian Matusz took Birdland by surprise, as by the end of the 2010 season, most fans thought he was almost certain to be the best pitcher on the staff in 2011.
Of course, that was before he got injured in Spring Training, and never resembled his 2010 self for the rest of the year. Upon first coming off of the disabled list, Matusz showed an average fastball about 3 mph slower than the 2010 version. Fans and analysts point to the decreased velocity as the main reason for Matusz's record-setting struggles in 2011. Is that really the case, however, or were there other problems that simply weren't as obvious?
Velocity is obviously important for any pitcher: only a handful manage to succeed in the majors without at least a fringe-average fastball, and even those in the mold of Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle would likely be more effective if they threw a few mph harder. But here's a little-known fact: velocity wasn't Brian Matusz's biggest problem last year. Check out this chart:
Matusz actually got his velocity back to 2010-like levels for the second half of his starts, which is a fact that is not often mentioned in the narrative. Yet, here are his splits:
|First Half||Second Half||2010|
These are, admittedly, very small sample sizes: 25.2 IP for the first half, and 24 IP for the second half. But you can actually argue that he was better before he got his velocity back: at the very least, the increased velocity did not improve his peripherals overall. Surprisingly, his strikeout rate in 2011 was nearly as high as in 2010.
But if strikeouts weren't Matusz's problem in 2011, what was? I recall thinking during the season, especially during his second-half return, that Matusz's velocity was improving, but he just didn't have great command, and he seemed to be unable to find consistency with his offspeed pitches. The command/control issue is borne out by the higher walk rate, but I'm no scout, so let's see what PITCH/fx has to say about Matusz's breaking stuff.
First off, with all the talk about Matusz's fastball velocity going down, the bigger story is that his changeup velocity didn't follow suit:
|FA-Vel||CH-Vel||FA - CH|
Going from an 8-9 mph fastball/changeup differential to a 6 mph differential is going to hurt. From what I recall, a difference of 8 mph is considered good, and if you can get it closer to 10 mph, that's excellent. But a 6 mph difference is just mediocre, especially if there isn't a lot of movement there. Let's take a look, with 2010 on the left and 2011 on the right.
Looks like Matusz's changeups didn't fall out of the zone as much in 2011, and his curveballs were a lot less consistent as well. Release points?
This actually doesn't look bad for the most part, but it could help explain the inconsistent curveball, as its release points are a lot less closely clustered than in 2010. Let's look at velocity versus horizontal movement next...
This is pretty striking, I think. Even ignoring the always-questionable PITCH/fx classifications, look at the distinct clusters for each pitch type in 2010, and then at the mess that is the changeup in 2011. In 2010, there's a distinct gap between the fastballs and the changeup, which is the whole point of the pitch. In 2011, that's missing. There's also significantly less fastball movement in 2011 -- the four-seamer has a touch less movement, and it looks like Matusz never got the two-seamer working at all.
The graphs of vertical movement versus velocity don't tell us much new -- less drop and velocity differential on the changeup and a very inconsistent curveball. It also looks like his fastball had less "rise" to it, and if I understand these charts properly, that's not just a result of the decreased velocity, but some spin on the fastball causing it to drop a little more than it used to. That isn't good, either.
The question on the minds of Orioles fans, of course, is what this means for 2012. I wouldn't presume to know. But the narrative on Brian Matusz in 2011 is wrong -- he mostly found his lost velocity, but never had his secondary stuff. And really, given that Matusz has always pitched backwards, doesn't this better explain his struggles? A guy with an average/fringy fastball but plus secondary stuff shouldn't suffer that much from his fastball becoming a notch worse, but if his secondary stuff becomes fringe-average as well... yuck.
Personally, I can't help but be optimistic about Brian's chances next year, as long as he doesn't get injured again. The velocity is largely there, and he's working hard on conditioning. But no one's going to have a clue how his secondary stuff is until Spring Training... so I guess we in Birdland will just have to wait and see.
(All stats and PITCH/fx graphs are via the wonderful www.fangraphs.com.)