If on a starless night you were visited by a Djinn and informed that you could have the absolute truthful answer to one and only one question, the truth about Brian Matusz would have to be a strong contender, wouldn't it?
This is after all 2011, and let's not forget for one second that this is the season that was supposed to be a coming out party in Baltimore. The great hope of the Baltimore Orioles, their young starting rotation, ended the 2010 season on a roll to the tune of a 3.22 ERA and a 4.23 FIP. And those modest numbers were weighed down by the likes of Kevin Millwood. Matusz, the newly crowned ace of the staff, might've started the party early with his 2.18 ERA over the last two months of the season, which included starts against all four AL East rivals and eventual AL champion Texas.
Yes, there was still an incredibly huge mountain to climb, but a real step forward from the young pitchers would go an awful long way towards actually realizing what today seems for all intents and purposes impossible: a competitive Orioles team. And that step forward felt like it was already happening last August, with Brian Matusz leading the way.
It wasn't supposed to end up like this.
In 2011 Brian Matusz has easily the worst ERA of any pitcher with at least as many innings pitched as he has (which is an in-and-of-itself-disappointing 41.2). He has taken a large step backwards in almost every facet of his game this season, including not being healthy enough to be on the Opening Day roster. To wit (and I advise against the faint of heart reading this):
He's striking out fewer lefties, he's striking out way fewer righties, he's walking way more righties, he's basically forgotten entirely how to get any grounders against lefties, he's getting fewer grounders from righties, his velocity is down on his fastball, curveball, and changeup, he's throwing fewer strikes, he's inducing way fewer swings at pitches outside the zone, he's getting way fewer swings-and-misses, and he's giving up a lot more home runs and deserving them. He's a complete mess.
I looked all of that stuff up on the two popular stat sites, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. That's all valuable information, and we can pinpoint almost precisely how he's struggling in 2011 compared to his past work. But where those stats fail us desperately is in answering that most important question of all: why is he struggling?
Here's what we know for an indisputable fact:
1) The Orioles changed pitching coaches over the winter, and then again mid-season.
2) Brian Matusz says he was unappreciative of his new coach during Spring Training.
3) Brian Matusz got hurt during Spring Training with an intercostal muscle strain.
4) Brian Matusz is not at all the same pitcher he was, as seen in evidence above.
So, (4) seems to be at least in strong part a result of some combination of (1), (2), and (3), yes? Well, maybe. The struggles of Matusz are reflected basically everywhere else in the O's pitching staff, which has seen Jake Arrieta take a step backwards this season, Zach Britton struggle, and so on. So there's some kind of organizational element to this as well, perhaps even beyond the pitching coach change. Consider, if you dare, the story of Chris Tillman, big time pitching prospect, who got to the big leagues, showed a modicum of promise and then fell apart.
Is it the Orioles' player development system as a whole that is fundamentally flawed, that is taking good prospects and ruining them? You will find that you struggle to remember the last Oriole to go through Baltimore's player development system and come out able to meet or exceed expectations.
Matt Wieters? He's a very good player, but his bat (despite his current hot streak) just has never really seemed like the same bat I saw in Bowie a few years ago (even granting the competition difference). Nick Markakis? He turned into a really, really good player...and then regressed, and regressed, and is now a merely good player (and soon to be unfortunately overpaid by a non-trivial amount). Brian Roberts? Roberts, who was drafted in 1999, so long ago that in that year, the Orioles still had maybe future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina on the roster? Yeah, it was probably Brian Roberts.
How do we even go about trying to find the rotten core of the player development system? How do we get to the why of it all?
Let me ask you this though: before we jump to conclusions and start demanding the resignations of certain front office types, what if there's nobody to blame for any of this? What if the regression of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz isn't a blazing red flag of some form of organizational incompetence? What if it really is just bad damn luck?
I get the feeling that almost everyone has tossed aside that possibility. I get the feeling that I've tossed it aside, too. But then, remember what everyone kept saying about this would-be core of pitching the Orioles were developing: "If two of these six guys turn out to be quality major leaguers, we'll have gotten really lucky".
I am not at all saying the Orioles don't have a problem with their player development somewhere. In fact I strongly suspect that the philosophies the O's operate on are inferior to their rivals and that that will keep them decidedly in the tail end polling position. But: what if?
My answer is that this is why the Orioles need to get really, really serious about their farm system. It's not about "rebuilding" or "wins matter now" or "phase two" or whatever. Truthfully, of all the talking points I recall hearing or reading over the years from the MacPhail-led Orioles, the only one that really resonates is that the O's need to emulate the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, who are a pretty good MLB team themselves, have a monster farm system machine that seems to spit out top pitching prospects every year. There's no downtime at all where they graduate everyone and then need to rebuild the farm over the next three years.
Jeff Niemann came up and kind of busted out? How about Andy Sonnanstine? No? Oh well, we have James Shields behind him. And David Price behind Shields. And Wade Davis behind Price. And Jeremy Hellickson behind Davis. And Matt Moore behind Hellickson. And...
See, this is what the Orioles' efforts over the last three, five, ten, twelve years should have been: to flood their system with so much talent that Brian Matusz bombing out is a setback but not an apocalypse. Instead we saw a specific target date given and not nearly as much effort given to the "What if?" scenario. And because nobody asked "What if?" to a satisfactory answer three years ago, we're stuck here today asking "Why?" and watching people lose their jobs. Let's just hope that the guys who do leave the organization in 2011 are the bad ones.