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Does Brian Matusz Have a Future as Part of the Baltimore Orioles Starting Rotation?

Brian Matusz has failed as a starter the past two seasons. Will the Orioles give him another shot in the rotation?

Jeff Zelevansky

When the Orioles drafted Brian Matusz with the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft, the pick was widely praised. People raved about the four-pitch arsenal of the polished lefty who entered the draft after his junior year at the University of San Diego. The expectation was that he would be on the fast track through the minor leagues and that he had a strong chance of reaching his ceiling as a top of the rotation starter. Prior to the 2009 season, before he'd even thrown a professional pitch, he was ranked as the #25 prospect by Baseball America.

As he plowed his way through the minors in that 2009 season, he lived up to the hype. In 19 starts combined in high-A Frederick and AA Bowie, Matusz had a 1.91 ERA, striking out over a batter per inning while recording a WHIP of 1.05. He looked like someone who was on the fast track to the big leagues, though then-Orioles GM Andy MacPhail swore up and down through the early summer that there was no way, no how that the O's would call up Matusz that first professional season.

That's what MacPhail insisted, but a Billy Butler line drive off of Brad Bergesen on July 30 changed his plans. Suddenly, the next best option seemed to be the stud pitching prospect in Matusz. The wisdom of this move being made in the midst of yet another wasted Orioles season was hotly debated here and elsewhere at the time.

As you might expect from a 22 year old getting his first taste of the big leagues, he at times flashed brilliance and at times looked like he still had more to learn. In his last start before he was shut down for the season, he pitched against the Yankees in New York - the team that would go on to win the World Series - and gave up only four hits and one run in seven innings. That was no B-lineup: Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Swisher and Cano all played the whole game.

His performance in that taste of the big leagues was still promising enough despite a 4.63 ERA that Baseball America had Matusz rated as the #5 prospect prior to the 2010 season. Once again, the handy excuse was there that a 23 year old in his first full big league season would still have some learning to do, and Matusz took his lumps at times. However, he finished the season strong, as did the team in general once Buck Showalter arrived on the scene. A 5.46 ERA at the end of July ended up at 4.30 as the regular season concluded. Eight of his final 11 starts were of the quality start (6+ IP, 3 or fewer ER) variety.

It was enough to give you some hope that the 2011 season would be the one where he would take that step forward, figure out the last thing that needed to click into place to be at least an average pitcher. In an IM between Stacey and I towards the end of 2010, we were so excited about Matusz that when we were talking about Mark Buehrle's streak of 200+ IP seasons, we couldn't wait for people to say that about Matusz in ten years. The less said about that 2011, the better. Was it poor conditioning? Drama over not liking the pitching coach? Did he get knocked off by the intercostal injury that, completing the rush-the-prospect circle, necessitated Zach Britton to be added to the rotation in April despite MacPhail saying that absolutely not, no way, no how, would Britton be with the team so soon? Maybe it was a little of all of them.

Whatever the reason, you know the ugly totals: an ERA that went up in 11 of 12 starts. This became impressive in how terrible it was once he was starting games with an 8.50 or higher ERA. He surrendered home runs like they were going out of style: 3.3 per nine innings. Even after being banished to AAA Norfolk - his first innings at that level, since he skipped it on the way to the big leagues - he didn't seem to fix anything, because he came back six weeks later just as terrible as he had been. Perhaps he was even worse.

It was all supposed to go better in 2012. He'd have an offseason with Brady Anderson to work on his conditioning. This would bring back that dreaded lost velocity, since a fastball that averaged 91.5 mph in 2009 was down to 88.5 mph in 2011. Worse, his change-up stayed the same velocity and his slider increased in velocity in that time, meaning the gap between his fastball and off-speed pitches did not reach that critical difference to keep hitters guessing.

At Fanfest last year, he sounded upbeat. He talked about how he had flushed 2011 out of his mind completely. Matusz said he'd worked on building his arm strength, confident that the fastball velocity would come back. The other area of importance was establishing and locating the fastball.

The front office regime had changed, and Dan Duquette was not wedded to "the cavalry" in the way that MacPhail was, but still, Matusz pitched well enough in the spring to earn a spot in the rotation. He was 25, he had a complete disaster of a season to learn from, an offseason to fix what was wrong with him, and you could still almost talk yourself into believing that he would turn things back around. That's what a 4th-overall pick pedigree is good for, right? The talent was there once. It was just a matter of them polishing it again, or so we told ourselves.

If you were talking to someone who didn't know anything about Brian Matusz, you could cherry pick some statistics to make his 2012 sound good. "Well, he had the highest ground-ball rate in his career, his fastball velocity was up, his home run rate was down, his walk rate was down, and his strikeout rate was up." That sounds great! Unfortunately, it still added up to a 5.42 ERA as a starter, with Matusz averaging a little less than 5.1 innings per start.

That might have been enough, especially with a couple of promising starts against division rivals, to keep him in the rotation in previous, crappy Orioles team years, but the O's were trying to hang in there in July, and they couldn't keep sending out Matusz. When the team got on a plane for Seattle at the start of July, Matusz was instead on the Norfolk shuttle. By any standard of actual results, you can't argue he deserved to stay in the rotation or in the big leagues at all.

Brian Matusz the reliever emerged from Norfolk on August 24. He was used as a LOOGY; he was used to put out fires and get a couple of outs in an inning in progress. Four times, he pitched an inning or more. He looked like a different guy. It was only a sample size of 13.1 IP, but he struck out 19 hitters and only walked three, surrendering only one home run.

Does any of that mean anything for the upcoming season? When pitching coach Rick Adair was asked by a reporter at Fanfest whether Matusz would be a part of the rotation, he said bluntly, "I don't know." Adair expounded a little further upon Matusz's "struggles in the 4th and 5th inning." Matusz himself spoke of getting some confidence back as a reliever, of feeling good that he was able to contribute to the team down the stretch. It's probably not the greatest sign, however, that a reporter tried to offer Matusz a little consolation with a question about his contract with a preface that at least you can get paid more as a reliever these days than you once would have. That happened.

When asked about who was going to be in the rotation, Adair talked about "three or four guys", and while he didn't list the guys outright, he did go on to praise Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez. Duquette has spoken of still wanting to add a "veteran starter" - maybe Joe Saunders, maybe not - who would probably be in a free-for-all competition for the fifth starting spot.

Can Matusz acquit himself well in that competition? I have no idea. When the pitching coach is talking about how you do fine for three innings, then have struggles, that doesn't seem to me like someone who's very optimistic about your chances as a starter, though.

In fact, Matusz's worst inning was the 6th inning. In the 1st through 5th innings last year, he had a total ERA of 4.03 - not great, but OK. In the 6th inning, which he reached in twelve of sixteen starts but only completed it in seven of them, he had a stupefying 16.81 ERA.

That could just be random noise. On the other hand, there are a couple of ready explanations. Perhaps Matusz still needs to improve his stamina so he won't fall apart past 85 pitches. Perhaps he still needs to work on adjusting to the adjustments made by big league hitters within a single game. Perhaps he still needs to work on that fastball, which Fangraphs says was his worst pitch.

If these turn out to be things that he and the Orioles coaching staff can improve, then maybe there is a future for him yet in the starting rotation. If not, then the bullpen probably remains in Matusz's future. He may even continue to excel as a reliever and contribute to Orioles playoff teams, as he did last year, but if that's all he does, then as O's fans look back on that 2008 draft with San Francisco selecting Buster Posey immediately following Matusz, there will always be a little regret.