If you only scrape the surface of Brian Matusz's 2015 season with the Orioles, his performance looks a lot like this was his best season yet. In this, his third season pitching out of the bullpen, Matusz posted his lowest ERA yet, held opponents to the lowest batting average they've ever had against him, and on top of that, posted a strikeout rate higher than anything else he's done in his career.
All of those numbers sound like good things. They are good things. The problem for Matusz lies with just about everything else. When you dig just a little bit deeper into the story of his season, the plot shifts abruptly from the story of a LOOGY (lefty one out guy) playing a small but clutch role out of the bullpen to one of a reliever who seems to have lost the confidence of his manager, shunted as a result of poor performance into lower and lower leverage situations.
Getting off on the wrong foot and staying there
The first time that Matusz came into a game this season was the Orioles' third game of the year. In the sixth inning, Miguel Gonzalez got two outs before losing his command and issuing back-to-back walks. The Rays pinch hit for a righty instead of the lefty Matusz was supposed to face.
No big deal, right? With two outs, all Matusz had to do was get any kind of out. Instead, he chucked a wild pitch to advance the runners before walking that pinch hitter to load the bases. He followed up this walk by issuing another to the next batter, also a righty, forcing in a run. That was the first run of the game. He had one job, to keep those inherited runners from crossing the plate. The first time we saw him this year, he failed.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, this was hardly the only instance of Matusz having problems with inherited runners this season. At season's end, he had entered games with a total of 46 inherited runners. Of these runners, 17 would score while Matusz was in the game. That's a horribly high 37% of inherited runners scoring. Just looking at it gives me the urge to recoil in horror.
If this was the only area where Matusz had problems, you might be able to overlook them. That was simply not the case, though. Here is another problem: With four losses, Matusz led Orioles relievers in that category. Now, you and I both know that wins and losses are not the be-all, end-all of evaluating pitchers because they involve many factors out of the pitcher's control.
When it comes to the specific case of losses for relief pitchers, the picture is a bit more clear. After all, for a reliever to take a loss, it means he entered a game in which his team was not losing, gave up at least one run to cause his team to fall behind, and the team ultimately lost. He single-handedly cost more games than any other O's reliever this year.
That number is even worse when you add in the inherited runner problem. By my count, there were an additional three games where Matusz allowed the game-deciding run to cross the plate: April 8, August 9, and September 7. That's seven losses heavily influenced by Matusz's pitching.
Buried deeper in the bullpen
Matusz's performance seems to have caught the attention of manager Buck Showalter, and not in a good way. The pattern of Matusz's usage shifted dramatically in 2015 compared to how he had been used in past years, with Matusz as a result finding himself in fewer and fewer key situations late in games.
One of the many numbers that Baseball Reference tracks is how many times a reliever enters the game in a save situation. That counts any game in the sixth inning or later where a reliever enters a game where his team is ahead and the tying run is on base, at bat, or on deck. Two years ago, Matusz entered into 23 save situations - more than a third of his games. In 2014, he entered 19 save situations, just shy of a third of his games.
The 2015 season saw Matusz enter into only five save situations. That means that Matusz was called on to protect a narrow lead late in a game less than 10% of the times he pitched this year. That looks a lot like a reliever whose manager is aware of his problems and is using him in such a way to try to minimize any effects of those problems.
In more than half of the games Matusz pitched, he entered when the Orioles were already losing. That's a stark contrast to each of the past two years, when more than half of his games were ones he entered with the Orioles ahead. Some of that is due to the Orioles winning fewer games overall in 2015 compared to the 2014 division champions.
The seven losses I mentioned above stand out even more when taken with the leverage numbers. Matusz had fewer opportunities to pitch in games where the Orioles led or were tied than ever before, and still managed to directly or indirectly blow more games than ever before. Little wonder if he's been shunted into being used differently.
Although there were a lot of problems for Matusz this year, that doesn't mean that he doesn't still have some use in him. He still performed well enough to be useful in that LOOGY role, holding lefty batters to a .186/.231/.333 batting line over 108 plate appearances. He struck out 38 of those 108 batters. Those are strong numbers, though the fact that four of the five home runs he allowed came against lefties was a bit of a problem.
The bigger problem, of course, was Matusz against right-handers, with a batting line of .244/.375/.346 in 98 plate appearances. That's a .721 OPS allowed, with Matusz walking nearly one in every six righties he faced.
What does the future hold?
There's a real possibility that the 2015 season was the last in an O's uniform for Matusz. He has a year remaining before he becomes a free agent, but with a salary of $3.2 million that's expected to rise to $3.4 million next year, will that be too much for the O's to want to keep him?
It's not a lot of money for a reliever filling a key role, but that doesn't seem to be Matusz any longer. Perhaps he'll be ticketed for bigger spots next year if Darren O'Day heads elsewhere. It'd be tough to have confidence in him in that scenario given how he performed this season. A strict LOOGY who offers no minor league options as flexibility, who costs over $3 million? That's a tough sell.
Though this was the best season by ERA of any part of Matusz's career, that was just about the only highlight to be found for him. If the way Matusz was used in 2015 indicates that Showalter's patience with him has run out, we may have seen the last of him.