Last August, the career of Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz appeared to be at a crossroads after the left-hander had been relegated to the minor leagues for the second consecutive season.
His numbers weren’t as bad as a historically-poor 2011 season in which his earned run average ballooned to 10.69, a major league record for a pitcher making at least 10 starts in a season, but the 2008 first-round pick had clearly been left behind by a club fighting to make its first postseason appearance in 15 years. In 16 starts, Matusz went 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA before he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk shortly before the All-Star break.
That’s where it appeared he would remain for the final stretch of the season — with a token September call-up potentially being thrown in — before lefty relief pitcher Troy Patton suffered a sprained ankle in August. That prompted manager Buck Showalter to view the demoted Matusz in a new light as a left-handed setup man. Described by some as not having a receptive attitude toward coaching, Matusz embraced the new role, in part because he knew it was likely his only ticket back to Baltimore to pitch in a pennant race.
“For me, it was just being able to settle in and learn a lot from the guys and just go out and attack the zone and throw strikes,” Matusz said. “That was the big key for me — get ahead in the count and just have fun.”
Matusz thrived in the new role, pitching to a 1.35 ERA in 18 relief appearances. The southpaw appeared in all six of the Orioles’ playoff games last season, allowing the game-winning home run to Raul Ibanez in Game 3 of the American League Division Series but surrendering only one earned run in 4 2/3 innings.
With left-handed hitters holding a .219 career average against Matusz, Showalter used the former starter against key left-handed bats initially but expanded his role as he continued to thrive as a reliever. Matusz was throwing more strikes as a reliever (73 percent of his pitches compared to just 64 percent as a starter in 2012) and showed electric stuff as batters were swinging and missing on 16 percent of his pitches compared to just seven percent over his 16 starts.
The young pitcher admitted liking the need to prepare to be ready to pitch every day as opposed to the routine of a starter that left him on the bench for four straight days, allowing great spans of time to think about his struggles over the last two years. Last season’s turnaround has left many to wonder whether the Orioles would be wise to move Matusz to the bullpen permanently despite the fact that he enters the spring being stretched out as a starter once again.
“I have the opportunity to be a starter at the start of spring,” Matusz said. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, and ultimately, that’s what I’d like to do. I have the opportunity, so I’m going to roll with it and just go out and pitch my game and have fun.”
You can understand the organization’s preference to keep Matusz in a starting role after investing the No. 4 overall pick and a $3.2 million signing bonus in the pitcher in 2008, and it’s not as though the Orioles’ starting rotation is set in stone with established big-league starters manning every spot. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman are the favorites to grab the first four jobs in the rotation, but the fifth starter spot is wide open as Matusz will compete with Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Rule 5 selection T.J. McFarland.
If 2013 is anything like last season, the Orioles are bound to see changes in their starting rotation, due to injury or ineffectiveness, so the confidence boost Matusz received after success in the final two months could go a long way in the lefty establishing himself as a viable starting pitcher. Even if Matusz were to start the year in Norfolk, the Orioles may need to turn to him as they did with Tillman and Gonzalez last season before the two right-handers became key contributors in the second half of the season.
Critics doubting Matusz’s ability to finally figure it out as a starter need only look at the revitalization of Tillman last season as evidence that the light could come on for the University of San Diego product, but perhaps the most interesting question will be how the Orioles handle the left-hander should he not emerge as one of the best five starters during spring training. Matusz has an option remaining, meaning he could be sent to Norfolk to continue working as a starter, but would Showalter and the Orioles leave his arm in the minors when they know how deadly he can be as a reliever against left-handed bats?
The manager has never been one to obsess over playing matchups, preferring pitchers who are effective against hitters from either side of the plate, but it’s difficult to ignore Matusz’s overwhelming success against left-handed hitters in his career. Patton is also the only left-hander projected to be part of the Baltimore bullpen to begin the season, making it an appropriate fit for Matusz to land there once again.
If the Orioles elect to move Matusz back to the bullpen early on, it would likely mean he’d remain there for the rest of the season as it’s a dangerous line to walk with a pitcher’s health when moving back and forth between starting and relief roles — particularly when attempting to stretch out a reliever without the benefit of an offseason to prepare. At this stage of Matusz’s major league career, the Orioles would have to wonder whether it’s time to simply keep him in the bullpen if it means a third straight year of lukewarm results as a starter.
Regardless of the arguments some have made about Matusz having too much value in the Baltimore bullpen, there’s no disputing that it’s easier to find a left-handed setup man than it is to find an effective southpaw starter. A good starting pitcher is a far more valuable asset to a club than a bullpen arm, but Matusz needs to prove he can do the job over six or seven innings consistently and time is running out for that debate.
The Orioles are making the right move in at least stretching out Matusz in preparing him to start, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Showalter pulls the plug if he’s ineffective and moves the lefty to the bullpen with the memory of last year’s success in the manager’s mind. It’s the kind of problem the Orioles wouldn’t have had in the past when a pennant race was never on the radar and young pitchers could develop with little else on the line.
If it comes down to pitching in a pennant race again or riding buses in the International League, it’s likely Matusz won’t balk at a relief role again, even with his state — and understandable — preference to start.
“Obviously, at the end of last year, we were on a good roll with making the playoff push,” Matusz said. “Things were clicking at the right time and it was a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun, indeed, but you wonder if it was only a temporary detour in his career as a starter or a sign of what’s to come for a pitcher with plenty of unfulfilled promise entering his fifth season in the majors.
The D&L Window Tinting Morning Reaction discussed Brian Matusz in Monday’s Spring Training Spotlight. You can listen to the segment HERE.