What’s Up With Brian Matusz?

For a second start in a row, Brian Matusz wasn’t even able to get 10 outs as the Blue Jays knocked him out after 1.2 IP and 6 runs allowed. Matusz was a popular Rookie of the Year pick coming into 2010 – he was my selection as well, and not in a partisan way – but he seems to have really regressed from his solid showing at the end of 2009. His ERA (5.21), FIP^ (4.43), and xFIP^ (4.74) are all up around half a run, and there’s some talk of sending him back down to the minors. What’s going on with (still) the O’s top pitcher?

First of all, he’s striking out fewer batters (7.7 K/9 to 7.1) and walking more (2.8 BB/9 to 3.4) than he did last year. Matusz was never supposed to be a power pitcher, and the strike-out rate is still a touch above average – he can live there just fine. The walks are a little surprising though, since Brian was billed as having plus control – and his mark this year is actually worse than average. It’s odd, since Matusz throws an above average percent of his pitches in the strike-zone according to FanGraphs (though less so than ’09). Anecdotally, it sometimes seems that when he loses control he really loses it – and the number back that up (to a degree), as he’s walked 45.5% of batters that have gotten to three ball counts against him compared to 42.5% for the average AL pitcher. Breaking it out by count: after getting to 3-0 he ended up walking the batter (in that plate appearance) almost 73% of the time (64% AL average); after 3-1 it’s 50% (43% AL); and after 3-2 it’s 35% (31% AL). Maybe that’s a sign that Matusz occasionally has his mechanics get out of whack – I don’t know. I think it’s a good bet that he’ll improve in this area, but I’m not sure he’ll get it much under 3 free passes per nine for a little while yet. His control has really abandoned him in these last couple shellings, as he’s walked 6 batters in 4.2 IP.

Then there are the home runs. Matusz has been an extreme flyball pitcher so far in the majors, even though he got a good number of groundballs in the minors. It’s a problem since – as I often say – if you allow batters to put a lot of balls in the air, eventually a bunch of them will find the seats. Despite giving up more home runs than the average pitcher – 1.11 HR/9 (0.95 HR/9 average) – he’s actually been a bit fortunate so far to give up as few as he has. Only 8.8% of balls in the air have gone for homers in 2010, and it was 9% last year. Pitching half his games in Camden Yards – and against the slugging AL East so often – you’d expect that to be a little higher. Matusz has been able to induce a fair number of pop-ups – which turn into outs at a high rate – so that helps things. Still, getting the ball down a little more would be nice – especially since he doesn’t have the velocity to blow the fastball by hitters up in the zone. Here’s a graphic of Matusz’s pitch height, along with all left-handed pitchers:

You can see that Matusz elevates the ball more than the average south-paw, and moving that orange line down would be a plus going forward.

Those are all season long issues; a little bit of progress in each area (K, BB, HR) and you’ve got an above average pitcher. The big concern – especially recently – has been the drop in velocity. Combining the four-seamers and two-seamers together (and it appears that maybe he’s been throwing a few more of the latter), his heater was at 90.7 mph last year and it’s down to 90.0 mph this year. In his couple two outings it’s 88.1 mph (and 90.2 mph in all of the starts preceding those two). Maybe he’s hurt – though I haven’t really heard any speculation on that. Maybe his arm’s just a little tired. I really don’t know. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch, I think, to suggest that the drop in velocity might be part of the reason why batters aren’t swinging and missing against the fastball as much as they did last year – from 7.5% of all fastballs thrown and 16.7% of fastballs swung at, to 5.6% and 11.4% respectively.

As far as the other pitches go, it might not hurt Matusz to change up how he’s using them a little. His slider has gotten more whiffs than his curve both in 2009 and 2010, but it’s gone from being his more prominent breaking-pitch to only being used occasionally (part of that is likely some sliders being reclassified as curveballs, but not enough to change the point too much). Not sure why he made that decision, but it might help generate a few more whiffs to throw the harder offering with a little more frequency (especially with two strikes). I should add that by FanGraphs’ pitch run values^, last year the curve was better at +3.36 runs per 100 thrown to +0.02. This year it’s flipped, +1.33 for the slider and +0.44 for the curve. So maybe it made sense to re-weight things towards the curveball, but perhaps it went too far? It’s not an exact science, but I’m just throwing it out there.

Matusz is also going with the change a lot more, but it’s still been sharp – it’s his best pitch, I think. One would think that featuring it more would make the fastball more effective, but that’s not been the case as far as whiffs are concerned. Both pitches have improved by run values though, -0.99 and -1.55 for the heater and change, to -0.41 and -0.49. A little odd that the total run values for his pitches are better this season – only -0.22 runs per 100 total thrown in ’10 versus -0.53 in ’09 – even though his overall stats are worse.

Quick note since I’d be remiss not to mention it; Matusz’s BABIP^ was .343 last year and .327 this year. That’s a big part of the reason his ERAs are higher than his FIPs and xFIPs, and that’ll come down towards .300 sooner or later. There’s not a whole lot he can really do about that though.

A 23 year-old left-hander with a very good change-up, a couple good breaking pitches, and a decent fastball, who pounds the strike-zone pretty well, and has some pitching smarts should be able to develop into a quality starter. I think he’ll get there, even if it takes more than a season or two.