Spring Spotlight: Can Brian Matusz Still Succeed As A Starter?
One of the biggest Orioles enigmas of the past few seasons has been left-hander Brian Matusz, whose career has taken several unexpected turns during the last few years. When the Orioles drafted Matusz fourth overall during the 2008 amateur draft, it was considered merely a matter of time before he would emerge as a perennial staff anchor. He was a polished college left-hander with four quality pitches and top-of-the-rotation talent.
Of course, things haven't quite worked out that way. After a promising start to his career, Matusz went off the rails in 2011 with an unsightly, injury-plagued season during which he posted the worst ERA in baseball history (10.69) for a pitcher with at least 10 starts. Matusz won another shot at the rotation the following spring, but again struggled and was demoted to the minors.
Matusz's tale took a turn for the better late during the 2012 season. The Orioles, in need of a left-handed reliever, converted Matusz to a bullpen role late in August, and he emerged as a stellar weapon for the Birds down the stretch. He made 18 regular-season relief appearances and posted a 1.35 ERA, then appeared in all six of the Orioles' postseason games and pitched well (other than giving up a painful walkoff home run to the Yankees' Raul Ibanez during Game 3 of the Division Series).
Though the time he spent in the bullpen was a small sample size, Matusz looked like a completely different pitcher working in relief at the end of the season. His velocity was better, his command was sharper, and he racked up more strikeouts -- averaging 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings (including his postseason numbers) as opposed to 6.6 as a starter. Perhaps the most promising development was that Matusz, who had struggled woefully against right-handed hitters as a starter, was equally effective against both lefties and righties in relief.
"Just having that role and coming out of the bullpen is something I've never done before in my career at any level," Matusz said. "Being able to do that was definitely new and a lot of fun."
So now the question is: What's next for Matusz? The most popular school of thought among fans has been, not surprisingly, to keep Matusz in a relief role. After all, his superb bullpen performance seemed to indicate that he'll be better off simply remaining a reliever for the foreseeable future, pitching in short stints and in matchup situations.
But is it too early to give up on Matusz as a starter? Perhaps his breakthrough performance late in 2012 can be attributed to a mechanical adjustment, fine-tuned command or better preparation. If that's the case, Matusz could stand a chance at carrying over his success back into a starting role in 2013. The Orioles would be well served to find out. If Matusz can return to form as a capable starter, he's more valuable in the rotation than he is in the bullpen.
"Being ready to go every single day, it really helped me get into a routine and kind of find my groove a little bit," Matusz said of his relief work last year. "It allowed me to get into a good rhythm, and hopefully pick up where I left off and carry it over to a starting role this season."
In his heart, Matusz still wants to start.
"I've been a starter my whole life until last year, and I'd like to go out and try to earn a spot in that starting rotation," he said. "Being young still, I'd like to have that opportunity to still be a starter. I've had my ups and I've had my downs. It's just a matter of being consistent, and I'd like to be able to do that in a starting role this season."
The Orioles are indeed giving Matusz another crack at the starting rotation this spring. During his first Grapefruit League outing, he worked two scoreless innings. Matusz faces stiff competition from Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson and a host of others. But if nothing else, Matusz has proved that even if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job, he still has a place on the Opening Day roster.
The Orioles could slide him back into a bullpen role after seeing what he brought to the team late in 2012. Even if Matusz doesn't become the staff ace the O's hoped for -- in fact, even if he doesn't rejoin the rotation at all -- he can still be a valuable contributor to the Orioles. And at 26 years old, his career is far from over.
Posted March 1, 2013 by Paul Folkemer