Although I’m not a fan of the sport any longer, I played soccer when I was a kid (among other sports of course). I was never gifted as an athlete, which is probably why I grasp at straws to stay somehow connected to athletics today by doing things such as penning this column! However with that said, I got caught up in what my Dad called the “old football mentality” in that the “bad players” got stuck on defense. Yeah, I said it – the bad players. I know that nowadays we’re not supposed to use terms like that when referring to kids or youth sports, but in my 1980’s mentality we called a spade a spade.
So I ended up playing a lot of fullback as a young kid during soccer season, when in reality I really wanted to play forward so that I could score. (And for the record, I did end up playing forward later on.) However at one point I ended up playing goalie, which in my mind was actually a step lower than fullback. (Now of course I recognize how important both of those positions are.) But I found that I was a good goalie; I would generally stop whatever was shot at me. My Dad was often the coach, and when he’d make the lineup the night before the game my heart would sink when I’d see my name in goal. Since playing defense was in essence a punishment in my eyes I thought that if I played poorly I’d truly never get the chance to play forward, but then again if I did really well they’d never move me out of the goal. Quite a dilema at times.
So what’s the point here in relation to the Baltimore Orioles? I look at guys like Brian Matusz and Zach Britton, and I see some similar characteristics. Granted they’re both gifted athletes who train year-around, whereas I would balk at running laps around the field (see what I did there…balk?!). However both of them set out to be starting pitchers. In fact as I said on the Birds Watcher Radio Show yesterday, when he first came up I thought Matusz would be the next great power southpaw. However they’ve both found homes in the Orioles’ bullpen, and we’ve found that they’re both very effective in those roles.
Both players have expressed interest in starting at some point, however they also know that
there’s probably not a place for them right now in the rotation. However again, they do find themselves in a bit of a catch-22. The better they pitch in relief, the more Buck Showalter will call them out of the pen – and thus the longer they could be in the bullpen. It’s not uncommon for relievers not to be effective as starters – see Josh Stinson and T.J. McFarland’s spot starts last season. And the same can often be true in reverse; many times starting pitchers struggle when they’re asked to take the ball in relief at various points.
One way or the other, Matusz and Britton find themselves in situations whereby they’ll get sent packing if they cease to get the job done properly. However the better they look, it’s certainly possible that the starting rotation gets further and further out of their grasp. The big difference between my example from the soccer team and their situation is that in their case we’re talking about two professional athletes as opposed to a weak-willed twelve-year old boy who hated running. (Note to that twelve-year old: you’ll be a center forward in about two years…so cool your britches!) But it does illustrate a dilema that can be very real for some pitchers.
The late Mike Flanagan became a reliever late in his career, but Britton and Matusz are much younger than he was at that time. Aside from perhaps your top-of-the-line closers such as Dennis Eckersley or Mariano Rivera, there’s probably not a reliever in baseball that doesn’t want to be a starter or who didn’t set out to be a starter. But those are just the turns that the game sometimes gives players. As I’ve said many times, baseball often mirrors life; and life’s not always perfect or easy. Luckily for the Orioles and their fans, there’s nothing about Britton or Matusz that indicates they don’t want to be good at their roles as relievers. That’s not to say that they don’t want to be in the rotation, however it would be disappointing if the disappointment wasn’t there.