Can The Baltimore Orioles Trust Brian Matusz?

Matusz has bounced back from an awful start. Will he keep it up? Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

This article is the fourth installment of my unofficial series, Evaluating Trends Of The Baltimore Orioles. You can find previous entries, in which I discuss Chris Tillman, Nelson Cruz, and Delmon Young (among others) here, here, and here. Today, I’d like to look at a member of Baltimore’s bullpen, who has put his abysmal opening stretch behind him.

After Brian Matusz had another disappointing season as a starter in 2012, the Orioles decided to convert him into a full-time reliever. He performed respectably in his first round at the position: His 3.59 xFIP and 3.13 SIERA ranked 74th and 62nd, respectively, among 135 qualified relief pitchers. In year two, he has, on the surface, seen a noticeable decline — out of 147 relievers with enough innings, his 4.12 xFIP comes in at 127th, while his 3.33 SIERA doesn’t fare much better, at 92nd. However, stats for his 2014 campaign as a whole don’t reflect his significant improvements therein.

On June 29th, pitching against the Tampa Bay Rays, Matusz allowed five runs while recording only seven outs. This miserable appearance inflated his ERA for the season as a whole to 5.16, with terrible peripherals to boot — a 5.05 xFIP and a 4.21 SIERA. Since then, he’s flipped the script: With a 1.02 ERA, a 2.57 xFIP, and a 1.80 SIERA, he hardly seems like the same pitcher. Let’s investigate this further, to see which Matusz the Orioles will carry in October.

In his case, the change boils down to defense-independent statistics, as he has bettered his marks notably in that regard. Whereas pre-July, he struck out 17.1% of the hitters he faced while walking 9.3%, in the two-plus months since he has pumped the former up to 34.3% while quashing the latter to 4.3%. His batted-ball profile has also changed somewhat, but not on a relevant level. Basically, Old Matusz set batters down on strikes at a below-average rate, while issuing bases-on-balls at a decent clip; New Matusz fans a lot of guys, and doesn’t hand out free passes.

As for causes of this, there appear to be two. One concerns Matusz himself; the other, Baltimore’s usage of him. On the first note: He has altered his pitch usage as of late:

Time PeriodFour-SeamTwo-SeamCutterSliderCurveballChangeup
3/31-6/2940.7%8.8%1.8%24.5%8.6%13.2%
7/3-9/848.5%5.1%5.7%28.6%5.4%6.7%

A diet of more fourseamers, cutters, and sliders — at the expense of twoseamers, curveballs, and changeups — seems to have created better results for Matusz. Simultaneously, he has thrown harder with several pitches:

Time PeriodFour-SeamTwo-SeamCutterSliderCurveballChangeup
3/31-6/2990.190.990.184.176.682.4
7/3-9/891.390.491.984.877.783.3

Certainly, more velocity makes most pitchers more effective, and Matusz is hardly an exception. Indeed, the whiff rate on his four-seam fastball has increased from 9.5% to 12.8%, while his slider has been even more effective — its swinging-strike percentage has jumped from 10.4% to 18.2%. So this has definitely helped him take a step forward. But from what I can tell, his platoon split plays the largest role in this evolution.

Baltimore sent Matusz to the bullpen in the first place because, while he could consistently retire left-handers, he always had trouble with the righties. From 2009 to 2012 (his four years as a starter), he dominated the former group to the tune of a .286 wOBA, but the latter group demolished him, with a .376 wOBA. These figures gave him a platoon ratio of 1.31, a number that has escalated through both years as a reliever (1.47 in 2013, 1.37 in 2014). Given this information, you’d think that the Orioles wouldn’t deploy him against non-southpaws, as it probably wouldn’t end well.

As I discussed last week, the Birds’ brass often spits in the face of logic, at least until it comes back to bite them. From March until June, 59.2% of the batters Matusz pitched to batted from the right side; his ERA over that span tells you how that worked out. Perhaps the aforementioned Tampa Bay disaster — in which 9 of the 14 (64.3%) batter Matusz faced were right-handed — finally spurred the Orioles into action. Thereafter, they only allowed him to go up against 34.3% righties.

Now, this doesn’t account for all of Matusz’s improvement. In recent weeks, he has still struck out more (and walked fewer) hitters, of either handedness, than he did before. But his own tinkering and newfound velocity can only take him so far; the Orioles themselves, through more erudite implementation of him, can maximize his talent. As they ready the team for the season’s most crucial games, they’ll need as many advantages as possible, and if Matusz can keep this up — and if the Orioles can keep their end up — the story of 2014 could have a happy ending.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.