It's been a rough 2011 for the Orioles' Brian Matusz. He's followed up a solid rookie campaign with one of the worst performances in the history of the game. In one way, that nightmare is now over. Manager Buck Showalter has removed Matusz from the Baltimore rotation, citing Matusz's inability to "defend himself properly," meaning Matusz can't get hitters out, and there is no sense in having him face hitters while in that condition.
Matusz has a 9.64 ERA after 10 starts and 43 innings. Unless things drastically change for the lefty out of the bullpen over the next few weeks, he's going to hold an inglorious record: at this point, Matusz is the only pitcher ever with 10 or more starts and more than three home runs allowed per nine innings.
Matusz has allowed 15 homers in 43 innings, after giving up 19 long balls in 176 innings in 2010. Opponents are hitting .364/.418/.679 against him, numbers that, if they belonged to a hitter, would be rivaling those of MVP-possibility Jose Bautista (.304/.442/.627). Speaking of Bautista, in his 2010 season, he hit a home run in 7.9 percent of his plate appearances -- 54 bombs in 683 chances. Matusz, in his 2011 campaign, has allowed a homer to 7.2 percent of his batters faced; were he to face as many hitters as he did last year (760), Matusz would allow 54 homers, shattering Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven's season record of 50, set in 1986.
Matusz's velocity is slightly down compared to last year, when he averaged 89.9 m.p.h. on his heater. This year, he's at 88.2 mph, nearly two m.p.h. slower. His changeup was drawing a swing-and-miss 17 percent of the time (league average was 12 percent), but has not worked as well in 2011. Hitters aren't pulling the trigger on it as often (swinging just 45 percent of the time on it, compared to 54 percent in 2010), and when they do, they aren't missing as much: the off-speed offering induces swings-and-misses under 10 percent of the time, a massive drop from last season.
Without a go-to out pitch, Matusz has struggled to put hitters away, even when ahead in the count. Following an 0-2 count, a situation Matusz has run into in 35 plate appearances, hitters are at .364/.371/.636, giving him an OPS allowed that's 239 percent worse than the league average in that situation. It isn't just when he's ahead that there are issues, though: overall, batters are killing him when Matusz falls behind, as their OPS in that scenario is 106 percent better than average.
This is what you would expect to see from a pitcher whose stuff isn't just not working, it isn't going where it's supposed to, either. Showalter's comments echo the numbers:
He can pitch just like he is, stuff-wise. It's just command issues and repeating his delivery and a lot of things he's aware of.
Matusz was highly regarded in the minors, as Baseball America rated him the fifth-best prospect in the game pre-2010. He was fantastic in the minors prior to his struggles there in 2011, so he isn't just some fringe pitcher who has finally succumbed to the opposition. That being said, the company he is keeping thanks to his homer-itis shouldn't be making anyone comfortable.
Edgar Gonzalez had a 9.32 ERA with the Diamondbacks in 2004, thanks to allowing 2.9 homers per nine 46 innings. While his career has recovered, it's only in a relative sense: he has a 5.36 ERA in 260-1/3 innings since, mostly as a reliever or spot starter. Ken Dixon pitched himself out of the league in 1987 when he allowed 2.7 homers per nine. Russ Ortiz returned to the game a year later, but couldn't find major league work in 2008 thanks to a 2007 campaign in which he allowed 2.6 homers per nine and posted a 57 ERA+. Ezequiel Astacio followed up his 2.6 homers per nine in 2005 with 3.2 per nine in 2006, but did so in just six games in relief. Doug Waechter kept on pitching following his 2.6 HR/9 disaster in 2004 at age 23, but the 5.43 ERA and 1.4 HR/9 that followed weren't exactly marks of success.
The list goes on, full of careers that never got off of the ground, or ones that were stopped in their tracks. Bruce Chen may be the most "successful" of the top 10 HR/9 ever, as he gave up 2.6 per nine in 2006 with Baltimore, and followed that up with 2.7 per nine with Texas the next season, but is still pitching today.
Matusz was supposed to Baltimore's ace, a young starter who could take them back to a time when Orioles' baseball was good baseball. Based on the past, the best-case scenario for a rebound is in becoming Bruce Chen, who continually gets chances because he's left-handed. Matusz had the talent to be much better than that -- better than any of the other pitchers in this group. Given the way Baltimore's top prospects have broken down or failed to break out over the years, though, it's hard to be anything but hopeless at this moment in time. The 2012 season will be a fresh start, at least, and if anything will conquer this horrific year, it will be Matusz's combination of talent and youth. That's no guarantee of anything, of course; look no further than his 2011 for evidence of that.