Against the Red Sox on Tuesday night, Brian Matusz had his most productive start since September of 2010, when he shut out the Rays over seven innings with the help of eight strikeouts, two walks, and just three hits. That Matusz -- and the one who made an appearance against Boston -- is the one everyone expected to see more of during the 2011 season. It wasn't to be, though.
Matusz allowed 3.3 homers per nine in his 12 starts and 49 innings in 2011. He's the only pitcher ever to allow over three homers per nine with at least 10 starts. That's impressive, but in the wrong way, as there have been 13,456 player seasons with at least 10 games started since 1901.
Name something that could go wrong, and it's possible Matusz was afflicted by it in 2011. His velocity was down. His command and control were off. He lacked an out pitch despite a deep repertoire that used to have one. Orioles' manager Buck Showalter nearly took him out of the rotation at the end of the season after saying that Matusz wasn't able to "defend himself properly" on the mound anymore. A pitcher without the ability to pitch can't put up much of a fight.
He's not consistently where he was at the end of 2010, when he rattled off a 2.18 ERA, 3.3 K/BB and 7.5 punch outs per nine over his final 62 innings and 11 starts, but Tuesday night was a start: Matusz struck out nine Red Sox over 6-1/3 innings, allowing just the one run and walk.
All of the issues had dealt with in 2011 seemed far away. His four-seam fastball, which topped out in the high 80s a year before, sat around 91 and touched 93. All of his pitches, except for his change-up, were consistently thrown for strikes. His cutter and slider, pitches that rarely made an appearance in 2011, had velocity and swing-and-miss stuff, respectively. Matusz could rarely get any of these things to happen in a single start last season, never mind all of them at the same time.
Besides the obvious return to the velocity of old, it's Matusz's slider that has and will make the difference for him in the present day. Last year, his slider was shoved aside in favor of his curveball, and that bender failed to do anything beneficial: it failed to induce grounders, didn't miss very many bats, and was the pitch that, percentage-wise, ended up in the bleachers more often than his other offerings.
The curve still hasn't been helpful in 2012, but the southpaw isn't utilizing it nearly as often. He's instead focused on his slider and a cutter that's significantly faster, with far more vertical break to it. While he hasn't been inducing swings-and-misses on the pitch, he's throwing it for strikes nearly three-fourths of the time. His slider, the one pitch he threw in 2011 that could miss bats, has continued to do so. While it's not inducing whiffs at a well-above-average pace, the fact he's already thrown it nearly 100 times more than he did in 2011 has helped him set batters down all the same.
There's still much work to be done for Matusz. This is a hurler who was being discussed as a possible top-of-the-rotation arm, and the fact he's moved into competent-fifth-starter territory has the masses excited. The 6-1/3 innings from Tuesday match his season-high, and for the year he's averaging under 5-2/3 frames per start, and 99 pitches per. That's not efficient, and even with the nine punch outs against the Sox, Matusz is whiffing an average 6.9 per nine on the season.
He's basically back where he was when he finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year vote in 2010, thanks to a slightly-worse K/BB and the same average start length. He's two years older now, though, with far less consistency in his game , and his offerings aren't any better than they were -- just better than in 2011. That's not much of a hurdle to clear, though -- remember the whole "only one of 13,000-plus pitcher seasons ever" thing?
Still, even if Matusz hasn't progressed at all since reaching the majors, he's in a better place than he was a year ago, and that means the Orioles are in a better place. Pitching has long been the problem for this organization, especially when it comes to development. If they mean to stick around in the AL East race, they're going to need Matusz at, if not his best, his most competent. From what he's shown in 2012 to this point, he's at least has that under control. His performance against the Red Sox last night reminds you he's capable of much more.