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Thursday, March 29, 2012
30 Questions: Baltimore Orioles

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

OriolesBrian Matusz: Career bust, or bust-out candidate?

After a season like the one Brian Matusz endured in 2011, he's a virtual guarantee for better things in 2012. After all, he can't get much worse.

• His 10.69 ERA set a single-season high for pitchers with at least 10 starts.
• His .693 slugging percentage and 1.123 OPS allowed also set all-time highs.
• His .372 batting average allowed was third-highest in history.
• His 2.11 WHIP was 17th-worst.
• His minus-2.6 WAR (wins above replacement) ranked 24th-worst among pitchers with 10 or more starts during the expansion era (1961 forward).

Plus, from a fantasy perspective, which matters most to us, Matusz was the worst player in baseball, ranking 1,294th, trailing the man ahead of him, Esmil Rogers, by a substantial statistical margin.

Brian Matusz
Brian Matusz was the worst player on the Player Rater in 2011, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.

Frankly, the only way a pitcher could endure a worse season than the one Matusz had in 2011 would be if he retired or spent the entire year in the minors or on the disabled list. And again, statistically speaking -- using valuation methods like the ones we use for that Player Rater -- each of those alternatives might arguably have represented a season of greater value.

It is understandable, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of fantasy owners have zero interest in the once-future ace of the Baltimore Orioles' staff. Matusz's average draft position fell beneath the cutoff in standard ESPN leagues (25 rounds, 250 players), and so far his ownership percentage in those leagues is less than 1 percent.

I'm here to tell you not to dismiss him so quickly.

Matusz's 2011 was indeed frustrating, and it's distressing that there was little explanation for his struggles other than the intercostal strain that cost him the first two months of the season. It could be the root cause behind his issues; the concern is that the drop in velocity he suffered upon his return signaled potentially something more ominous. But shouldn't we consider the possibility that the injury was indeed primarily responsible, and it threw Matusz's season preparation far enough off track that he was never entirely able to recover? And that the winter's rest, and a full spring's preparation, could have him back on track?

Matusz, after all, is only two years removed from having been ranked as Keith Law's No. 11 prospect overall and then posting a respectable rookie campaign that earned him a place among the top 100 starting pitchers on the Player Rater (in 2010); he is three years removed from a No. 28 ranking on Law's 2009 list, and an 11-2 record and 1.91 ERA in 19 starts between Class A and Double-A; and he is four years removed from having been the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft.

One year ago at this time, Matusz was shaping up as one of the most intriguing breakout candidates in the game. After all, he concluded his rookie year in 2010 on a high note, going 7-3 with eight quality starts, a 3.63 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 14 starts after the All-Star break, earning an ESPN.com fantasy rating of No. 48 among starting pitchers heading into 2011.

Matusz is only 25 years old, meaning he has plenty of career ahead.

Why are we, fantasy owners as a whole, so willing to discard such a promising prospect after one year (granted, a truly miserable year)?

Matusz's spring returns rank among the most relevant of any individual player. Here is how he has performed in each of his five starts so far:

What stands out most are Matusz's 8.00 strikeouts-to-walk ratio and 3.00 ground out-to-fly out ratios, the former a substantial improvement upon his 2.35 K's-to-walk ratio of 2009 and '10, and the latter representing a stark contrast to the 0.67 ground out-to-air out ratio he has so far during his major league career. These numbers show progress after his early-spring sessions with Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair aimed at ironing out mechanics, and Matusz's two-seam fastball has improved substantially -- a likely contributor to his increased ground-ball rate.

Multiple Baltimore Sun reports -- which I can verify based on the one Matusz start I've seen, the March 15 outing -- also have the left-hander's fastball velocity regularly ranging from 90-91 and topping out at 94 mph, right in line with the 90.1 mph he averaged with the pitch in 2009-10. Incidentally, this was one of Law's notes in his top 100 of 2010: "Matusz sits in the low 90s and will touch 94 with his fastball." To be fair, Matusz's velocity did drop during his March 25 start, ranging from 89-90 mph. Whether that's a sign of a "dead-arm" period, common for a pitcher at this stage of the spring, is unclear, but the general reaction to his spring radar-gun readings is that his velocity appears restored to its former levels.

If that's true, there's no reason to think Matusz can't return to a performance level within range of what was projected for him in 2011. To give you a sense of the range of probabilities in his results, let's compare our 2011 and 2012 projections for him:

That median stat line isn't an outrageous expectation, it puts him in the class of matchups considerations, and the 2010 projection underscores his upside … if everything continues to fall perfectly into place.

This isn't to say that Matusz should be soaring up draft sheets or should reside on active pitching staffs in ESPN standard mixed league from day one -- or even that he's draft-worthy at all in our standard mixed format. But he's certainly worth consideration just outside that range, at the bare minimum; he belongs on a list of streaming candidates, and he's one of the more interesting "lottery ticket" selections to make in the final rounds of a standard mixed draft.

After all, anyone who plays the lottery knows the potential reward. In Matusz's case, your odds of a payday are more significant than you think.