In his 2008 end-of-the-year prospect rankings, my former Around the Harbor compatriot Windsor ranked Brian Matusz 2nd behind Matt Wieters, saying this about the former 1st round pick,
“Although Matusz is unproven in the minor leagues, by all accounts he is already very close to being major league ready. He holds four plus pitches which he can throw for strikes. The only warning flag is his somewhat violent delivery, although there are differing opinions as to whether or not this will be an issue in the future. Matusz projects to be an ace at best and a number three starter at worst. A polished lefty with four plus pitches and has top-of-the-rotation potential? I’ll take that any day.”
A year later, I don’t think much has changed about Matusz. He still projects as a possible ace of this staff in a couple seasons, and showed a great deal more to be excited about than one might expect from a rookie just a year out of college. While he only pitched 44.2 innings in the majors, his 4.63 ERA is actually deceptively high for his performance over the last month or so of the season. He went 4-0 in his last 5 starts before being shut down for the year as the O’s essentially phoned in the last 3 weeks of the season. In that time his ERA dropped from 6.75 to 4.63 as he allowed 4 earned runs or fewer in every game over that stretch. Moreover, he did so while pitching 7 innings each in his last 3 starts. He, like Wieters, ended the season hot against solid competition. Over his last 5 starts he faced some of the best offensive clubs in the majors in the Rays, Yankees, Rangers, as well as moderate hitting clubs like the Twins and Indians.
In most cases I would subscribe to the popular notion that a team isn’t working nearly as hard in September as they are in May, and his numbers may have benefitted from a lack of effort. However, Matusz didn’t pitch in the last 3 weeks, when teams are truly phoning it in. Moreover, the Twins, Yankees, Rangers, and even Rays all had signs of life when he faced them.
But aside from the numbers, Brian Matusz showed me something that rookie pitchers rarely do- humility and poise. In an August 4th start against the Detroit Tigers that I had the pleasure of witnessing, one in which he was pulled far too early, he refused to allow the Tigers hitters to dictate his pitches, and had superb command en route to a 6-hit, 5-K, 5 inning performance. Even in starts in which he was rocked early, he did not flinch or act as though he was fighting against the ball. Sometimes being a “bulldog” and becoming defiant during a game can cause a pitcher to completely unravel- I want to see my pitcher give the same look to the plate in the 4th or 7th inning as he does for the first batter he faces.
In his first full season in the majors, Matusz should build on his success from the first season. Even if he didn’t, he would still be a solid starting pitcher for a team like Baltimore. However, expectations are much higher for this potential ace. If he continues where he left off at the end of last season, a sub-4.50 ERA is not only reasonable, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t break that conservative mark. While I know that bloggers expose them to all sorts of criticism when they actually make a prediction, I never shy from an opportunity to look foolish. I expect Brian Matusz to evolve over the season into a solid AL East pitcher, sporting at least a 4.4 ERA with a .500 record, depending on run support. This makes me a bit more optimistic than several stat projection sites out there, but if you can’t be optimistic in February than you are setting yourself up for one long season.