Just yesterday, we discussed the Cubs reported minor league deal with lefty Brian Matusz.
In that article, you’ll notice, we focused heavily on his results as a reliever because, over the past 3.5 years, the bullpen is where he’s been. Moreover, given the inconsistent nature of relievers and the relatively slow start of fellow left-hander Clayton Richard, there was little reason to consider him otherwise at the time.
Of course, before that, Matusz was a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in 2009 (8 starts), 2010 (32 starts), 2011 (12) and 2012 (16 starts). Despite much improved success as a reliever – especially as a lefty on lefties – the Cubs may yet have different plans for him. We may have assumed incorrectly.
Roch Kubatko – who’s typically all over anything Orioles – is reporting that Matusz is expected to be stretched out into a starter at Triple-A Iowa, instead of being used as a reliever. Jake Arrieta, who also pitched in the Orioles organization (and at the Major League level) at the same time as Matusz is hearing something similar. “They’ve talked about maybe possibly getting him [Matusz] extended to fulfill a starting role,” Arrieta told Mark Gonzales at the Chicago Tribune, adding that depth in starting pitching remains important in a long season.
Arrieta also added that he hopes Matusz can use the Cubs to help “right the ship” and get to a place where he’s comfortable, once again (not unlike what Arrieta did when he came to the Cubs and reverted back to the crossfire delivery he’d employed previously). Whether that’s in the bullpen or in a rotation for Matusz is yet to be seen, but Arrieta does expect good things from his former teammate, and you can read more on that in Gonzales’s article.
But if Matusz is to be stretched back out as a starter, what might the Cubs be hoping for? What might be realistic to expect?
Matusz, who was a big-time prospect before breaking into the big leagues, has pitched 354.2 innings as a starter in the Major Leagues from 2009-2012. As you can tell by the low mileage, he only reached a full season’s worth of starts in one of those years (2010). As a starter over those four seasons, Matusz had a rough 5.51 ERA, with peripherals (4.82 FIP, 4.59 xFIP) that did not suggest he deserved much better results. Of course, when you’re walking batters 8.7% of the time (not terrible, but hardly anything to brag about) and striking them out just 17.6% of the time, that’s bound to happen.
And wasn’t just about the control, as Matusz got hit pretty badly, too. As a starter, batters hit .285/.353/.479 (.361 wOBA) off Matusz in his 350+ innings, owing perhaps to a 49.8% medium hit rate and a 28.0% hard hit rate. He may have better numbers against lefties, but as a starter that’s not really going to matter. For the most part, most teams are righty heavy and even if they aren’t, you can be sure they’ll load the lineup with every right hander they have on the bench when Matusz begins a game.
But like I said yesterday, there is stuff to like and a reason the Cubs picked him up. Back in 2009, Matusz’s arsenal was primarily fastball, slider, changeup – his slider being the second most heavily used pitch behind his fastball. But, as the years went on, Matusz slowly phased out the slider, almost entirely. Check out the breakdown over the years:
Slider Usage (%) By Year: Matusz
- 2009 – 15.8%
- 2010 – 3.5%
- 2011 – 1.7%
It wasn’t until he moved back into the bullpen that the slider usage crept back up, which – perhaps not coincidentally – is when his effectiveness improved dramatically (of course, he was being used in smaller doses and more frequently against lefties, too). If you recall, Jake Arrieta began using his slider less and less just before making his way to the Cubs. Check out his slider usage over the years just before Chicago:
Slider Usage (%) By Year: Arrieta
- 2011 – 16.0%
- 2012 – 14.9%
- 2013 – 13.8%
- 2014 (Cubs) – 29.0%
I’m obviously not suggesting that Matusz will come to Chicago, begin throwing his slider twice as often, and immediately find success as a starter with the Cubs, but it’s possible that there is something here. It’s possible that the Orioles pitching coaches have a particular plan/strategy/theory on pitching that differs from the Cubs. While it might work wonders for one starter, it could be counterproductive for another. That’s – in part – why the “change of scenery,” adage is even something you’re familiar with in the first place.
According to Gonzales, Matusz is expected to report to the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona. There, he will join former Major League closers Joe Nathan and Aaron Crow, each rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, before reporting to Iowa to work his way back to the Majors. It’s unclear, at this point, how or when or even if he will come to Chicago, but he’s definitely a nice project to have on the side. You never know what might happen in the rotation or the bullpen in the coming weeks or months, and you never know when a guy with talent can put it back together.