NEW YORK — During his time as a starting pitcher, Baltimore Orioles reliever Brian Matusz would spend the days in between his outings poring over scouting reports. The strategy aspect of the game was one of his favorite parts of playing baseball. He would try to devise different ways of trying to get a batter out. He would think of sequences, pitch counts, and what pitches would work best in certain scenarios.
He rarely does that anymore now that he’s a reliever. Mostly, he’ll have a quick conversation about a hitter, usually a lefty, with some of his bullpen mates. Since he mostly is relied upon to get left-handed hitters out — although he’s not exclusively a specialist quite yet — Matusz doesn’t have a need to carefully study advance reports.
These days, he relies mostly on the deception that comes from being a lefty who faces a lefty. And he’s quite good at it. Last year, Matusz held lefties to a miniscule .502 OPS. In 2012 it was a .528 OPS.
And yet for all the success Matusz has had as a reliever, the job itself leaves him unfulfilled, although he makes sure to point out that he’s incredibly happy to be in the majors. Matusz misses those days when he’d spend an hour talking to a catcher about an opposing team’s lineup. For Matusz, being a reliever has dumbed down the game a bit.
“I still look at it as I’m a starter,” Matusz said. “I really do. I feel I have four quality pitches and can throw them for strikes and mix them. Yeah I feel that’s there, hopefully that’s still in the picture some day, but right now, take advantage of the role in the bullpen and embracing the moment.”
Matusz last started a game in 2012, and the reality is that his numbers in that role are not very good. As a starter, Matusz has a 5.51 ERA and opposing hitters have an .832 OPS against him. The problem is that he can’t get out right handed batters, who have accumulated an .861 OPS against him in his career.
A move to the bullpen has forced Matusz to become essentially a two-pitch (fastball, slider) pitcher, which has made him more effective. In 2013, batters had a .236 batting average against Matusz’s fastball and a .226 average against his slider. In 2012 — when Matusz split time as a starter and reliever — batters hit only .097 against his fastball and .158 against his slider when he pitched out of the bullpen. As a starter that season, hitters hit .347 against Matusz’s fastball, .462 against his sinker, and .289 against his change up.
The numbers were similarly ugly in 2011, when Matusz spent the entire season as a starter: .359 average vs. fastball, .370 avg. vs. the change up, .471 average vs. the curveball and .390 average against his slider.
So why doesn’t Matusz just embrace being a reliever? Well, ego could be one reason. Most starting pitchers don’t believe they belong in the bullpen, since it can feel like something of a demotion — although Matusz, picked fourth overall in the 2008 draft, denies that’s the case with him.
Money could be another reason. A starting pitcher is likely to earn a better contract than a lefty specialist. The 27-year-old Matusz will be a free agent after the 2016 season.
Matusz simply says he thinks he has more to offer than just being a reliever.
“I think that option will always be there as long as you continue to stay healthy and get the lefties out, which is key, but yeah I’m definitely embracing the role of having this success,” Matusz said. “Ultimately, it’d be nice to someday be able to start again.”