After a seemingly endless nine-game slide, the Orioles have added one more notch to the win column and currently sit at the bottom of the AL East standings with a record of 2-11.
While Orioles faithful are surely disappointed with the start to the season it’s important to recognize the O’s shining light of hope. Wieters has been steady and Jones and Markakis are poised to rebound, however no single player is more important to the Orioles success now and for the foreseeable future than Brian Matusz.
While it is important to not make too much of his early season success, Matusz has maintained his status as one of the front runners for the American League Rookie of the Year award through his first three starts in impressive fashion. Matusz is currently 2-0, the only Oriole with that distinction, with a 4.24 ERA.
On Sunday Matusz held his own in 6.1 innings and managed to walk away with the victory after striking out eight batters and walking none. What was most striking about Matusz’s performance was the way he went about getting hitters out. Out of the 102 pitches that Matusz threw, only 27 were balls.
Although the A’s may not field one of the more daunting lineups in baseball it still showcases Matusz’s ability to locate his pitches and perhaps more importantly the fortitude to put pitches in the zone when he does reach high counts and make hitters earn their way on base.
Matusz opened the game in impressive fashion by striking out the side with an economical 14 pitches. Although it would be overly optimistic to expect him to remain there as the season progresses as Matusz has only posted a K/9 mark higher than 10 in A ball, Matusz currently leads the American League with 23 Ks through 18.2 innings. He currently has a career high mark of 11.09 strikeouts per nine innings which is well above the Major League average.
It would be hard to imagine Matusz continuing to build on this figure considering that his average fastball leaves his hand at around 90 mph, but it would only make Matusz’s control more effective if he was able to maintain those numbers throughout the season as hitters would now have to respect his strikeout pitch even when Matusz reaches a 3-2 count.
Poise and command are two words typically thrown around to describe Matusz’s calm and controlled demeanor on the mound. The poise was on display last night when Matusz rebounded from giving up a two-out run in the fourth by striking out Adam Rosales to end the inning. The command has been on display as well this season as Matusz has thrown an impressive 65 percent of his pitches for strikes.
As advertised, Matusz's array of pitches and sequencing has been a major strength. His changeup which reaches the plate about 10 MPH slower than his fastball has been effective in keeping hitters off balance, and although pitch values show that his fastball is his most effective pitch, Matusz’s penchant for throwing a plus 77 MPH curve or 80 MPH slider after a couple innings of a potent fastball/changeup combination has proven to be deadly for opposing batters.
As a young pitcher on the Orioles and in the AL East, Matusz will surely face adversity during the long season. Even during strong performances he will likely add at least a few tallies his loss total.
But Matusz has exhibited at the beginning of this season and end of last year that he has the stuff, command, and makeup to become not only the Orioles ace, but one of the top staff aces in the majors.
For a team that has long struggled on the mound, Matusz is a symbol of revival for an Orioles pitching that has left much to be desired. Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are among the other O’s pitching prospects expected to make the jump to the show soon, but none is more highly touted than Matusz.
So far in his rookie season, Matusz has gained the Orioles only two victories and pitched like the best hurler on the team. Only time will tell if he can become the first Oriole to win the AL Rookie of the Year since another highly touted O’s pitching prospect and Orioles Hall of Famer, Gregg Olson.