What do we know? Let’s face it, six weeks ago, if you’d said that Brian Matusz would outpitch the Rays’ Matt Moore for an Orioles win, you might chalk it up to one of those things, lightning in a bottle, a random outcome, the baseball gods acting in all of their capriciousness. Or you might be willing to read into it a transient lesson, that sometimes expectations get the best of all of us, because where Moore is now, with a 5.31 ERA (and allowing 6.2 runs per 9), Matusz has been in an even deeper hole.
Maybe you’d take this one ballgame as a necessary curb to the perhaps-exaggerated enthusiasm for Moore before the season. Not to knock the young power lefty’s upside and long-term future with the Rays, but let’s remember that Clayton Kershaw didn’t become Clayton Kershaw overnight. Heck, Sandy Koufax didn’t become Sandy Koufax overnight. The hysteria that gets associated with whatever is new and exciting, the desire to see today’s prospect become tomorrow’s star can lead you to too-soon enthusiasm for a top prospect. Any top prospect.
Which is why it’s worth remembering that Brian Matusz has been here. Little more than a year ago, Matusz was considered a top pitching prospect, not just in the Orioles organization, but anywhere, in baseball, on the planet. Heck, the entire baseball-related universe. After a nice season-ending spin in 2009 to make his debut (5-2, 4.63 ERA and 7.7 K/9), Baseball America rated him the fifth-best prospect in baseball, period. After a solid first full season in 2010 (4.30 ERA with 7.3 K/9), the former fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft looked like he would be a key contributor to any impending baseball renaissance in Baltimore.
In the virtual world, Moore topped that this past winter by being the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball, per Baseball America. But Matusz’s tale of intervening woe should provide an important cautionary note about getting too wrapped up in any young pitching prospect. In 2011, Matusz got lit up, posting a 10.69 ERA.
During and after Matusz’s 2011 implosion, the explanations offered up as his potential became so much street pizza were legion: Maybe it was because he wasn’t throwing enough sinkers, maybe because his changeup flattened out and maybe it was because his work ethic wasn’t perfect. After all, these days a little dose of PitchF/X analysis can make everybody an expert in what you oughta do. And maybe it was easy to get down as a young guy on a bad Baltimore ballclub -- say what you will about talent always shining through, but as Kevin Goldstein always likes to say, players aren’t Strat cards. The Orioles have been D.O.A. on so many Opening Days that you can understand how anybody banished to Baltimore by the Rule IV draft might mull the point of it all.
This year, Matusz is better, but far from good: A WHIP of 1.7 to 1.8 reflects a guy who’s getting hit, and the batting average on balls in play that he’s allowing (.349 before Saturday’s start) reiterates that bit of obviousness. You can’t just say that “regression” is going to bring that down -- the Orioles’ defense rates as one of the best in baseball. This year’s strikeout rate of 6.2 K/9 may sound nice, but it’s headed in the wrong direction as strikeout rates keep getting higher every year, which is why he’s below average at fooling some of the people some of the time, for his career as well as this year.
Which goes a long way toward saying that Matt Moore’s latest loss is a great reminder that it’s a rare top prospect who becomes truly great overnight. Good as he might be, whoever he may be, perhaps nobody out on the mound is as good as you wishcast for him. As Tom Hanks’ fictional Jimmy Dugan exclaimed in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Moore had his moment in the sun last October, beating the Rangers in the American League Division Series, and there’s nothing you should knock about that -- it was a great game pitched by a tremendous young talent. But it’s worth remembering that Bob Wolcott had that sort of introduction to baseball when he was a rookie, spinning a win for the Mariners in the 1995 American League Championship Series against the Indians with fewer than 40 big-league innings to his credit. When you’re good enough to get the opportunity, you’re good enough to do something magical, something people will remember you by.
Going up against Moore, Saturday night belonged to Matusz, as far as that goes, and his importance to the Orioles going forward, even as their fourth or fifth starter du jour, reflects how tentative and potential-laden are their possibilities if the AL East no longer belongs to the Yankees or Red Sox, or even the Rays. If Matusz lives up to the billing that was once automatically his, he’ll join Adam Jones and Matt Wieters and Chris Davis and Nick Markakis in the ranks of young Orioles who are finally living up to the expectations that we -- meaning you and me, and not just prospect mavens and experts -- larded up on top of the difficulties that every player has to deal with when it comes to breaking through. If Matusz breaks through now, at the same time as so many other young O’s, it’ll be a bit of redemption for a prospect many folks may have forgotten deserved it. Points to him for providing the reminder.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.