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2013 Key Players: Justin Masterson

2013 Key Players: Justin Masterson
February 6, 2013
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In the weeks leading up to Opening Day I’ll be taking an in-depth look at several Indians whose performance is critical to the team’s success in 2013. We’ll start with the man who may be the most important of all, Justin Masterson.

After posting a 3.21 ERA in 216 innings in 2011 it appeared that Masterson had successfully made the transition from talented reliever to front of the rotation starter. His long-standing control problems certainly seemed to be a thing of the past. After posting BB/9 rates of 4.08 in 2008, 4.18 in 2009, and 3.65 in 2010, that number dropped all the way to 2.71 in 2011.

But instead of building on that breakthrough, Masterson regressed badly in 2012.

Despite racking up another 200 inning season, Masterson posted a career worst 4.93 ERA. His BB/9 rate jumped back to 3.84. His home run rate also rose considerably, a bad sign for any groundball pitcher. Another statistic that popped out to me was that Masterson threw his fastball only 20% of the time in 2012 (.306 BAA) whereas he threw the pitch 45% of the time in 2011 (.242 BAA). Instead of pitching primarily with his fastball, Masterson opted instead to throw his sinker 60% of the time.

So, what does that actually mean?

Like most pitchers, Masterson is reliant on his fastball to get ahead in the count. Getting ahead in the count allows him to better utilize his sinker to induce groundballs or his slider to put batters away. The numbers tell us that unlike 2011, Masterson couldn’t spot his fastball effectively last year.  In 2012 his BB/K on fastballs was 1.24, a drastic regression from his 0.56 rate in 2011.

Just as troubling, the swinging strike percentage on Masterson’s fastball in 2012 was just 4%. That means that only four percent of his fastballs that were swung on were missed, an extremely low number. This allows us also to speculate that not only did he have trouble spotting the pitch; it was also lacking its normal movement.

It appears Masterson tried to adjust by simply throwing the pitch less, but that made him completely reliant on his sinker and more predictable. In order to bounce back in 2013, Masterson is going to need to regain the command and movement of his fastball. I’m not sure where that thought fits into the recent disclosure of an injury to Masterson’s non-throwing shoulder that he says nagged him throughout the year and altered his offseason routines before 2012. That would be an impossible task to quantify.

Regardless, there is certainly hope for Masterson to perform better in 2013.

I’m not sure we’ll ever see another season like 2011 from him. His peripheral numbers from that year don’t support his 3.21 ERA. As it sometimes goes, Masterson wasn’t as good as his ERA suggests in 2011, but he also wasn’t as bad as his ERA suggests in 2012. Command problems aside, this is still a guy who racks up groundballs with the best of them and unlike other heavy groundball pitchers, Masterson does his own fair share of the work with back-to-back 150 strikeout seasons.

To me, Masterson’s 2.3 WAR (Fangraphs) from last season represents a baseline for what to expect in 2013.

At his worst, I expect Masterson to be 4.20 ERA type pitcher, but I think it’s much more likely that we’re going to see him produce an ERA between 3.80 and 4.00 in 2013. Bill James projects an ERA of 4.01 with lower BB and HR rates. I’m no expert, but I am a little more optimistic than that.

With the exception of his struggles against left-handed hitters, I think Masterson’s problems from 2012 can be fixed. Without any semblance of an out pitch against left-handers, he’ll never be able to get them out with consistency. Regardless, he’s taken good strides with his control since coming to the Indians and I’m hopeful he can settle in with a BB/9 rate around 3.00. Masterson should be a 3 to 4 WAR pitcher moving forward.

With the additions of Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Drew Stubbs the Indians’ offense has added some firepower. That doesn’t mask the fact that it was the team’s rotation that was its biggest headache last season. Brett Myers was the only free agent signee added to the mix and the team will hope he can post mid-rotation numbers and eat innings. Trevor Bauer has significant upside and could be an impact pitcher for the Indians in 2013, but neither he nor Myers can be expected to carry the rotation. That onus falls to Justin Masterson.

If he can return to form some of the pieces behind him may just be able to fall in order. The importance of him doing so for the 2013 Cleveland Indians can’t be understated. Rebuilding the Indians starting rotation starts and ends with Justin Masterson. Let’s hope he’s up to the task.

User Comments

Andy
February 7, 2013 - 9:24 PM EST
Just to clarify - the 16.4% reflects how much worse Masterson's splits were in 2012 than for his career. LHers had a 28% better than average wOBA in 2012 while RHers had a 10% better than average wOBA.
Andy
February 7, 2013 - 9:09 PM EST
This is long-winded, so please bear with me. A few things strike me more about Masterson's numbers (Fangraphs) than do the pitch mix between 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs.

The first is just how bad his 4-seamer was in 2012. He threw it at a career-low rate, yet it was by far his worst pitch - both in an overall sense and weighted per 100 thrown. Also, his slider was the least effective it's even been in 2012 - both in an overall sense and weighted per 100 thrown. The effectiveness of his slider tracks the effectiveness of his 4-seamer quite well, so I think it's safe to say that the slider is set up mostly by the 4-seamer.

The second is how much harder Masterson got hit by LH batters in 2012 even considering his career-long struggles against them. Looking at his wOBA splits vs. LH and vs. RH batters, 2012 was obviously worse than his career average against both (I like wOBA as an offensive metric of pain caused to the D regardless of position or era). But LH batters had a significantly larger jump in their wOBAs (16.4%) compared his career averages.

That leads me to two conclusions. 1) His walk rate was bound to increase because his 2-seamer rarely ever is actually thrown for a strike due to its tremendous amount of movement. 2) Masterson was forced to try and throw his slider for strikes instead of out of the zone, and LHers really teed off on it.
Michael
February 7, 2013 - 7:56 PM EST
Joe,

Thanks for the feedback. I don't know much about BrooksBaseball but I'll give their numbers a look. I could easily see Fangraphs numbers as being incorrect, but I'd guess its hard for any site to track Fastball vs. Sinker for a guy like Masterson.

I do think it's pretty obvious that he threw his fastball less in 2012, and was significantly less effective when doing so. My comment on his BB rate was looking more at the previous three years (0.84, 0.70, 0.46) as a trend and being hopeful he'll fall between the 0.70 and 0.46 figure moving forward.

Jwahoo
February 6, 2013 - 7:37 PM EST
I think the best hope we have the rotation this season is an entire rotation of middle rotation starters. I think Masterson has the best potential to lead the rotation but if we can get Masterson-Ubaldo-Meyers to all have E.R.A's around 3.80 we will have a solid core. I feel our hidden weapon is Carrasco who could be somewhere between a number 2 and 3 starter. If we can the four of them to pitch like number 3s and then have someone from McCalister, Kazmir, Bauer, Kluber or Huff step up we will be in a good postion. I think Huff is best in the bullpen though and could make a career there.

Which brings me to my next thought. Our bullpen could be the wind beneath the wings of the rotation. I think our bullpen could help make up for not having a number 1 starter. I think having a strong 6 to 7 man bullpen is very important. It can protect leads, keep us in the game enough to come back and make sure our pitchers do not over extend themselves. If one of our guys just has a bad day it does not mean all is lost because our bullpen should be good enough to keep us in the game.

If our rotation can pitch like middle rotation starters, our bullpen can dominate and our offense can be as good as I think our Tribe could be a contender. Tons of IFs but at least we have the talent to be able to pull it off if things go well.

Then next offseason or this trade deadline we need to move Masterson, Perez and Asdurbal for 3 young top to middle of the rotation starters to go with Carrasco and Bauer. Obviously not the trade deadline if we are in the hunt.
Tony
February 6, 2013 - 7:16 PM EST
Masterson is the straw that will stir the Indians drink that is the Indians rotation this season. Well, an argument can be made that he AND Ubaldo will have a major impact on how things go. But anyway, getting Masterson back to just career norms will help a little.....even Ubaldo back to career norms. No one is expecting them to pitch at their best, but if they just have their average season and don't tank like they did last year, then it could result in a pretty good positive effect on the rest of the rotation and the W/L of the team overall.
Joe Werner (ProspectDigest.com)
February 6, 2013 - 3:56 PM EST
Mike,
Good piece, man. I really enjoyed it. I thought you made an excellent observation pointing out the decline of his fastball usage. I’m assuming you pulled that data from FanGraphs?

And while I’m not arguing against the validity of it, another site -- BrooksBaseball.net -- has a substantially differing total, throwing his FB 36% of the time and his sinker 44%. That does, however, represent a drop-off from the prior year too.

I do have to wonder which site is correct? Again, not questioning your writing at all, I’m just wondering how much “noise” is involved in the data.

In hindsight, Masterson’s 2011 does seem to be the outlier from what’s now available.

While he’s shown that type of control/command in the minor leagues, after 820+ big league innings his career mark stands at 3.6 BB/9. Plus, his homerun rate in 2011 was also exceptionally low too. His numbers from 2008 to 2012 are 1.02, 0.84, 0.70, 0.46, and 0.79. And his strand rate, which has typically hovered near the 67% mark, was also a little out of whack that year too, at 72.9%. He seems to have benefited that year from a bit of luck.

Add it all up, and in my opinion, I think he comes in between 2.5 and 3.0 wins, though I tend to be a little pessimistic in nature. Of course, being an extreme GB-pitcher, the defense could sway that pretty significantly either way.

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