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Second Thoughts Game #58: Boston 2, Cleveland 3

Second Thoughts Game #58: Boston 2, Cleveland 3
Jason Kipnis gives Justin Masterson some love after another dominant inning on Monday night. (Photo: AP)
June 3, 2014
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The Indians' 3-2 victory over the recently resurgent Boston Red Sox was a time of a great many reunions. Terry FranconaJustin Masterson, and Nick Hagadone all had the chance to face their former club; for Grady Sizemore and Edward Mujica, it was a return to their former home ballpark.

The Cleveland offense was saved far more by the timing of their hits than the quantity; Chisenhall and Asdrubal got hits when a run was on the line, but that was the only offensive performance from either of them, and while Bourn's good day (1B, 3B, BB, SB) led to a run, Murphy's was left out. It's good to see that Murphy's BABIP is ticking back toward career norms (and that Bourn is vastly exceeding it - this author isn't above being greedy), but the story of the day was that grinning bear who made the start for Cleveland.

The Frustrating, Amazing Spectacle of Justin Masterson

It might be said that, due to his often widely varying results, that Justin Masterson is a Jekyll and Hyde pitcher. It's more precise, however, to say that Justin Masterson is a complete inversion of the Jekyll and Hyde tale.

From his side-arm delivery to the extreme results of his fastball/breaking ball arsenal, Justin Masterson is unique. In what may have been the strangest outing since Danny Salazar's 3.2 IP, 10 K, 5 ER paroxysmal performance on April 10th against the White Sox, Justin Masterson shut out his former club in 7 IP; the (modified) line was 7 IP, 26 batters faced, 0 R/ER, 3 H, 4 BB, 10 K, 105 P, 67 strikes, 14 whiffs.

From the modified box line alone, the firsts of a strange game arose. Masteron's 13.3% Swinging Strike rate is extremely high; the fact that both Kluber and Bauer each had 14 whiffs Friday and Saturday as well does not change that fact. It's a top-flight game in terms of bat missing when one can generate 14 whiffs; for context, the average starter garners 8.7 whiffs per 100 pitches.

Additionally, if an Indians starter were to allow four walks in a game, the team's rather conservative pitch counts would not, normally, allow that starter to go more than six. Even if one were to assume a pitcher had an outing with 4 walks over 7 innings, one would guess that those four walks were either distributed evenly, or that they came predominantly at the end of the outing, just as he was nearing the end of his night. What actually happened, that they all occurred in the trying 2 1/3 innings that started the game, makes the line even more bizarre.  

Masterson's first two innings were not disastrous in the sense that they visited irredeemable cataclysm upon the team. They were shut-out innings, but they were the shutout innings of a Chris Perez rather than those of a Craig Kimbrel. After three batters in the second, Masterson's K:BB ratio on the night had been an extremely worrying 4:4 - worrying not only in isolation, but within the context of his already highest-in-the-AL 33 walks entering the game. Monday's performance was worse than normal, certainly, but throughout his career, Masterson's walk rate in innings 4-6 (3.8 BB/9) have been worse than his walk rates in innings 1-3 (3.4 BB/9). Every factor suggested that Masterson's game would become worse, mildly better, or quickly over.

In the shadow of this smirking specter, baserunners stood on first and second after Masterson had walked David Ortiz, and A.J. Pierzynski was at the dish with one out in the third. 'At least,' one consoled oneself, 'A.J. Pierzynski will not walk.' Ill-tempered Pierzynski-bot has something of an overriding directive, a very simple one: IF pitch THEN swing. Because of Kluber's robotic personality, it might be said that the Indians' fortunes have hinged on the performance of robots, and Pierzynski only reinforced that; on the first pitch, Pierzynski swung on the first pitch and grounded into a double play, ending the inning, and allowing Justin Masterson to start the game anew.

To understand the scope of the schism resulting from that Pierzynski double play, consider: Masterson's first 2.1 IP - every pitch before the Pierzynski at-bat - took 61 pitches and 31 strikes, averaging 26.1 pitches per inning. Starting with Pierzynski, Masterson's final 4.2 IP took 44 pitches and 36 strikes, averaging 9.4 pitches per inning. A dichotomy this pronounced - throwing 51% strikes, and then throwing 89% strikes - is more characteristic of two separate starts than it is of segments within a start, yet so it was with this seven-inning shutout performance.

And what a tremendous second stage it was. Pierzynski's double play was the first in what would become an incredible 25 consecutive strikes, the longest such streak since June 2012. Included within that 25-strike streak was an equally incredible feat: an immaculate fourth inning, within which Masterson struck out the side on nine pitches. Masterson becomes the 70th pitcher to accomplish the feat, and the first Indians pitcher in history to do so.

Nor is this Masterson's first brush with rare feats against the Red Sox. On August 4th, 2011, Masterson became the55th pitcher to strike out four batters in an inning. He becomes the fifth pitcher to both strikeout four in an inning andrecord an immaculate inning, in a group that includes himself, Steve DelabarA.J. BurnettFelix Hernandez, andBob Gibson.

Justin Masterson is a pitcher defined by his dichotomies. Against left-handers, his wOBA against says that Masterson is Jeremy Guthrie; against right-handers, he's in the company of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. Masterson led the league in complete game shutouts in 2013; he had the eighth-worst ERA in the league in 2012. Masterson is defined by his extreme contradictions.

In Robert Louis Stevenson's work, Edward Hyde is a conscious creation of Dr. Henry Jekyll, an attempt to distill mankind's evil from its good, an attempt to create a monster of pure evil that Jekyll himself might remain wholly upright; in Jekyll's estimation, the sum of these two creatures' moral accounting would, taken together, be no different from any other human.

The rebuttal of Dr. Jekyll's view forms the basis of Stevenson's allegory; nevertheless, Justin Masterson is the pitching incarnation of Jekyll's ideals. Masterson has tremendous platoon splits; he is prone as much to meltdowns as shutdowns; he has seasons that show hints of ace-level performance and seasons that make one long for the relatively carefree days of Paul Byrd. The sum total of these contradictions, however, is a pitcher who has served as the de facto rock of the Cleveland rotation. That designation came at a time when the team had no other options, certainly, but that's precisely the point: he has moments when he's excellent and moments when he's horrific, such that the sum is neither excellent nor horrific.

It is true that there are sound reasons to mistrust Masterson, both short-term and long-term, and the list of legitimate concerns with Masterson would be a scathing one. Yet after four walks with less than eight outs made, Masterson proceeded to throw a stunning performance the rest of the way.

This stunning juxtaposition is why Monday's game is emblematic of the ethos of Justin Masterson: he has as good a chance as any to turn heads away in frustration, but if you can endure the bad and keep watching, you might just see something amazing.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

User Comments

John Grimm
June 3, 2014 - 11:52 AM EDT
I've heard that Edward Gibbon is widely renowned for his ability to give length. In exchange for whichever rotation member is jettisoned next, perhaps we should give that youngster a try.

That aside, Masterson hit 94 last night, averaging over 91 with the sinker. It was his best outing on the year re: velocity; that said, 2014 remains his worst velocity year by a fair margin. I'll be frank, I'm not yet sure what to make of his velocity. 'Lower, but higher in his last start' is about the extent to which I have any nuance on Masterson's velocity.
shy
June 3, 2014 - 11:15 AM EDT
Holy gilt-edged leather bound tome Grimm. I think you might be losing everybody but me w the literary references. If you mention Holden Caulfied here, most people will Google him to see who he played for and what position he played. I tried Edward Hyde. I coulda swore he pitched a no hitter for the Pirates on acid in the 60's. Musta got him confused w Doc Ellis. So Justin Masterson and the nine strikes are on the Yahoo Home Page this morning . At least half would not have been strikes had the batters shown a bit of restraint. If you watch Koufax's 9 strikes- they could have all been called. Masterson is still a 2-3 ticks off on his velocity and we are about halfway thru the season without seeing his former velocity. I don't know if it's Jekyll and Hyde or Hekyll and Jekyll but if Masterson doesn't start using his God given ability to throw 96 high cheese, he is going to continue to have erratic results.

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