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Swing Starters: What to expect from Justin Masterson?

Swing Starters: What to expect from Justin Masterson?
February 22, 2013
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Commonly known as x-factors, it is clear the Indians have a plethora of big-league talent that is only consistent with their inconsistencies. Predicting contention for the 2013 Tribe with any sort of certainty is challenging because it is relatively arduous to extract any real cohesive understanding of what we can expect from a team who went from playoff contention on August 1st to fourth in the division in a month.  

This leads me to “swing starters.”

Over the remainder of spring training I will be evaluating a selection of Indians who regressed in the rotation and on the diamond in 2012 (One could include almost everyone did except Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Zach McAllister.). In this evaluation, I will include whether or not we can expect the type of improved production that would once again make the Indians a contender.

When looking at the different players on which the Indians season will pivot, it is clear that Justin Masterson is the penultimate player in need of a turnaround season. In deciphering whether or not it is reasonable to expect a player to improve, I submit that there are three spheres to consider: health, qualifying analysis and statistical analysis.

Health: This is a relatively limited concern with Masterson.  However, it is clear that there may have been some adverse health effects in 2012 from his non-pitching shoulder labrum surgery as well as the immense workload in 2011. While surgery to a non-pitching shoulder sounds fairly innocuous, it can have a legitimate effect on a pitcher’s balance and mechanics. Depending on the surgical technique, it can take between two to six months to recover the proper joint motion and muscle strength to have sufficient shoulder stability. So while it is not his throwing shoulder, the left shoulder is a very important piece of a pitcher’s stride and weight transfer. Small discomfort can affect the stride transition and, thus, in small amounts it affects release point (can affect two and four seam movement).

Justin Masterson Innings Pitched
2008 136 (including minor league appearances)
2009 129.1
2010 180
2011 216

Therefore, it is not difficult to make the case that another year away from non-pitching arm labrum surgery for Masterson could be a distinct positive. The second consideration is Masterson’s innings spikes in 2010 and 2011. Both aforementioned seasons represent large innings increases for a guy who spent most of his first season in the bullpen. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Masterson suffered from some dead-arm issues throughout 2012.

Qualifying analysis: In qualifying analysis, I will be looking at subjective thoughts concerning makeup and constantly developing external factors. As we all know, the biggest external factor has been the hiring of Terry Francona as manager. It is not a secret that while exuberant manager Terry Francona speaks highly of almost any Indian, he is especially positive about Masterson.

Francona’s positivity stems from the success Masterson had during his one season with the Red Sox as well as the clubhouse presence Masterson exudes. In terms of simplistic staple statistics, Masterson’s second best season was probably 2008 — his only full season with Boston.

During that season, Masterson posted a 3.16 ERA and showed impressive versatility pitching in 36 games and starting nine. If we accept the premise that the role of a manager is to get the maximum production out of his players and agree that Francona is very adept at doing so, then Masterson is on course for improvement.

Statistical Analysis: I believe that when looking at the statistics, specifically FIP and xFIP, it will become obvious that we can expect something between 2011 and 2012 production though trending closer to 2011.

Justin Masterson: ERA compared to FIP and xFIP
Season: ERA FIP xFIP
2009 4.52 4.04 4.00
2010 4.70 3.93 3.87
2011 3.21 3.28 3.64
2012 4.93 4.16 4.15

(FIP= Fielding Independent Pitching, xFIP= Fielder Independent Pitching where Home Runs are calculated as 10.5% of Fly Balls rate)

In effect, Masterson’s 2009, 2010 and 2012 seasons were all held down by sub-average defensive assistance especially as a groundball pitcher relying on what was a seemingly instable and inconsistent infield. Obviously, it takes little acumen to understand that Masterson is easily outperforming what his ERA and eye factor would lead us to believe. These statistics pose two unique and important questions. First, can we expect improved results with little infield defensive improvements? Secondly, what is Masterson’s rotational ceiling?

The first question will be answered not in a vacuum but on the field. It is easy to argue that with each season of experience, Kipnis improves at second. Asdrubal Cabrera coming in to camp in shape should heighten his range, but is it enough to make a negligible difference? However, subtract last year’s best defenders in Casey Kotchman as well as Jack Hannahan, and it will be impressive if they remain as competent defensively on the infield as they were last year.

The second question is a little easier to answer. Masterson’s career FIP is around 3.90. This suggests a slightly above average starter who can log a large amount of innings. Masterson’s best comparison or maximum ceiling could be that of James Shields, a low No. 2 starter, high No. 3 who eats innings.

The last case for Masterson returns to BABIP:

Masterson’s Luck compared to other groundball pitchers.(2012)
Pitcher Groundball Percentage BABIP
Trevor Cahill 61.20% .289
Jake Westbrook 58.10% .312
Lucas Harrel 57.20% .289
Henderson Alverez 57.00% .291
A.J. Burnett 56.90% .294
Justin Masterson 55.70% .309
Tim Hudson 55.50% .270
Clayton Richard 53.80% .272
Ricky Romero 53.50% .311
Scott Diamond 53.40% .292

This table shows BABIP against the top-ten groundball pitchers in 2012. BABIP is sometimes described as a combination of luck and defensive range. In 2012, Masterson was the third unluckiest pitcher among the top ten. More incredible is the differentiation considering that Masterson’s is almost 40 points higher than the lowest on the list. With any sort of regression towards the mean in BABIP, Masterson’s ERA and overall production should improve in 2013.

I submit Justin Masterson will swing for the positive in 2013 and put up a line in the range of 12-8 with a 3.95 ERA. This is not to say that he will ever be an ace, but he is a valuable commodity who could stabilize as a good innings eating No. 3 starter or a fringe No. 2. This makes Trevor Bauer’s development and, arguably, Carlos Carrasco’s return very important to stabilizing the front of the rotation for the next three to five years.

Interact with Michael by email at  michael.hattery@gmail.com and on Twitter @MichaelHattery

User Comments

Ben
February 23, 2013 - 8:44 AM EST
A lot of ground balls hit off Masterson are right on the noise and get through the infield quickly.
Mike
February 22, 2013 - 6:40 PM EST
The run support stat from ESPN is just per start, probably because it would be a pain to extract the number in the way you are speaking which I agree would be more useful. And in terms of the eye test I noticed Indians scoring late as well, for instance seventh/eighth inning man Joe Smith collecting 7 wins. However, it is hard to argue that run-support had an effect on his e.r.a., fip, xfip, and overall pitching considering his change in run support between 2011 and 2012 was not that large. Which is why while Masterson was very good in 2011 he only collected 12 wins because of poor and inconsistent run support. I really wish someone would geek out and produce the stat you are looking for in terms of run support, while the pitcher is in the ballgame, it could be very useful. Or if it exists someone could point me to it. Because, I agree that there is some emptiness in using one that just shows per start support.
G. Lengerich
February 22, 2013 - 6:26 PM EST
Mike, I have a question regarding your "run support" stat. Is this the total number of run scored in the games that he pitched in, or only for the innings that he was pictching in the game? It seemed many times last year that the Indians would score several times in the 8th or 9th when Justin was maybe taken out in the 6th or 7th inning. I don't consider that "run support" for Justin!
Mike
February 22, 2013 - 4:58 PM EST
Yeah, run support was absolutely an issue, it can be disheartening and effect your win-loss. The run support shift was not huge 4.12 average runs per game in 2011 versus 3.82 in 2012 but it was legitimate.However, the win-loss record is not what was disappointing.Another point I should have extended was his walk-rate issues(2.5% increase) as well as left handed splits.
G. Lengerich
February 22, 2013 - 4:33 PM EST
You didn't touch on one of the main reasons why Justin had a disappointing 2012. He had little to no run support in most of his starts. It seemed that he seldom pitched with a lead, get some players who can put a few runs on the scoreboard.

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