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A deeper look at Justin Masterson

A deeper look at Justin Masterson
October 12, 2013
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Coming in to the 2013 season the Indians pitching staff had more questions than it did answers.

One of the main questions going in was “which Justin Masterson are we going to see?”  After a 2012 season that saw Masterson struggle to a 4.93 ERA and a 4.16 FIP nobody was quite sure what to expect from the man previously charged with steadying the front end of the rotation.  In 2013 Masterson was able to silence the doubts and re-instill confidence as a legitimate high end starter.

The 2013 Season

Masterson got off on the right foot in 2013 and never looked back.  Awarded the opening day start against the 2012 NL Cy Young, RA Dickey, Masterson claimed his first win of the season with 6 innings of 3 hit 1 run baseball.

More often than not this is the type of performance the Tribe was able to expect from Masty this season.  When the dust had settled on Masterson’s 2013 campaign he had produced to the tune of a 14-10 record, 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP.  Over this span he was able to generate 3.4 bWAR (the only season he had more was 2011 when he had 4.3, a number he likely would have surpassed had he not missed four starts with a strained oblique).

All of these numbers add up to show that Masterson was a very productive pitcher in 2013; in fact according to both bWAR and fWAR Masterson was the most valuable pitcher for the Indians in 2013.  Justin gave the Indians consistent chances to win each time he took the mound, and was completely dominant at times, throwing a career high three complete game shutouts. 

How was Masty able to bounce back from a disappointing 2012?

After looking at just how good Masterson was in 2013, it is important to see how he got there after a 2012 season that left a lot to be desired.  The first place to look is BB/9 and K/9.

In Masterson’s time with the Indians, 2012 marks his highest BB/9 and second lowest K/9 (3.84 and 6.94 respectively), a combination that rarely spells success.  In 2013 Masterson saw improvements in both of these rates, though the jump in strikeouts was far more notable.  Masterson earned the nickname “Nasty Masty” in 2013 by striking out 9.09 batters per 9 innings and surpassing his previous career high in Ks by 36 despite pitching 23 fewer innings than his previous high.  With a jump of over two full strikeouts per nine it is interesting to see how Masterson was able to accomplish this feat. 

One of the main ways was pitch selection. 

Using pitchfx data from BrooksBaseball.net we can see that Masterson had a big jump in the number of sliders used in 2013 (27% in 2013 compared to 19% in 2012), while he stayed away from using the four-seam fastball when compared to 2012 (36% down to 29%).  His sinker usage remained at its normal high levels (approximately 44%) which allowed Masterson to keep his groundball percentage at a stellar 58%.

By simply trading out four-seamers for more sliders Masterson was able to generate more strikeouts because he was able to create far more swings and misses.  In both 2012 and 2013 Masterson generated significantly more whiffs with his slider than with any other pitch, and he got very few swings and misses with his four-seam fastball (17% of Masterson’s sliders had batters come up empty in 2012 compared to just 6% of four-seamers and 9% of sinkers).

While his slider didn’t get better at producing whiffs during this time and his fastball didn’t get worse, the combination of less fastballs and more sliders led to a significant jump in overall strikeouts and K/9 for Masty. 

The only other stat that stands out as a significant improvement for Masterson in 2013 is his BABIP.  Justin limited batters to just a .285 BABIP, marking the first time in his career that he was able to hold batters below .300.  This improvement is less likely to hold in the long run than his other increases, as BABIP is a notoriously unstable statistic.  While one can expect that BABIP number to increase in 2014, the increased strikeout numbers are something that seem more likely to stay elevated if Masterson continues to throw more sliders and fewer four-seamers.

Masterson’s Future

Masterson will enter 2014 once again as the head of the Indians staff.  His very good 2013 season silenced any doubts that remained about his effectiveness, created a strong feeling that his 2012 season was an oddity and not something to be too weary of going forward.

The Indians only have Justin under team control through 2014, his age 29 season, and will most certainly want to keep him in the fold beyond that.  The Tribe front office is very likely to try to sign Masty to an extension this offseason to avoid him testing the waters of free agency.  What Masterson will be able to command is hard to say, but it is very likely that it will include a minimum of four years at $15-20 million per year (similar to Anibal Sanchez’s 5yr/80 million dollar deal).

Handing out a long-term deal to a starting pitcher is always risky, but Masterson will be worth the contract if he can continue to lower his walk rate while striking out a lot of batters and inducing tons of groundballs.  Signing a durable sinkerballer like Masterson (averaged 199 IP/year over the last four seasons) through his age 34 or 35 season seems like a reasonable investment for the Tribe and one that likely would be met with cheers from players and fans alike, as Masterson provides an important clubhouse presence and is a fan favorite. 

Justin Masterson may have been one of the many question marks heading into the 2013 season, but he has answered all of those questions and positioned himself atop the Cleveland rotation for 2014 and hopefully many years to come.

User Comments

Rich
October 14, 2013 - 4:57 AM EDT
I'm always leery of signing a pitcher to a long term deal right after the best season of his career, but in this case it makes sense.

Masty has always been a two-pitch pitcher, which has limited his success. According to this article he finally mastered (pun intended) his slider last year giving him a reliable third pitch, and it made all the difference.

No reason to think he can't continue to pitch at this level of effectiveness for several more years.
BrianM
October 12, 2013 - 4:02 PM EDT
The writers of this site have been busy. I love having something new to read everyday.

I love Masterson. It seems like he is great in the club house and does offer that 200 inning guarantee basically every year. I'm just not sure he is the type of player I want to make that investment on.

As one of the writers mentioned in one of the other new articles, he is still just a 2 pitch pitcher, and if his velocity declines, he could really regress. I'm not confident assuming that he can perform later in his career being the power pitcher that he is.

On the other hand, he does seem to like Cleveland. I'm not sure how many opportunities we will have to sign players with that FOR upside. We may need to be more aggressive when it comes to retaining our own players who are already comfortable in the situation they are in, especially pitching considering what that market cost has been for the good ones the past couple off seasons.

If we could trade ACab and Bourn, I would love to see us try to sign both Ubaldo and Jimenez long term. Highly unlikely, but it would really stabilize our rotation for a long time.

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