Trend Spotting: Exploring Justin Masterson
A deeper look at Cleveland's ace
The humble hurler that is Justin Masterson has seen a return to his 2011 performance so far this season, which raises a few different questions, each equally important.
The first question being is this Justin Masterson the one who we will see for the next three to five years? Was 2012 just an outlier, a blip, or reason for concern? What do the answers to the aforementioned questions tell us about extending Justin for the long haul?
Returning to this season, Masterson, with a few exceptions, most recently in Yankee Stadium, has been the anchor this pitching staff needed. Following two consecutive 205 innings plus season Masterson is continuing to get deep in ballgames averaging six and two-thirds innings per start in 2013.
One of the other things frequently associated with ace production is strikeouts and so far this season Masterson has delivered, which is somewhat different than his stellar 2011, perhaps providing optimism that Justin has taken yet another major step forward.
Personally I tend to avoid using the word ace because I believe it should be withheld for particularly dominant and steadfast performers a la Verlander, Kershaw, King Felix and perhaps a few others. However, a pitcher can be solid number one starter without being an ace because there should be some delineation between the crème de la crème (ace) and other above average pitchers who are rightfully slotted as “one starters”.
Digressing, this season Masterson has walked that line of legitimate one starter, not an ace but an above-average guy who competes deep into ballgames. The next step is to delve into what has spelled increased success for Masterson this season and whether or not his current production is sustainable.
(Masterson has passed the number of plate appearances where LD% and batted ball profile fluctuates thus relative stability can expected throughout the season.)
Obviously two statistics stand out as being somewhat outside of career norms for Masterson BABIP and strand rate. However, the BABIP is not altogether outlandish, the league median team BABIP is at .293 just ten points higher than Masterson’s this season. Meaning that while Masterson’s BABIP is slightly deflated it is not as dangerously deflated as someone like Pat Corbin who is due for some major production shifts.
The second BABIP piece is that the decreasing LD% has mostly been displaced to Fly Ball % from which we can draw a few different conclusions. The first conclusion could be that due to a somewhat limited sample line drives and fly balls have shifted mildly because of the overlap and they will eventually shift back. The second conclusion is with his second-highest career fly ball rate and the best outfield defense in baseball it has had a minor impact on BABIP. The last is that to date Masterson has a little bit of luck on his side as in his past; lower line drive rates have actually corresponded with higher BABIP’s.
Of course it could be any of the above or even a combination of each but in reality the BABIP is close enough to career data to suggest that it is not the sole factor for Masterson’s success this season.
The strand rate is the most concerning to me as BABIP and HR/FB are pretty close to what was expected from the outset. If Masterson’s LOB% was to flat line and he was to end the season at around 75% it would be the highest of his career except for his first season in Boston, which was spent mostly as a reliever.
There is really nothing to explain the increase of the strand rate other than early season influence. The heavily increased strikeout rate, improved walk rate and elevated success against lefties could all play a role but it will probably just regress the deeper we get into the season.
Returning to the strikeout rate as well as success against lefties it is clear that some of Masterson’s game plan adjustments have had an effect.
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(Slider movement is movement data from PITCHf/x which measures both x and y axis movement and adds them together.)
One of the major questions last season and really the main threat to Masterson’s viability as a starter was his ability to get left-handed hitters out. The increased usage of the slider has been a major piece in solving that puzzle.
As a right-handed hitter, facing Masterson’s fastball with the occasional secondary offering is an absolutely deadly combination because of the arm slot as well as the utter filth that is the movement on his sinker.
However, the slider has really continued to develop for Justin and for many left-handed hitters become equally dangerous. The increased movement itself has been a godsend coupled with an increased ability to locate the slider and throw it for strikes, the pitch has become a weapon. This season on sliders, opponents are hitting .070 with fifty strikeouts.
In terms of success against lefties they are currently hitting .236 against him this season compared to .288 last season.
Returning to a few of the question mentioned at the top: Was 2012 an outlier? What should we expect over the next three-five years? Can and should the Tribe extend him?
I believe that 2012 was an outlier; all the peripherals suggest that he was better and he has made legitimate adjustments to solve his struggles against left-handed hitters.
Over the next three-five years during which Masterson will be 29-33 we can expect him to continue to produce at about this level. The aforesaid level being 215 innings with an E.R.A. from 3.50 to 3.90.
Lastly, what about an extension and what would it cost?
Justin Masterson FIP average from 2010 to 2013: 3.725
Anibal Sanchez FIP average from 2009 to 2012: 3.700
Yes, this is an imperfect comparison for a variety of reasons but Sanchez’ contract negotiations entering this season are the best comparison I can find. And you know the rest of the story as Sanchez just signed for five years and eighty-eight million dollars.
Extending Masterson won’t be cheap but if you can get him for around that price it is well worth it for what he brings both on the field and in the clubhouse.
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