While we continue to ponder the returns made on the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades, Tribe ace Justin Masterson remains as the saving grace for what was otherwise a period of 20-cents-on-the-dollar-type deals.
The ace who wasn’t quite such heading into this season has focused on his mechanics and coupled this with the faith of his coaching staff to provide one of the biggest surprises of the Indians’ 2011 season, but also one of the best starting pitching seasons in the American League. But if you ask Tribe cacher Lou Marson, Masterson’s secret sauce lies not in his checkpoints, but in his God given stature.
“Because he’s 6-[foot]-4, 230 [pounds]” joked Marson with Andy Baskin and Jeff Phelps on 92.3 The Fan. “I don’t think it’s a comfortable at-bat for guys when he’s out there – the ball moves a lot. Even back there catching him sometimes it can be uncomfortable; sometimes you don’t know where the ball is going to go. Sometimes it sinks, sometimes it cuts. Not only is it a challenge to catch him, but I can only imagine trying to square it up off of him.”
Having had the opportunity to speak with Masterson earlier this season, I can attest to the man’s size. The 26-year-old towers over most of his peers and nearly every member of the media. Babyfaced and cordial, the righty would be the first selected for a game of pick-up basketball, but the last selected by the opposition in a game of Try to Hit This Two-Seamer.
Usually topping out around 97 or 98 miles per hour, Masterson has used 2011 to up his fastball usage rate by almost 10 full percent, leading major league starters with mark of 84.4 percent. And while Masterson is not missing as many bats – as fastballs are rarely deceiving to a major league hitter – his reliance on the two- and four-seam heaters has allowed his walk rate to drop considerably (6.6 percent this season versus a career mark north of nine). Controlling the controlable, the drop in walk rate as well as home runs per nine innings have allowed Masterson’s FIP (more on his here) to drop a full run from 3.93 in 2010 to 2.93 in 2011. For fans of run-based figures, Bat’s fastball’s linear weight stands at 17.9, meaning he’s prevented nearly 18 fewer runs compared to his peers when using said pitch; last season, this mark was -3.6.
Couple all of this with more luck in the batted ball category – potentially aided by the improved glove at third base in Jack Hannahan and a full season of Asdrubal Cabrera – and the subsequent hike in runners left on base and you have yourself a starting pitcher who is still entering his prime, that is allowing just three earned runs per contest.
Sure, the 6-foot-plus Masterson has his fair share of issues with southpaws, allowing an opposing batting average of .273 compared to .215 for their right-handed brethren, but he is also taking the hands that are dealt (482 left-handed batters faced in 2011 versus 347 right-handers) and doing his best to limit the self-imposed damage, walking less than two lefties per nine innings and keeping the vast majority of fly balls in the park with only 4.7 percent of fly balls off of left-handed bats leaving the yard in 2011 opposed to 12.0 percent a season earlier.
In a mid-July game against the Minnesota Twins, Masterson tossed eight shutout innings, “at his best” per our own TD. Of his 104 pitches, 103 were fastballs – one slider was thrown, likely to keep the batters guessing – with varying speeds and locations. Unfortunately,for Masterson, it was one of the many games in which he received two-or-fewer runs of support and would leave without a decision.
So while being a giant human being surely sides with Masterson in the advantage department, essentially negating the lowered mound, trusting and locating his fastball has been even more fortuitous in what has been a remarkable 2011 season. Notching a career best mark in wins – a number that should have been considerably higher if not for meager run support – earned run average, innings pitched, home runs and walks allowed per nine innngs, and strikeouts, Masterson should be well on his way to anchoring this Indians rotation for the next several seasons. Not a terrible return, even if it does keep Lou Mason on his toes.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer