If you forced me to guess, I would say that I’ve probably written more words about Justin Masterson than about any other human being on the face of the planet. Which is kind of weird for me to acknowledge, considering I’ve written a freaking master’s thesis and am, as Denny would say, “allegedly educated”.
But when you consider that I write mostly about baseball these days, and mostly about the Cleveland Indians at that, it becomes a little less weird. But only by degree.
Why do I find Masterson so interesting? I’m not sure, actually. It’s certainly not because I’m convinced he’s the best player we have. I mean, he might be the best player we have, but I’m not sure of it. Santana might be the best player we have. Choo might be the best player we have. Heck, even Dunkers….well….no….probably not Dunkers. Sorry Shelly.*
*Though of course, we should remember that Dunkers currently leads the Indians in batting average AND on-base percentage AND slugging percentage among players with more than 10 plate appearances. He’s drawn walks in nearly 30% of his plate appearances, and leads the team in runs scored, wins above replacement and wOBA. He also has the highest beard-to-making-me-laugh-out-loud-for-no-reason ratio. I fully support adding Johnny Damon to the mix. But it seems odd to take playing time away from Duncan right now, no? Perhaps regression will show her ugly face in the next week or so, but if not, Acta is going to have to keep running Shelley out there I’d think.
Oh yeah. Masterson. Anyway, I think the reason I find him so compelling is that he provides such an interesting example for me to do my SABR-y thing with. No pitcher I’ve ever studied has demonstrated quite as clearly the mistakes we can make when evaluating pitchers. And no pitcher has taught me more about my own instincts (and how often they’re wrong) than Masterson.
But before we get there, let me remind you of where we’ve been.
When the Indians first acquired Masterson in the Victor Martinez trade from Boston, he was a 24 year-old middle-reliever/project starter with 160.1 career innings and a 3.76 ERA. He struck out less than a batter per inning and had started a total of 15 games. By the time he showed up in Cleveland, Boston had already moved him back to the bullpen as a seventh inning guy because of his platoon issues against left handed batters, effectively giving up on his chances of ever becoming an effective starter.
Shapiro insisted, nevertheless, that Masterson would be in the rotation to open the 2010 season, and would be stretched out as such to close out the 2009 campaign.
Then 2010 happened. Masterson’s ERA through May that season was 5.87. He didn’t record a win until June. Left handed batters hit .290/.370(!)/.414 off him FOR THE SEASON—which is re-gosh-darned-diculous. And all of us questioned the front office’s bull-headed refusal to give up on their silly experiment and move him to the bullpen.* I think I wrote eleven pieces on that very subject.
*The 2009 season, culminating with the late-July trades of Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee is often remembered as the nadir of Indians’ fandom over the last decade or so. And those were sad days indeed. But for my money mid-2010 was FAR worse. The team was terrible. And boring. And seemingly devoid of anything resembling major league talent. Lou Marson was our everyday catcher. Our best pitcher was Fausto Carmona, who (a) no longer exists and (b) had a K/BB ratio that year of 1.70! Outside of Shin-Soo Choo, not one position player had a WAR over 2.0. At least in 2009 there were some expectations before the air came out of the sails. In 2010, it was just excruciatingly boring and bad baseball, from beginning to end. Maybe that’s why I wrote so much about Masterson, come to think of it….
As the off-season between 2010 and 2011 wound to a close and we began to prepare for the 2011 season, we were told again that Masterson was assured a spot in the rotation. At this point, we were mostly resigned to the notion that Masterson probably belonged in the bullpen on a good team, but since we were decidedly not good, he’d have to serve as an innings eater in the back of the rotation. Sure enough, Fausto opened the season by allowing 10 runs in the first three innings, and we all prepared for the pain of another long season.
Except, of course, it didn’t go down like we thought it would. The Indians played well in the first half, but Justin Masterson performed even better. He won his first five starts of the year, and through the end of July he had 2.56 ERA. As lost as he looked the year before, he now looked brilliant—ace-like even. He was in the top ten among AL starters in: ERA, FIP, GB% and WAR. It was a breakout year.
So how are we here again, worrying about Justin Masterson? Through his first three starts in 2012, he has a 6.48 ERA and is yet to “win” a game. The cynics among us would like to point out that if you don’t count his opening day start of 8 innings and 1 run, things would look even worse.*
But before we get too excited here, let’s look to see what’s really going on. I tried to separate out the data from the three “Masterson Epochs”—his Boston years covering 2008-2009, his 2009 and 2010 time with Cleveland, and his 2011 “breakout” year. This is how I typically divide the eras of his career. Have a look:
Obviously, you see the volatility of his ERA, but try to look at the peripherals. What made 2011 such a breakout performance? It sure wasn’t his strikeout rate, as 2011 represented the lowest rate of his career. He also wasn’t any more groundball prone last season. In fact, looking over this list, I see more consistency among the three samples than divergence.
But I’d argue that it was two remarkably simple attributes that turned a terrible, failed project bullpen arm in 2010 into a dominant starter in 2011. First, he cut his walk-rate considerably. Second, he limited home runs allowed. And yeah, that’s probably one of the reasons I write so much about him: he’s shown me how simple evaluating pitching can be, if you know where to look
So now we look at these numbers in 2012:
Outside of the high home run rate, the rest of the peripherals look to fall right in line, and in such a small sample, it’s silly to say he’s destined to allow more than one home run per nine innings for the rest of the season. Nearly 16% of his flyballs have become home runs so far this season, and there’s just no way that’s going to continue all year long.
No. Justin is exactly who he’s always been. We were terrified of him in 2010 and enthralled in 2011. His first start of 2012 was “dominant”, but his last two have been “awful”. It’s odd that a pitcher with such a remarkably consistent thumbprint can inspire such diverse reactions from his fans, based mostly on the vagaries of luck and the random fluctuations of a glorified binomial distribution.
One of my favorite authors once said in an interview that “all writing is autobiography”. Which, if I understand him correctly, means that what we choose to write about and how we choose to write it says a whole lot more about us than we could ever say about our subject itself.
I still don’t know why I write about Justin Masterson so much. But every time I look at his line and instinctively reach for my laptop, I have to remember that what I’m about to write is mostly about me—how he’s changed the way I think about the game and how I’m a better analyst and writer for having had him on my team.
There are plenty of players I like on this team. Vinnie makes me laugh. Carlos is dripping with talent and potential. Shelley reminds me that rooting for the underdog feels as good as it always did.
But nobody makes me write like Justin. And for that, I imagine he’ll always be my favorite.