April 23, 2014

Turning the Masty Corner?

Justin MatsersonI am sort of obsessed with Justin Masterson.

Every year, whether he has a difficult April (like last year) or a fabulous one (like 2011) I find myself poring over his stat line to see if anything remarkable has changed.  More often than not, I end up concluding the same thing each year: he’s a good pitcher who—as most non-strikeout pitchers do—relies heavily on the random distribution of his batted balls.  The things he can control—like strikeouts, walks, and to some degree home runs—suggest that he’s a completely competent starting pitcher.  Not one who you’d necessarily call an “ace”, but not someone who belongs in the bullpen as so many people preached back in his miserable 2010 campaign.

And now that he’s off to another great start (3-0, 0.41 ERA), I figured I’d check again, just to see if anything looks a bit different over these first 22 innings of 2012.

First, let’s look at a few things that we might call “skill-stats”—those attributes that more often than not are repeatable skills and where an improvement might be viewed as something that could continue going forward.  Consider, for example, the following:

K/9

BB/9

K/BB

GB%

2010-2012

6.8

3.4

2.02

57%

2013

8.2

3.3

2.48

60%

 

So far this year, Masterson is striking out more hitters than at any time since becoming a starting pitcher; all this while holding his walk-rate fairly steady.1   His consequent strikeout-to-walk ratio has jumped from a pedestrian 2.0 to an above-average 2.5.  To give you some context, pitchers who had a K/BB rate of 2.0 last season had names like Jake Westbrook, Ross Detwiler and Jeremy Guthrie, while a 2.5 would put you in the neighborhood of Yu Darvish, Yovani Gallardo, and Bud Norris.  Those aren’t the best pitchers in the league, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.  Something like the difference between a #2 and a #3 starter, perhaps.

Couple that K/BB improvement with an increased ground ball rate (his 60.0% would be a career high, were he to maintain it), and you can see why Masterson’s 2013 campaign is off to such a terrific start.  Groundballs tend not to become home runs very often, and that’s a very good thing.

Unfortunately, there are other ways to skin this cat, and some of Justin’s peripherals would suggest that he’s just been flat out lucky so far with regard to runs scoring.

For example, through his 2012 season, Masterson saw just over 30% of his batted balls fall in for hits (BABiP of .308); so far this year it’s below 20% (.196 BABiP).  It’s incredibly unlikely that much of that improvement has to do with a newfound ability to minimize “groundballs with eyes”. 2

On top of the batted-ball issue (or perhaps because of it), Masterson is stranding runners at an otherworldly rate.  So far this season, 95% of all base runners he’s allowed have been stranded (i.e. not scored).  Compare that to a career average of 70.4%, which falls right in line with the league average, and you start to see some of that good luck pop out at you.

One more thing.  For his career, roughly 10% of the flyballs hit off of Masterson have become home runs.  So far this season he’s allowed 15 flyballs and allowed zero home runs.  That’s obviously not sustainable over the course of a season, as eventually some of the flyballs are going to leave the park; I’d bet on about 10% of them actually.

In my opinion, there will always be two hot spot issues for Masterson: (1) commanding his fastball; and (2) surviving against left handed batters.  So far this season his walk-rate is holding steady while lefties are hitting an absurd .146/.222/.195 against him.  So yeah, there are some positive signs with Masterson so far this season.  But before all is said and done, I’m guessing the former holds pretty steady while the latter may change quite a bit.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the random when it goes right for us.  Masterson has now thrown 22 innings, which is about 10% of what he’ll throw this season.  Those innings count, and they’re already in the books.  He isn’t “due” to pitch worse than we’d otherwise expect because he’s been lucky so far—that’s just not how probability works.

Regardless, the improvements in his strikeout rate along with the movement and control he has on both his sinker and his slider lead me to believe that Masterson may look better now than he did even in 2011. So long as nothing major changes, I’m pretty confident that he’ll be worthy to give us a good chance to win every fifth day.

Now, about those other four days….

AP Photo/Mike Carlson

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Footnotes:

  1. Just one more reason not to use “per-9” stats if you can avoid it: Masterson has walked 10.0% of the batters he faced this season compared to 9.7% last season—his walk rate is actually slightly up this season.  But because BB/9 is measured with a denominator of outs rather than plate appearances, his “per-9” rate looks lower in 2013.  Which is just to say, FRACTIONS BIOTCH! []
  2. It is possible that some of it has to do with improved defense, of course. Though, given our outfield, you’d expect the defensive improvement to come mostly on flyballs, which Masterson typically eschews. []

  • JNeids

    Jon, any thoughts on the Keri article that says his hot start is due mostly to the competition he faced?

  • Josh

    You are looking at 22 innings. It’s ALL random at this point. The only real thing we can hope these great first 22 innings do is improve his confidence can only help him over the next 180 or so innings he will pitch.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    Great article

  • WFNYJon

    Yeah, I liked Jonah’s take a lot. I actually wrote this piece before that his went up yesterday (our editing process is pretty laborious :)), and wished I had thought of it first. Masterson just hasn’t faced any tough lefty-heavy lineups yet.

    For context, it’s the first link in WWW here: http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/2013/04/while-were-waiting-sports-please-distract-us/

  • JacobWFNY

    I’ll add a #3 to the equation of what to watch: Masterson’s success with runners on base.

    This is the stat I tweeted out before his start on Friday:

    Masterson’s career with Indians (115 games):
    Bases Empty – .244/.332/.341 in 1,388 ABs;
    Runner On – .288/.350/.402 in 1,189 ABs.

    Last year overall (34 games):
    Bases Empty – .228/.330/.310 in 426 ABs;
    Runner On – .318/.369/.481 in 362 ABs.

    Now, including Friday’s start, thus far this year (3 games):
    Bases Empty – .176/.236/.216 in 51 ABs;
    Runner On – .050/.240/.100 in 20 ABs.

  • JNeids

    Thanks, I was actually the one who sent the link in :) but plug away!

  • mgbode

    of course, but how else can we project anything? it’s incredibly inaccurate (at this point), but I think Jon does a good job above trying to differentiate what “might be” real versus what is “wholly random”

  • mgbode

    “Now, about those other four days….”
    i’m tentatively going to put Zach in there for an expected QS as well. that’s not necessarily a good thing (as he’s our SP2 now and 3 runs in 6 innings is far from “good”), but it’s more than we can expect out of the other guys for now.

  • Harv 21

    The stat I’d love to see is ball/strike ratio (instead of just KO/BB) because that’s what I’ve seen in his starts this year. You saber warriors will probably tell me that’s irrelevant old-school subjective hogwash, but I see him pounding the corners and the batters behind in the count and uncomfortable, much like ’11.

  • mgbode

    oh, and if Masterson continues, then I will be happily wrong that 2011 looked like the aberration on his career coming into this season.

  • mgbode

    http://www.fangraphs.com/statsplits.aspx?playerid=2038&position=P&season=2013

    that shows the splits this season for the different counts. one interesting split is that he has 44 first pitch strikes (30 first pitch balls). of those 30 first pitch strikes, he has only gone to 2-0 6 times.

    so, your eyes do not deceive you here Harv.

  • Kildawg

    Maybe some of Masterson’s added success is a manager that trusts him and has confidence in him to be the ace of the rotation, with a vastly improved offense and a better defense/bench. Kazmir hopefully will have a more positive outlook for the rotation on 4/20.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    The Keri article mentions that Masterson hasn’t added any new pitches, which is true, but the fangraphs article that he links to doesn’t differentiate between a 4-seam fastball and a 2-seam fastball. Didn’t Francona say that part of Masty’s success has been using that 4-seam fastball more often?

  • saggy

    I can’t agree totally. I feel like Masterson is pounding the corners when he isn’t missing them. He certainly hasn’t grasped his control yet in this young season. But it is obvious that his control is the only thing holding him back. His stuff is seriously nasty, but he can’t always summon it when he needs it. Many pitchers just don’t have the “stuff” but Masterson does – he just hasn’t harnessed it completely.

    and i hate to say he’s heading in the right direction – after all, he is a major league veteran – but he could certainly attain all-star status this season if he can just demonstrate more control.

    Regardless, your assessment is right on: batters are not comfortable up there against him.

  • WFNYJon

    I think some of this may be terminology-related.

    Fangraphs tends to call what Francona calls a “two-seam fastball” a “sinker”. That’s the pitch to which Francona is ascribing so much movement and dominance.

    I would probably tend toward calling it a two-seamer if I had my way; it seems to have as much arm-side action as it does downward movement, from what I can tell at least.

  • saggy

    and for that matter, a “season” is also just an arbitrary amount of time. Maybe we shouldn’t assess anyone until they are retired.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Whoops, I see what you mean. I looked at that graph too quickly. So it seems that he’s actually using less 4-seam fastballs than normal, but is using more sliders.

    Do you acknowledge a 2-seam fastball as a different pitch than the 4-seam fastball from the standpoint of how many different types of pitches a pitcher uses?

  • Harv 21

    the same manager that trusted him in his good ’11 year had him as the staff ace in his lousy ’12.

  • mgbode

    well, at that point, you don’t know if they used PEDs or not.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    MasterNCommander is locked on right now I’m interested to see if he can continue to pitch well. I don’t expect him to continue this start but I’ll settle for some consistent pitching throughout the season. I’ll then expect to see him follow it up with another strong season as opposed to pitch well one year pitch bad pitch well. Until then I’ll always have doubts but ride the hot hand for as long as it lasts.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He needs to do more then have one more good season (see previous comment I made) before he can really be counted on IMO.

  • WFNYJon

    This is really interesting. Can you tell me how he compares to other SPs across the league? I’m pretty sure it’s well-established that pitching out the stretch generally reduces pitcher effectiveness, but I wouldn’t think it would be to this degree.

    Could we establish a baseline?

  • JacobWFNY

    Yes, generally speaking, you are right, pitchers are usually less effective with runners on base and pitching out of the stretch. Looking below at the data since 2009 (the year Masterson was traded to Cleveland), we can establish a sort of baseline. And yes, Masterson’s funky numbers still are pretty bad compared to it.

    Per FanGraphs from 2009-2013 of all batters:

    Bases Empty: .253/.314/.402 in 387,157 ABs;
    Runner On: .264/.337/.412 in 287,659 ABs.

    Per FanGraphs from 2009-2013 of all NON-PITCHERS:

    Bases Empty: .256/.319/.409 in 374,791 ABs;
    Runner On: .268/.342/.420 in 279,198 ABs.

    (It was easier to research on the batter’s side of FanGraphs, as opposed to the pitcher’s side where doubles, triples, etc. weren’t clearly available. So to then identify a baseline of how starting pitchers only do in this split would be even more complicated.)

  • WFNYJon

    OK, here’s how I skinned the cat.

    Using fangraphs, look only at AL starters and examine FIP with Bases Empty versus runners on since 2010 season.

    Here’s what I found to be league average:

    Bases Empty: 4.07 FIP

    Runners On: 4.16 FIP

    That’s a difference of just over 2% (interestingly, including NL pitchers jumps the gap over 5%), meaning AL pitchers are 2% *less* effective with runners on than bases empty.

    Now for Masterson. Let’s look at his whole career just to make it easier.

    Bases Empty: 3.92 FIP

    Runners On 3.83 FIP (!!!!!!!)

    WHere we expected him to do worse, he actually did BETTER! So what’s the dealio yo, with those splits of yours? A few guesses:

    1) His BABiP is 20 points higher with men on base (.293 vs .313). That sounds like A LOT, and it’s likely affecting those slash lines quite a bit.

    2) His BB% rate is considerably lower with men on base (10.6% with bases empty; 7.6% with runners on). This will improve his FIP more than it would affect those slash lines.

    3) His K% is down with runners on (19.6% vs 16.8%), meaning more balls get put in play with runners on, and because his BABiP is higher in these scenarios, it stings him on the slash lines.
    Interesting, two different approaches, two different answers. Not sure what it means, if anything.

  • JacobWFNY

    “Not sure what it means, if anything.”

    Likely, his slash lines with men on HIGHLY affect his peripheral statistics — i.e. W-L, ERA. While his FIP is actually down with runners on base, the unlucky nature of his high BABIP drastically skews impressions of his overall success.

    Maybe in 2013 and beyond, the luck will potentially even out a bit, thus meaning that he’s actually a slightly better pitcher than the peripheral 11-15 record and 4.93 ERA he posted in 2012.