The other day, the Cleveland Indians announced that Justin Masterson will be their starter on Opening Day, barring some sort of injury. One might consider this damning with faint praise, as the Indians aren’t even necessarily ankle deep in proven quality starters, but what this provides is an opportunity to talk a little bit about Masterson, and what he is, and what he could be, maybe. Masterson stands to be important if this year’s Indians are to make a run for the playoffs. Masterson stands to be in the majors for a while yet, as he’s only 27 and as he’s demonstrated that he can throw 200 reasonable innings.
We have a pretty good idea of the Justin Masterson skillset. He’s got a big, sweeping motion and he leans heavily on a low-90s sinker. Sometimes he’ll threaten to go entire games without throwing anything else. Masterson keeps the ball on the ground, he strikes out about one batter for every six, and he issues the occasional walk. Last year, he posted about the same FIP as Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson, which is good company at least in terms of name value. Masterson’s ERA was elevated, but, ERA.
But I’ve written about pitchers and their strike zones before. Conveniently, Masterson’s entire big-league career has come during the PITCHf/x era. As I’ve noted earlier, using plate-discipline data available at FanGraphs, we can calculate a difference between actual strikes and expected strikes. Pasted below is a table of the ten pitchers with the greatest negative differences per 1,000 called pitches, since 2008. Minimum 200 innings, starters only, adjusted so that the league average is zero.
Relative to the league average, over his career, Justin Masterson has pitched to the tightest strike zone out of the sample. Because 1,000 called pitches is an unfamiliar denominator, know that Masterson has averaged about 1,815 called pitches per 200 innings. So this is a pretty extreme result we’re looking at, and it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to regress it going forward. It makes you want to blame someone other than Masterson — someone like, say, Masterson’s catchers. One wonders if this is a framing thing, since, in theory, a strike zone is a strike zone. Why should Masterson get screwed so badly?
For support, we can also look at some numbers generated by Matthew Carruth and made available at StatCorner. StatCorner shows a pitcher’s rate of pitches in the strike zone taken for balls, and also a pitcher’s rate of pitches out of the strike zone taken for strikes. Here are Masterson’s rates, as a starter, against the league averages:
|Year||zTkB%||Lg zTkB%||oTkS%||Lg oTkS%|
Every year, Masterson has had way more pitches in the zone called balls than the average. Every year, Masterson has had fewer pitches out of the zone called strikes than the average. This confirms what we were talking about above — Masterson hasn’t been pitching to the same strike zone as everyone else. It makes you wonder how much better Masterson could be if the zone treated him more fairly.
I mean, it’s intuitive. Take some of Masterson’s balls and turn them into strikes. Masterson ends up with more favorable counts, and that works to a pitcher’s advantage. Every ball/strike switch has a certain run value, and it isn’t negligible. Those can add up over the course of a season. For the sake of visual example, let’s look at Masterson throw a couple balls that might ordinarily go as strikes:
We can sort of examine the framing idea. Masterson has made 121 career starts, to a small variety of catchers. Let’s break his starts down by catcher and look at that same Diff/1000 measure, looking at strikes minus expected strikes per 1,000 called pitches. Is he just getting killed by his receivers?
Obviously, we can’t make much of the guys to whom Masterson has just thrown a game or three or four. Of interest are the three regular backstops, in Jason Varitek, Carlos Santana, and Lou Marson. We see rates of -45, -53, and -54 — all miserable, and all similarly miserable. Maybe this is actually about Masterson, and not about the catchers?
Well, based on research by Carruth, it turns out Marson and Santana have been identically bad at framing, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock that their Masterson numbers are identical. Varitek, though, is different, in that he looked like an above-average receiver in 2008-2009, when he occasionally caught Masterson with the Red Sox. Yet, while Varitek overall was above-average, he was below average with Masterson. Better than Santana and Marson, but not by a whole lot.
So you wonder, and you wish we had more data. It seems like bad framing is at least partly responsible for Masterson’s negative numbers. But we can’t tell the extent, in that we don’t know how much is the catchers and how much is Masterson himself. Masterson throws a lot of moving sinkers, which can be difficult for umpires to call. Masterson might also have particularly inconsistent command, causing his catchers to move their targets. A pitch in one place that was supposed to be in that place is more likely to get called a strike than a pitch in the same place that was supposed to be in another place. Masterson’s command could be partly responsible for his seldom being given the benefit of the doubt.
But given what Masterson has done with the Indians with below-average catchers, I can’t help but wonder what his numbers might look like with an average catcher, or an above-average catcher. In 2013, he stands to pitch to Santana and Marson again, so there won’t be any help there. But I’m reminded of the Derek Lowe example. Between 2008-2011, Lowe pitched to good receivers, and he pitched to an outrageously favorable strike zone. In 2012, Lowe mostly pitched to the same receivers as Masterson, and he lost that favorable strike zone. Probably not coincidentally, Lowe’s performance cratered, and he struck out just under eight percent of the batters he faced. I don’t think it was all about the catchers, but I suspect the catchers played a big role in Lowe’s success and then in Lowe’s failure.
Which makes me curious what Masterson might be, were he able to pitch to a Jesus Flores or a Jeff Mathis or even a Jose Molina or a Brian McCann. With average receivers, one figures Masterson’s stats would improve. With great receivers, one figures Masterson’s stats would improve even more. He’s spent the bulk of his career as a starter throwing to relatively poor receivers, and he’s been reasonably effective. Give him a few extra strikes and, well, he already generates grounders and strikeouts. What if Masterson were allowed to expand the strike zone?
There is no answer here. I don’t know how much of Masterson’s strike-zone disadvantage is on his catchers, and how much is on him, because of the way that he pitches. Masterson might be and probably is unusually prone to bad calls by human umpires. Some people are going to be like that, and some people are going to be the opposite. But I know I’ll be paying attention if Masterson moves on, or if the Indians end up with a new backstop at some point. Masterson’s already a decent starting pitcher, despite the numbers above. What if he could be so much more? What if his numbers don’t adequately reflect his ability? It’s not something worth obsessing over, but this is one of the questions we’re beginning to be able to ask.
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