How Much Better Could Justin Masterson Be?

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.

Pitcher Diff/1000
Vicente Padilla -30
Ian Snell -32
Mitch Talbot -32
Jeff Niemann -34
Oliver Perez -34
Felix Hernandez -35
Glen Perkins -35
Jeremy Sowers -39
Andrew Miller -47
Justin Masterson -52

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%
2008 26% 20% 8% 8%
2009 24% 18% 6% 8%
2010 21% 16% 5% 8%
2011 22% 16% 5% 7%
2012 19% 15% 5% 7%

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?

Catcher GS Diff/1000
Carlin 1 18
Toregas 3 -36
Cash 2 -38
Shoppach 4 -43
Varitek 13 -45
Santana 46 -53
Marson 51 -54
Gimenez 1 -90

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

35 Responses to “How Much Better Could Justin Masterson Be?”

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  1. Cidron says:

    Interesting read. And, I dont think it gets easier, as Santana seems to be the catcher of the future (and present) for Cleveland. Also, Given the impact that their catchers have had on Justin, it makes me wonder what impact on the pitching staff as a whole, starters in particular. Cleveland may be well served to find a good receiver to back up Santana (and to show him framing techniques etc to better help the pitchers)

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  2. Jason says:

    Cidron, I had the same thought, wondering if Santana was hurting the whole staff or just Masterson. I read the linked article by Carruth, and he has Santana rated the 5th worst catcher in MLB by the methodology above. Sandy Alomar needs to do some serious work with him.

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  3. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I actually thought those two .gifs looked outside the zone a little. Guessing they were in it by Pitch f/x though.

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    • Joe West says:

      As mentioned in the article those .gifs are out of the strike zone. They were examples of 2 balls that may have been called as strikes for another pitcher.

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      • David says:

        The reason he doesn’t get the call is that he misses his target and the catcher has to move his glove from the original spot.

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        • Ned says:

          Obviously. Receivers as good as J. Molina don’t move their gloves for borderline pitches. They catch in the heel or the very end of the web. The first one, the catcher has this little yip after the delivery. If he just held his glove in place, he could’ve rotated his wrist and caught that right in the heel.

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  4. gareth says:

    One thing that is not mentioned is the infield defence, which killed masterson in some instances last year. He’d have given up one run in 6 2/3 innings and then a sure third out would be botched (but not scored an error). Things would then turn bad and you look at the score and he’s given 4 RUNS in 7 innings.

    Also the lack of offense hurt him last year. He’d pitch 8 strong innings giving up a solo run and would take the loss.

    I usually believe you make your own luck (In both life and baseball) but truly believe masterson was hard done by last year due things beyond his control. He’s a great person and competitor and I really hope he experiences the other side of the luck coin in 2013.

    If so you could see him have an era under 3 and 18 wins.

    As for jiminez……luck? Miracle more like.

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    • Cidron says:

      infield defense isnt balls and strikes.

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    • EliBolender says:

      Masterson pitched at least 8 innings three times last year. None of those games resulted in him “giving up a solo run and (he) would take the loss”. There was one start all year where he gave up one run and took the L but in that one he only went 7.

      Also, who cares about pitcher W’s and L’s anyways?

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  5. gareth says:

    I’m not saying it is. I’m just saying it was another factor that affected him.

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  6. gareth says:

    Snark much?

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  7. BalkingHeads says:

    Speaking of Lowe, when we he went to the Yankees in 2012, his k% jumped from 7.6% to 14.3% and his bb% fell from 8.3% to 6.1%. Only a 23.2 inning sample size on those Yankees, but still worth mentioning, especially since Russell Martin was ranked 2nd, just behind Jose Molina, in Mike Fast’s work.

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  8. isavage30 says:

    I have to think it has mainly to do with the sinker and the particulars of Masterson, and not so much the catcher. Every game Masterson throws pitches low in the zone that are technically strikes when they cross the plate, but don’t look like strikes because they dip so sharply and are called balls. You see on the pitch tracker that it was a strike, and a slow-mo replay of it going across the plate above the knees shows it’s a strike, but at full speed it just doesn’t look like a strike. It always kills me because he’s actually uncorking beautiful, unhittable pitches, but as long as the batter doesn’t swing and beat it into the dirt, it’s a ball. He’s also not a guy with fine command and has a weird arm slot, so umpires don’t give him any benefit of the doubt. If robots called the strike zone, Masterson would be tough.

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    • Hank says:

      I think there is a good chance it is very much this.

      While it seems like the control for inside/outside should be pretty robust (I’m pretty sure the different lefty and righty strikezones are factored in), I wonder how robust the high/low marginal pitches are.

      I’m not sure I trust the pitch f/x height adjustments reflect how the umps call balls and strikes at the top and bottom of the zone. I’m not sure the umps do as much of a batter height adjustment at the bottom of the zone.

      I’m guessing that there is no way of looking at it easily but it would be interesting if there are certain locations that tend to lead to a higher degree of variation in terms of actual vs expected strikes (by pitcher)

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    • Dimaggio says:

      I was thinking the exact same thing while reading the article. I caught through high school and by far the most difficult pitch to frame is a sinker. Plus Masterson has some tail on his fastball that is more pronounced than others and although I don’t recall catching such a pitch I would imagine it’s hard to fool the umpires optical with such a pitch. I thought the same thing when I read the table with Martson and Santana. The Indians have been heavy with sinkerballers such as Jiminez, Carmona (Hernandez and Lowe. I guess the one thing that is outlined in the article is the demise of Lowe under Indians catchers. Is that because of the catchers or could it be that when you run sinkerballers out every start, the Umpires for the series catch on and each pitcher (and catcher) pays for it. I don’t know, the Lowe statistics give me cause but I also think that framing a sinker is so difficult that the Catchers framing numbers are paying.

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    • Cidron says:

      I am thinking I am going to have to disagree that its pitch movement and where its pitched to. Masterson’s style of pitching is not totally unique, therefore throwing off the umpires. Its not like the other sinker type pitchers throw middle of the plate or up in the zone. And, alot of other pitchers have late movement. That said, we are left with the catcher, again as the culprit here. Now, if Masterson WAS a totally different pitcher in all regards to the rest, …….

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    • tolbuck says:

      If you notice the list of pitchers who get squeezed the most 3 of them pitched for the Tribe-Masterson, Talbot, and Sowers. All 3 throw sinkers. Is this a catcher problem? The Tribe needs to find out as they are heavy in sinkerball pitchers.

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  9. ezb230 says:

    The argument doesn’t rest on the GIFs, but both pitches look like balls to me (although the second one is closer). And the slight offset to the right means both pitches were actually further outside than they look here (moving the camera to the right makes the ball appear to move to the left, so both pitches were actually further right/outside to lefties).

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  10. Brandon T says:

    There’s also a line of thought that some pitchers who get a lot of movement on the ball tend to get less help from the umpires. We’d need to compare the Cleveland catchers with the other pitchers on the staff before going there, though.

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  11. Dave S says:

    One more example of why we should stop letting umpires call balls and strikes…

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  12. jim says:

    nice theory, but how then to explain masterson’s 2011 with the same catchers?

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  13. kevinthecomic says:

    “It’s not something worth obsessing over”……unless your name is Justin Masterson.

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  14. Elijah says:

    A thorough research tool using the supposition that the catcher(s) influence is a potential source of altering the results, so too is the influence of the pitch type. For a complete, less biased comparison, compare both Justin Masterson, a noted sink ball pitcher throwing to both Lou Marson and Carlos Santana, primarily & Fausto Carmona (aka Roberto Hernandez), a noted sinkerball pitcher throwing to both Lou Marson and Carlos Santana. Comparing the Fausto-2007 season and the Masterson-2011 seasons should be more than interesting, imho…

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  15. Brent Daily says:

    Has any research been done on the value of a strike?

    Qualitatively an additional 94 called strikes is a good thing but are there metrics equating what an additional 5% of pitches being called strikes equate to in terms of FIP, WAR, or other?

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  16. CircleChange11 says:

    For the sake of visual example, let’s look at Masterson throw a couple balls that might ordinarily go as strikes:

    Those pitches aren’t even worth framing. In other words, they’re not borderline strikes.

    They actually look like pitches that were not intended to be strikes.

    Masterson sure can make a fastball run.

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s been shown quite a few times that lefty hitters seemed to have a wider strike zone on outside pitches than righties do, by several inches. Those pitches looked outside to me, but within an area that pitches to lefties are quite often called strikes.

      It’s only two gif’s, you can’t make too much out of them. We can’t have a page of 3000 gif’s that fully illustrate what the author is talking about. They’re just there to give you somewhat of an idea what he’s talking about, and make the article more interesting. They’re an enhancement, not evidence.

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  17. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    Mastson is getting little to no help from his team! Seems like he should be traded for by a team with a good catcher. He is artificially Bad! So he is cheaper to trade for.

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  18. MLB Rainmaker says:

    There are two key points you need to make about Masterson before making any conclusions:

    1) Masterson is a 2-pitch guy: He throws a fastball or slider 98% of the time, which is extremely rare for an MLB starter.

    2) Masterson’s L/R Splits: Likely as a consequence of #1, Masterson gets rocked by Lefties.

    Both of these facts likely play a significant role in defining his strike zone, specially against lefties. I’d be interested to see the splits for the Diff/1000 stat — I’d bet he has a significant L/R split there too. Its like anything; Masterson gets rocked by lefties, so he pitches away from lefties — he pitches away from lefties, umps call less strikes against lefties. Ta-da!

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  19. TribeTime10 says:

    Isn’t the obvious next step to take a look at the other pitchers on the Indians staff to figure out it this is a Justin Masterson problem or a problem with the Indians catchers?

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  20. David says:

    Do the numbers of pitches miscalled by pitcher follow a normal distribution? Or some other predictable distribution? It always bothers me a little bit to see an article like this without any mention of whether it’s reasonable to think there would just happen to be a pitcher with this many missed calls, given the rates at which umpires miss calls. I’m definitely willing to believe that there’s something weird going on for Masterson here, but it seems like it’s just assumed that there is a cause.

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  21. lewish says:

    has there be study of other sinker pitchers and their strike zones?

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  22. PHILLYJIM says:

    so, can we get an update on this? mastersons k rate is just under 1 per inning through 63 innings now…did Santana read this article and take a framing class? just a lucky first quarter of the season, or is this for real?

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