Same Masterson, Different Results

Based on traditional metrics like wins, losses, and ERA, Justin Masterson has been a below-average starting pitcher during the past two seasons. With a 10-23 record, and an ERA above 4.50, the former prospect looked like a superficial candidate for the label of “bust”. But defensive independent metrics suggested Masterson was a quality starter – who struggled shaking the luck dragons known as left-on base percentage (LOB%) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

In 2009 and 2010, the right-hander’s average on balls in play was roughly 25% more than the league average, which came despite a fantastic groundball rate. It certainly did not help that most of those groundballs came in front of the second worst defense in the league during the same period. With an increased amount of balls finding holes, his strand rate fell about 6% below the average of his peers.

In terms of the things he had control over, Masterson was much better. Both his FIP and xFIP settled around the 4.0 mark. Although his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell under 2.00, he allowed just 26 home runs in 309.1 innings – a byproduct of the insane amount of groundballs allowed.

This season, it appears as if the 26-year-old is experiencing a breakout. Through five turns in the rotation, he is a perfect 5-0 with shiny 2.18 ERA. Despite the improvement in traditional marks, Masterson is roughly the same pitcher he has been for a few years now.

Masterson’s 2011 xFIP of .3.77 is slightly lower than his 3.87 xFIP of a season ago; the .10 point improvement, however, has little to do with his ERA being sliced in half. He has also seen an improved FIP despite dropping a full strikeout per nine innings. The improvement is largely because he has allowed just one home run in 33 innings. Even with his power-zapping sinker, he’ll likely allow a few more home runs going forward, which is fine considering his xFIP.

Masterson continues to rely heavily on just two pitches: the sinker and the slider. His changeup is still thrown on occasion, but is pretty much a “show me” pitch in regards to usage. Called me “old school” but I prefer a starter with at least three offerings. After inducing nearly 60% groundballs last season, he will finish the month of April with a GB rate of 62.5%

While things remain status quo for the most part, Masterson has been the benefactor of luck thus far. Despite a middle infield (Asdrubal Cabrera and Orlando Cabrera) that sits toward the bottom of the early season defensive rankings, Masterson’s BABIP is .255. In conjunction with the lower BABIP is a strand rate of 82.5%. It should also be noted that he has shown some improvement versus left-handed batters, but, of course, in a limited sample size.

Masterson and the Indians have been a nice story to start the season. Few had the Tribe being competitive this season, and even fewer had him being among the top starters in the league. While the success of the team comes as a surprise compared to previous years, Masterson is pretty much the same pitcher as he was before. But now he comes wrapped in good fortune.

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Tommy Rancel also writes for Bloomberg Sports and Follow on twitter @TRancel

20 Responses to “Same Masterson, Different Results”

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  1. Lewie Pollis says:

    There’s a certain poetic justice in a guy whose bad luck inspired talk of being moved back to the bullpen now looking like an ace thanks to random chance.

    I’m proud to say I was one of the few who believed.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      It wasn’t so much bad luck as an inability to get lefties out that led to discussion of being moved to the pen. If he can continue holding lefties to a FIP near 4.0 then he’ll be a good starter, but if he reverts to his career average he’ll probably be moved to the bullpen eventually.

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      • Lewie Pollis says:

        Right-handed hitters had a .335 BABIP against him last year. It wasn’t just his handedness splits that fueled the ERA/DIPS disparity.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        His BABIP is high because he doesn’t allow anyone to hit the ball in the air, .335 is probably high but not that unlucky. His FIP against righties was still low. Most of his struggles are due to not getting lefties out.

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  2. Yirmiyahu says:

    “the right-hander’s average on balls in play was roughly 25% more than the league average. This came despite a fantastic groundball rate.”

    Despite? Groundballers *should* have a higher BABIP. Maybe not Masterson’s .324 last year, but it’s not unusual for extreme groundballers to put up a BABIP 10 or 20 points above the .295 norm.

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Also, groundballers usually see a slightly lower LOB rate, due to allowing more baserunners. Even for an extreme groundballer, 6% below league average sounds a bit unlucky, but a higher BABIP and a lower strand rate are par for the course for groundball pitchers.

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    • RC says:

      Ground Balls have an average BABIP of .236.

      Its not GB% that drives up BABIP, its line drives.

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  3. isavage30 says:

    Having watched the majority if Masterson’s starts over the past 2 years, I’d say his success this year has little to do with random chance. As far as what he can control, he is commanding the ball much better this year, reducing his walks and forcing guys to swing at his pitches. His zone % is 52.7% so far this year, 46.7 last year, I’d also say he’s missing less in the zone, the contact has been weaker this year. Basically he’s been pitching like Masterson pitched in the second half of last year.

    The Indians defense is much improved as well, Hannahan at 3b is a huge difference, it seemed last year Masterson would be counted on to give up at least one weakly hit ball down the 3b line that would result in a single due to the slow footed Peralta, Marte or various second basemen they had playing the position. Whenhe gave up these dinky little hits it would seemingly cause him to become frustrated and overthrow, and he’d walk guys and/or start elevating his pitches. Laporta looks pretty good at 1b as well, and he or Santana is a huge upgrade in range over Branyan, who basically need a ball to be hit right at him and above the knees to make a play .. in Masterson’s first start for example, it was looking like doom until Santana made a diving catch on a bunt that turned into a triple play. Subjectively I’d say Asdrubal Cabrera is playing much better defense than last year, and either way is a huge upgrade over Jason Donald, who played SS when Cabrera was injured and who has neither the range or the arm to play the position adequately.

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    • delv says:

      Thanks for this^. Isn’t his release point different, also?

      I’m sick and tired of all this “Well, we can’t figure out how he’s different just based on this flawed data, so his improvement or worsening must be due to luck!” It seems that half the articles on fangraphs say the same thing. And then commenters who actually watch the game inevitably provide evidence to the contrary.

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      • Patrick says:

        Not evidence.

        The commenters inevitably provided biased, non-expert, results influenced personal opinion.

        That’s not the same thing as evidence. It can be evidence, but it’s often a very, very thin reed.

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      • isavage30 says:

        I wasn’t really trying to contradict the article, I agree with the basic premise that Masterson pitched better than his results the last 2 years. To say “same” Masterson is a bit of an exaggeration. One clear difference that needs mentioning is the walk rate, in the 2nd half of last year and so far this year he’s been at 3 BB/9, prior to that he was walking above 4 per 9. In the second half last year he had a 3.84 ERA, so even by traditional metrics he was good in the 2nd half. His 3.29 FIP this so far this year is much better than previous years. His fastball speed’s back up too so far, averaging 92.4 where he averaged 91.3 last year … could be result of better endurance, or just not needing as many pitches because of the improved control, his velocity tends to tail off quite a bit still as he goes deeper into games, where he’s consistently hitting 93-95 at the start, and 89-91 later on.

        I think a lot of “luck” with pitchers is bad defense and harder contact. It was interesting to watch Carmona and Masterson last year, similar style pitchers with the same defense, and one has a low BABIP and one has one of the highest in the league. The thing is, I’d say that Carmona was certainly luckier, both with hit placement and for some reason not seeming to have as much bad defensive play on days he pitched. However, Carmona also was pretty clearly consistently inducing weaker contact than Masterson. With Masterson, even when he’s not throwing well and he’s getting up in the zone, guys still tend to hit ground balls and keep the ground ball rate up, but they are HARD ground balls.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Thanks for the scouting. How’s he looked vs left-handed batters?

      Coming up through the Red Sox system, the biggest concern was always that he had no out pitch vs lefties, and that that might keep him out of the rotation.

      He has extreme and consistent L/R splits for his career (.607 OPS / .814 OPS), and this year looks no different stats-wise. Not only are all his FIP numbers worse, lefties hit the ball a LOT harder vs Masterson: significantly higher LD%, BABIP, IsoP, and a lower GB%.

      I still think that’s an easily-exploitable weakness unless he improves his changeup, or finds some way to get lefties out.

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  4. Andy Man Dyke says:

    the indians lineup can actually hit too – so many promising stories up and down that lineup. Forecast for Masteron: 15-8, 3.68 era, 210 innings, 175K

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  5. Dscott says:

    Great post Isavage30, lets not forget about a “HEALTHY” Grady Sizemore for defensive stability in Centerfield, did you see that diving catch he had the other night? Oh ya, I am a Masterson believer and it’s finally paying off.

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  6. chuckb says:

    It’s not just his ridiculously low BABIP (for a GB specialist) and ridiculously high strand rate that are indicators of luck. Masterson has also benefited from an unsustainable 4.0% HR/FB ratio. All 3 of those rates are probably unsustainable over the course of a season so regression will not be his friend over the course of the next 5 months.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Almost all (perhaps all) of the SPs experiencing a turnaround this young season have low HR rates.

    For a GB pitcher, it’s not that uncommon, perhaps especially for the sinker heavy Masterson and Morton.

    Sure they’ll regress some, but guys like Garcia last year can go the whole season without giving up many homers .. that’s the trade off for giving up more GB hits.

    How are his GIDPs? The odds of giving up 3 GB hits in an inning seem like they would be less than getting a DP.

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  8. Jon says:

    One thing that has yet to be mentioned is the fact that he is not falling behind in the count. I love all these stats and can easily see he is benefitting from a low BABIP, low LOB% and low HR/FB, but getting ahead in the count has benefits that these stats can’t show. He’ll obviously regress, but it looks like he got it together above the shoulders and should have a solid season.

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  9. JayKwiski says:

    Played with him in college, he only starting pitching in high school as a senior, he was a raw talent in Boston, he’s finally learning how to control that 90+ mph slider….dannggggerrrrrrouuuuussssss

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  10. gradygradychase says:

    “In 2009 and 2010, the right-hander’s average on balls in play was roughly 25% more than the league average,”

    Oh, I’ve just seen he was soooooooo unlucky pitcher, lol.

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