Let’s Talk About Justin Masterson

Perhaps I should have written this piece last week. Because last week, Justin Masterson had a sub-two ERA and people were talking about him and his new approach against lefties. Then again, this week he still has a 2.25 ERA and he’s ostensibly the same person. That’s the whole problem with believing in him, though — he’s still the same person.

In order to believe in change in an established pitcher, I want to see something change. Velocity. Pitching mix. Pitch usage. The quality of a pitch. First-pitch strikes.

I see none of these changes in Masterson, and least not at a level that would make me interested in a mixed league.

The main problem with Masterson is that he’s a sinker/slider guy primarily and is missing a pitch that breaks the other way. Even Sergio Romo has a two-seamer and a changeup he uses sometimes in order to change things up, and anyway the reliever game is different. Masterson doesn’t have the big velocity that Michael Pineda had in Seattle either. He’s basically Bud Norris with more ground balls and fewer strikeouts. The jury is out on Tony Cingrani and his one pitch. The comps aren’t so great with Masterson, even if we are kind to the Jamaican hurler in Cleveland.

Another way of showing the problem. Max Marchi broke down platoon splits on pitches a while back. Here are the results of his work:

pitch platoon
Sinker 1.07
Slurve 1.07
Heater 0.79
Slider 0.54
Rider 0.54
Cutter 0.41
Jumping fastball 0.28
Rising fastball 0.21
Power change 0.08
Tight curve -0.17
Roundhouse curve -0.65
Straight change -0.77

So Masterson throws two of the platoon-iest pitches. And you know Masterson has spent entire games where he hasn’t even thrown a slider, which just happens to be his second-platoon-iest pitch. His arsenal is just not conducive to getting lefties out, and he hasn’t been able to develop the changeup that he used to talk about. That’s how Masterson has accrued an FIP over four and a half against lefties while showing one close to three against righties.

There is the fact that of his 2011 season. He stopped walking lefties that year — his career walk percentage against lefties is 9.7%, but that year he dropped it to 5.3%. That might be something to believe in, if it hasn’t been different in every other year of his career. (Including this one — his walk rate this year is right in line with career norms.) And ‘not walking’ isn’t quite a sustainable approach. If you don’t walk them, and you can’t strike them out (career 14.1% strikeout rate against lefties), you’re just letting a ton of balls into play. (And praying.)

This year, Masterson has a new approach. He said he would use his slider against lefties more, and he has. He’s using his slider a quarter of the time this year, up from 15-17% in years past. The slider has a lesser platoon split than the sinker, but it still breaks towards a lefty bat. Many righties try to nip the inside corner with the slider, or start it off the outside corner and bring it back to the zone. That can work. Romo does it often. Romo has elite control. Masterson’s is okay, but not elite. Leave that pitch a little bit too close to the plate and it’ll drift right into the heart of the lefty slugger’s wheelhouse.

This is what Masterson’s heat map of sliders looks like.


There’s one nice cluster of front-door sliders, and then a whole lot of danger.

Masterson got beat up on Sunday, and lefties did much of the damage. Nine of the thirteen baserunners Masterson allowed were lefties. And, considering that Masterson is currently not displaying the only skill against lefties that has worked for him in the past — avoiding the walk — it’s probably better to be cautious with him. In mixed leagues, he’s a great spot-starter against teams without great lefty power, and in deep leagues, he’s a guy you roster and try to bench against the lefty-heavy teams when you can.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

16 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Justin Masterson”

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  1. blackoutrestrictions says:

    “We need to talk about justin” – hits theaters this summer

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  2. lockey2k says:

    Good read. I’d love to see a “Let’s talk about Nate McLouth” piece ’cause I cannot make heads or tails of his start.

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  3. roscoe says:

    “Many righties with sliders talk about ‘back-dooring’ their slider to lefties — starting it in on his hip and then allowing the movement to take it over the inside corner of the strike zone.”

    How does a slider from a right-hander start in on a lefty and then break over the inside corner? Isn’t that the opposite of what that pitch does? Sounds more like back-dooring a two-seamer.

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  4. Jay says:

    Great post. I have Masterson and he makes me very nervous. Quick question. Is Erlin worth a pickup in a deep keeper? Does he have any value this season. I grabbed Cashner, Archer and Cingrelli and had to play a waiting game. Can I do the same with Erlin?

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  5. batpig says:

    “Many righties with sliders talk about ‘back-dooring’ their slider to lefties — starting it in on his hip and then allowing the movement to take it over the inside corner of the strike zone.”

    Eno — This quote doesn’t make sense. A slider from a RHP will break IN towards a LHB. You can’t “backdoor” the slider the way you describe against an opposite-handed batter. If he throws the slider at the guy’s hip it will break TOWARDS the batter, not back towards the plate. The “backdoor slider” thrown by a RHP to a LHB will be a pitch that starts off looking like it will be OUTSIDE (not inside) and then break at the last minute to clip the outside corner. I believe the origin of this term is because the pitch would catch the plate at the back (not the front of the plate where the strike zone is defined) and thus fool the umpire, getting the strike call “through the back door” of the plate.

    A RHP vs. a LHB can “backdoor” an inside pitch that fades away, the classic example being the Greg Maddux / Derek Lowe type sinker / 2-seamer that has tailing action, so they throw it in off the plate to a LHB and then have it fade and sink back to catch the inside corner. But I don’t understand how a RHP can “backdoor” a slider to LHB on an INSIDE pitch.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Second time I got it wrong. I think I get back door and front door more confused than any other two terms in baseball. I’ll leave the terms out and just describe the movement then. Wow.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        No wait I had it right. He’s either got to throw them inside and nip the inside corner, throw back-up sliders (start middle in and hit the inside corner), or go back door (start outside the plate and hit the outside corner) against lefties. When I had back door in there I was describing the third way.

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      • snoop LION says:

        if it starts over the plate and breaks to a corner it is neither front dooring or back dooring

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        That’s why I called it a ‘back-up’ slider right there.

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  6. Chippchipp says:

    Would you rather start Cashner (one start @CHC) or E. Jackson (two starts vs. SD and vs. CIN). Thanks!

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Not Eno, but I’d rather have Cashner, because E-Jax’s Cincinatti matchup could be brutal and while his FIP is 3.28, I’m a bit worried about his control. I kind of wonder if he hasn’t warmed up/settled in, so to speak, as his velocity is also down (though I believe it is within normal going down range?). Cashner has less of a chance to tank your ERA and has stronger K potential, I feel.

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      • asdfasdf says:

        Okay, thanks. I also posted this in the Roto Riteup from a few days ago and, of course, David responded with the opposie answer haha so I guess I’ll just have to flip a coin…


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  7. MLB Rainmaker says:

    Been preaching this for years. Its scary to see MLB managers still start a lineup of righties against him — looking at you Dusty Baker…

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  8. lee says:

    masterson, vogelsong, teheran. please rank

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  9. don says:

    i dunno, ranked 15 overall now in my fantasy league after his second straight dominating performance. dude is King everyone.

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