Revisiting Justin Masterson

A couple months ago, I told you it was too early to worry about Justin Masterson. Well, we are more than half-way through June now and if I wasn’t worried before, I am now.

Dropping velocity, a lot of walks, and some bad batted ball luck were major factors in Masterson’s slow start, and all three continue to be an issue. But the walks are the real cause for concern.

For his career, Masterson has posted a 9.4% walk rate. In his stellar 2013 season, it was 9.5%. This year it is up to 11.7%. In the earlier article I noted that there may be a mechanical issue and that, considering Masterson’s past performance, it was reasonable to assume he’d get the walks in control.

And for April, he did, posting a 9.3% walk rate. In May, that jumped to 12.4%. In June, 16.1%. Not exactly the signs of someone getting their walks in control.

At the same time his walks have increased, Masterson’s strike out rate has decreased, and while everyone is talking about his lost velocity, the lost control is really the problem here.

Hitters are being slightly more patient against Masterson this year, swinging at 27.2% of pitches outside the zone vs. 28.5% last year, despite little change in their swing rate on pithes in the zone. They are also making contact less often, primarily in this case on pitches inside the zone, leading to an increased swinging strike rate. He’s even getting in front of hitters slightly more often.

But as a pitcher with a 52.4% zone% for his career (51.4% last year), his in ability to find the plate (48.7% this year) is extremely worrisome.

What you are left with is a guy who, decreased velocity and all, is getting just as many swinging strikes, is getting his customary near-60% GB rate, but who simply cannot consistently find the catcher’s glove.

The problem is, there does not seem to be an end in sight for Masterson’s struggles. Decreased velocity and lost control usually suggest an injury, but both Masterson and the team say he is physically fine. There was talk of a mechanical issue earlier in the year, but so far no sign that it has been fixed.

The problem for fantasy owners is that the upside, which we saw last year, is elite. Particularly in ottoneu 4×4 and Points leagues, which absolutely punish guys who give up HR, a high-K, low-HR workhorse is a huge asset. But right now, Masterson is simply unusable.

In deeper leagues, where you can’t really trade him right now, you are well within your rights to hold him and hope for a turn-around or a DL stint (yes, I actually think that right now a DL stint would be GREAT news for Masterson owners, as it would suggest a reason for his struggles and a potential path towards improvement). But in my one shallow league (12 teams, 25 man rosters), Masterson is on his way off the team.

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

6 Responses to “Revisiting Justin Masterson”

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  1. thecodygriffin says:

    I understand that the 2013 season for Masterson was a reality, it happened and it was a valid years worth of data. However, it was ONLY a years worth of data. He had four incredibly average years before that.

    As a baseball community, we have seen that players can change and evolve of the course of a career, but a spike in strike rate one year with everything else staying the same is not a change.

    If anyone was expecting last year (or anything close to it) to be repeated this year, I hope he/she/they didn’t pay significantly to do so, because it would have been a poor gamble at the time and has been confirmed as such now.

    Note: I apologize in advance if my statements seemed confrontational or arrogant. It is simply my opinion.

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    • Chad Young says:

      No worries about tone – but I think your facts are off. Masterson didn’t just psike his K-rate, he shifted to heavier usage of his slider (and less of his fastball), kept guys more off balance (they took more strikes), made them miss more (lower contact rate and increased SwStrk%), without losing control (solid zone%) or his GB tendencies. That isn’t “nothing else changing” that appears to be an active decision to change the pitch mix with very positive results.

      He also went from a poor defensive catcher (which can be problematic for a guy who throws sinkers often) who has a bad reputation for framing pitches to a very good one who was one of 2013’s best framers.

      Interestingly, this year he has shifted back away from the slider, which adds to my concern that this is a physical issue and that he is destined for the DL. But what we are seeing this year is not regression back to 2012 Masterson, we are seeing a 100% new set of issues that have never dogged him before. It’s not that he didn’t change…he changed twice.

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      • thecodygriffin says:

        Those are fair, valid points (which I was aware of due to a league mate trying to sell me on him all year last year).

        However, with repertoire changes, I need more than a year sample of evidence to allow for scouting reports and hitters to fully adjust. Even if his velocity did not decrease, I would have not been expecting his 2013 performance to continue.

        Anyone betting on the opposite should probably be hoping for a disabled list stint as it would still allow the hope/possibility that 2013 was not just a blip of greatness in his career.

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    • isavage30 says:

      Hard to believe he is not injured. I don’t think you can really separate the velocity loss from the control issues. At the very least, his lack of velocity is going to force him to try to stay at the edges of the plate more, it’s also going to make it easier for hitters to lay off some close pitches because they have more time to react. And Masterson is not someone who could ever command his pitches well. This is a guy who could routinely throw his 4-seam 97 mph and his sinker would sit around 92. Now he’s throwing pitches that are so slow pitch f/x calls them changeups. The whole reason he could be effective despite only throwing 2 pitches was the velocity and the movement. You take away the velocity, and he’s a matchup reliever.

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    • MLB Rainmaker says:

      I completely agree, Masterson’s talent level did not change at all in 2013, he just fared better against lefties. Maybe it was a tick more velocity or better control or some combination, but he didn’t have an advancement in skill just a lucky season.

      For his career, Masterson has a pretty severe platoon split with a wOBA 75 pts higher vs LHBs, which is what you’d expect from a guy with only two pitches, one of which being a slider. From what I can tell, marginally better control led to him having better success with LHBs last season, and now he’s regressed back to his normal skillset. See the stats

      Career vs LHBs = 279/363/423
      2013 vs LHBs = 245/340/357
      2014 vs LHBs = 292/394/486,

      Career vs RHBs = 215/302/292
      2014 vs RHBs = 216/343/295

      So aside from a few more walks in 2014 to RHBs, the real difference seems to be that he is getting destroyed by LHBs….the same thing that has been his issue all along. Dude is filthy vs RHBs with a plus fastball and plus-plus slider, but has no 3rd pitch for lefties. Exact reason, the Red Sox traded him. Now the real change would be if he could just spend some time developing any sort of change-up, even if he only threw it to LHBs. Even a bad one would be good right?

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  2. Miles says:

    I picked him up off FA after noticing that velocity was actually pretty good on June 8. But then it dropped back down to under 90 during his last start. False hope; we meet yet again. (got the info from the game charts here on fangraphs)

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