Should You Worry About Justin Masterson?

If you happen to be a FG+ subscriber, and you happen to have visited Justin Masterson‘s page, and you happen to have read his 2014 FanGraphs+ Profile, you saw these lines: “Fantasy owners will look at his 2010-11-12-13 roller coaster and be nervous. I’ll be buying at the discounted price and laughing all the way to the fantasy-value bank.”

As the author of those lines, I feel it is my responsibility to address what has been an all-around putrid start to the season from the supposed ace of a playoff-contending staff. Besides, I own Masterson across multiple leagues and my own nerves would probably benefit from some analysis.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s three starts (one of which was actually quite good) and so sample size alone dictates it is too early for you to worry about Masterson. But even this early in the season, there are a few things I like to look at to see if early pitching patterns will continue: velocity, luck, and continuation of past patterns of success (or failure).

We’ll skip over velocity, referring you instead to Mike Podhorzer’s piece reviewing early changes in velocity. Masterson shows up as one of the big droppers, but so does basically every other Indians pitcher. There are reasons to be worried here, but also reasons not to be.

As for luck, Justin’s has not been good. A .348 BABIP is the first thing that jumps out at you, .046 above his career average. His LOB% is also out of the norm at 61.6%, 9.1% below his career rate. But luck doesn’t explain everything. Sure, when you convert from ERA to FIP, he looks better (5.87 ERA vs. a 4.38 FIP), but that FIP isn’t great either.

So we turn to the third item – continuation of past patterns of (in this case) failure. For Masterson, when he has struggled, there have been two causes to turn to. First, he has had years where his K% has been less than ideal. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, he posted K% of 17.5%, 17.4%, and 17.6%, resulting in K/9 all at or below 7.0. In 2013, when he established himself as one of the best pitchers in the AL, he posted a K% of 24.3% and a K/9 9.09. So far this year, he is at 20.3% and 8.80 K/9. While that isn’t as great as it was last year, that is certainly in line with what we would expect from “good” Masterson.

The other issue he has had is a nasty platoon split – lefties have had some monster seasons off Masterson. In 2012, lefites his .288/.376/.450 off the sinkerballer. In 2013, that was down to .245/.340/.357. Still much worse than he fared vs. right handed bats, but a meaningful improvement. Pundits expecting regression from Masterson were certainly anticipating big numbers from lefties, and if that platoon split returned, I’d be concerned. But, as it happens, Masterson has been better against lefties (.273/.354/.395) than righties (.278/.480/.278), at least in terms of OPS.

In fact, the real issue Masterson is having this year is control. His BB%, which sat below 10% every year since 2009, is now at 12.2%, which would be the highest rate he has posted in any professional season. And the problem has been with righties, who are walking in 20% of plate appearances against Masterson. 20%!

Over his career, this has never been a problem for Masterson. He isn’t exactly the model of control and he has always walked his fair share, but never has there been any sign that this kind of control problem would strike him.

As Podhorzer mentioned, Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway thinks there is a mechanical issue that Masterson can (and he thinks will) fix. As both an Indians fan and a fantasy owner, my fears with Masterson would be a barrage of left-handed hits or a loss of strike outs. I have no concerns about his ability to bring the walks back in line with his career numbers.

So what you are left with is a guy who needs to get his control back, has had some bad luck both with balls in play and hits getting bunched with guys on base, but who continues to strike out batters and handle lefties (his two bugaboos) much as he did in 2013. Should you expect another career year from 29-year-old righty? Not at all. But if you can find a panicked owner willing to let you buy low, you’ll be glad you did.

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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.

9 Responses to “Should You Worry About Justin Masterson?”

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  1. Bill says:

    Wish i knew you were an indians fan before I got that FG+ profile tattood on my back.

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  2. quinceleather says:

    thanks for following up. wish I could support masterson…….would rather have kluber, even if he gets crushed every 4th time out…..

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  3. MLB Rainmaker says:

    With his Platoon issues, control has always the been key for Masterson — If he’s not terribly effective against LHBs, he’s at least got to try to not to hand out to many free passes. If you look at his good seasons vs. bad, the key difference is his OBP vs. LHBs — when he can keep that below .340, he puts can put up a decent ERA, when he can’t it balloons. Him struggling with command early on is probably not a good sign, I still think its early to make any assumptions.

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    • Chad Young says:

      Control matters, but other than an outlier 2012 season, he has always been no better than mediocre at avoiding walks, and has still managed to be successful. He’s also never shown anything like this kind of a lack of control against right handed batters. He has been so consistently good against righties that I can’t see how he doesn’t get that side of the plate back in order. And that is why I am more interested in what he is doing against lefties. And that has been encouraging. The walks are actually down vs. left handed opposition, he is still getting his Ks, and the line is not nearly as bad as it has been in the past. For Masterson to be struggling this much on the back of an inability to get our right handers does not seem like a problem that is likely to continue.

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        First, 25 RHBs faced is hardly a sample size, but I agree he won’t struggle against RHBs that is an anomaly.

        Tracking his up and down season, his 2011 breakout, saw his BB% vs LHBs drop from 10.5% in 2010 to 5.3%, then in 2012 it went back up to 10.5%. From 2012 to 2013, he remained at 10.5%, but his K% against LHBs spiked to 19.4%, which effectively lowered is OBP vs LHBs the right direction, also aided by a career best BAPIP.

        Given he didn’t add a new pitch, change his usage, or change velocity from 2012 to 2013, I think its fair to assume that 19.4% K% against LHBs is an outlier vs. the 13% he’s put up in every other season. So if you make the assumption that he will revert to his career levels, he has to make up that OBP/OPS delta or his numbers are going to go the wrong direction.

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      • Chad Young says:

        He did change his usage, though – went from 19.5% sliders to 26.9% sliders, and also slightly increased his fastball usage, while decreasing the use of his sinker. Yes, what he did last year is an outlier, but other than walking too many righties, he is doing a lot of it again this year. And with the usage shift factored in, there is good reason to believe his 2013 is repeatable.

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  4. Hoplite says:

    He did increase the use of his slider last year, which could potentially lead to an increased chance of injury. And now he’s seeing inconsistent velocity and control. I’d be a little worried if I didn’t avoid Masterson in all of my drafts.

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    • Chad Young says:

      The injury concern is worth tracking, for sure, and something I should have mentioned. He hasn’t mentioned it yet, but, but that doesn’t mean something is not lurking.

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  5. Frankie says:

    You read my mind with this article today. Someone just dropped him in my league for Springer. And with the #2 Waiver claim, I’m going to drop E Volquez to pick him up (hopefully!)

    Nice breakdown.

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