When one is asked to name the game’s very best starting pitchers, a tight circle of names usually dominate the discussion. Clayton Kershaw likely gains the most mentions, with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee among the names closely behind. Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels had off years in 2013, arguably dropping back in the pack a bit. Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez entered the fray loudly last season, and Stephen Strasburg‘s pedigree is as good as anyone’s. Justin Masterson? Doubt his name comes up very often. Should it? Let’s take a look at some batted ball profiles and make the call.
14 pitchers were somewhat arbitrarily selected for this analysis, but are not purported to be the sum total of baseball’s elite group. The aforementioned Verlander and Hamels, to name two, were left off due to their 2013 “struggles”. First, let’s take a look at this group’s 2013 K, BB and batted ball type frequencies:
In addition to the rate data presented, each percentage is also expressed relative to the MLB average, scaled to 100, and as a percentile rank.
First, it’s pretty obvious that we’re talking about the starting pitching elite here – the LOWEST K rate belongs to David Price, with a percentile rank of 63 – and his BB percentile rank is 1. 12 of the 14 pitchers listed have relative K rates of 120 or higher, and fully half weigh in with relative K rates of 140 and percentile ranks of 95 or higher. Clearly, missing bats is a huge part of being an elite starting pitcher.
A low BB rate doesn’t appear to be quite as necessary as a high K rate – 5 of the 14 have BB percentile ranks of 60 or higher. 6 of the 14 have popup percentile ranks higher than 60 – those are free outs, my friends, and they correlate well from year to year. Only 3 of the 14 are fly ball-oriented, with percentile ranks of 77 or higher. Line drive rates, as you might expect, are all over the board. 9 of the 14 have above average ground ball rates, including 4 with percentile ranks of 79 or higher. The bottom line – elite starters come in many varieties, but it sure does help to get a lot of K’s and amass a bunch of free outs, be they popups or weak ground balls.
How do Justin Masterson’s frequencies stack up? His relative K rate was a career high 129 in 2013, for a percentile rank of 91. That clearly makes him a fit within this group. Every pitcher listed who reaches a percentile rank of 90 or high once repeated or improved that level in at least one additional subsequent year. His BB rate is the highest of the group, with a percentile rank of 89. This is the most concerning aspect of Masterson’s portfolio. Control has never been his strong suit, with his arm action and delivery representing scouts’ long-term concerns, which many thought would limit him to a career as a bullpen specialist.
Within this group of pitchers, there are some success stories involving control improvement – Kershaw had a BB percentile ranking of 99 in 2009, but he was just 21. David Price had a 74 percentile rank in 2010 at age 24, and Matt Scherzer a 71 in 2010 at age 25. Can we expect Masterson’s BB rate to improve in the future? As recently as 2011, it was better than league average, but his K rate was much lower then. He has traded some walks for some more missed bats, and the short-term results have been positive on balance.
Now we get to the core of Masterson’s game. The pitchers on this list do at least one thing as well as or better than just about any other pitcher in baseball. Yu Darvish gets strikeouts. Felix Hernandez excels across the board while carrying an exceedingly heavy workload year in and year out. Cliff Lee – and now David Price – walk no one. Max Scherzer has a lethal strikeout/popup combination. Clayton Kershaw basically does all of the above.
Justin Masterson induces ground balls – and lots of them. In five years as a starting pitcher, he has posted ground ball percentile ranks of 95, 98, 89, 95 and 95, respectively. Obviously, very high grounder rates mean very low fly ball rates, but in Masterson’s case, they have also meant very low line drive rates. He has never posted a higher than MLB average line drive rate, and his LD percentile ranks have been below 10 in three of the last five seasons.
So Masterson’s batted ball frequency profile is this – high K, high BB, with lots of grounders, and few liners. What kind of production, however, did Masterson and the others actually allow on each type of batted ball in 2013, and how do they compare once that production is adjusted for context – ballpark, defense, luck, etc.. Lastly, once their K’s and BB’s are added back to the batted balls, how did these pitchers’ “true talent” performances measure up?
|Bumgarner||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Darvish||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|J.Fernandez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Harvey||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|F.Hernandez||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Iwakuma||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Kershaw||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|C.Lee||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Masterson||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|D.Price||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Sale||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Scherzer||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Strasburg||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Wainwright||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
For each pitcher, the actual AVG-SLG for each batted ball type is listed. The resulting run value of that performance is measured relative to the MLB average for that batted ball type in the “REL PRD” column, and adjusted for context in the “ADJ PRD” column. Lastly, for each pitcher, their actual ERA, their calculated component ERA based on actual AVG-SLG allowed (which weeds out sequencing), and their “Tru” ERA, adjusted for ballpark, defense, luck, etc., is listed. For purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs, and HBP are not included in OBP.
From the bottom up, let’s separate these 2013 performances into tiers. Hisashi Iwakuma is the clear laggard in this group. He was saved by Safeco Field – his adjusted relative fly ball production mark of 129 is easily the highest of this group. On all BIP combined, he had an actual relative production mark of 73 – adjusted for context, it jumps to 95.
Iwakuma was a somewhat better than average quality starting pitcher in 2013, and had plenty of innings bulk. He is a great value relative to his contract, though he is expected to miss the very early stages of the 2014 campaign with a right middle finger injury. Of the pitchers listed here, however, he allowed the most authoritative contact, and really doesn’t belong in this discussion.
Next comes the group of Price, Strasburg, Fernandez, Lee and Chris Sale. Price’s K and BB rates both dropped sharply in 2013, as he became more of a pitch-to-contact guy. Though the contact he allowed was a bit weaker than league average, he needs to get the K’s back to have a chance to get to the top of the list. Strasburg’s raw materials may be unparalleled in this group, but he remains a work in progress.
His actual performance on balls in play was helped a great deal by his outfield defense and ballpark. He also needs to add more bulk to his case by pitching more innings. Fernandez’ actual BIP performance was way ahead of all of the pitchers on this list, but was not supported by his hard and soft fly ball and grounder rates. His spacious home park helped him greatly. Lee too allowed much more authoritative contact than his actual numbers suggest, particularly in the air. Sale allowed fairly authoritative fly ball and line drive contact, and virtually league average contact authority overall.
The next tier moving upward includes Hernandez, Darvish, Madison Bumgarner, Scherzer and Wainwright. Hernandez’ greatest assets are his innings bulk and consistent excellence across the board. His control continues to improve, and he remains a strong ground ball generator. His line drive rate, however, has been higher than average the last two seasons, and his overall quality of contact allowed is now roughly average. Darvish overwhelms with his massive K rate, but allowed harder than average contact in all batted ball types – his solid infield defense helped him significantly. Improvement in his quality of contact allowed and his BB rate – his percentile ranks were 94 and 87 in his first two seasons – would propel him to the very top of this list.
Bumgarner is a stealth candidate. He is a weak contact machine – of all of the pitchers on this list, Bumgarner and three others that we’ve yet to discuss managed contact considerably better than the rest in 2013. Strong team defense also helps his cause. Scherzer is an odd mix. He doesn’t allow many grounders, but they are hit quite hard. He allows a ton of fly balls, and they are not – yet, at least. His current peak is quite high, but his decline could be swift, triggered by an eventual increase in his hard fly rate due to even a slight deterioration of his stuff. Wainwright is a slightly less reliable (health-wise) version of Felix – strong across the board, with an ever-improving BB rate, a strong ground ball tendency, and a sneaky-high line drive rate. Wainwright was hurt a bit by subpar outfield defense in 2013, and was likely a bit better than his actual numbers.
That leaves three guys – Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and the subject of today’s discussion, Justin Masterson. These three stifled contact better than the rest in 2013. Kershaw totally muzzles hard fly ball contact – it is virtually impossible at present to do serious damage against him in the air. He also paces this group in line drive production allowed, before and after adjusting for context. Add in stellar K and BB skills and a clean health record, and you have the best starting pitcher in the game today.
Matt Harvey’s first full season in the majors was arguably the best posted by a starting pitcher in 2013, but unfortunately, we may not see him until 2015 thanks to Tommy John surgery. His ability to limit fly ball authority was second only to Kershaw, and those two plus Masterson and Wainwright were the only allow lower than average adjusted production on all batted ball types in 2013.
As for Masterson – he does a lot more than allow a bunch of ground balls. He allows a bunch of very weak ground balls. He easily outdistances this group for lowest production allowed on grounders. Surprisingly, after adjustment for ballpark and defense – most of the hard flies he did allow went to RCF/RF, the friendliest part of Jacobs Field – he also rates in the better half with regard to adjusted fly ball production allowed. When all BIP are taken into account, Masterson managed contact better than all of these great hurlers last season. That high BB rate takes its toll once it’s added back into the equation, but Masterson’s 2013 “tru” ERA of 2.77 ranks behind only Harvey and Kershaw once all outcomes are taken into account.
Justin Masterson is not the best, or the third best starting pitcher in baseball. He’s performed at this level for exactly one full season. He has a career OPS+ of 100. He possesses a fairly dramatic normal platoon split for his career, though he has begun to handle lefties at a very acceptable rate of late, as his slider has evolved into a legitimate out pitch against both lefties and righties. He may not have the delivery or arm action of an elite starter, or the diverse repertoire of an elite starter, but Justin Masterson possesses a singular elite skill, that along with solid complementary abilities could very well propel him into near-term discussions of the game’s upper tiers of starting pitchers.