I am sort of obsessed with Justin Masterson.
Every year, whether he has a difficult April (like last year) or a fabulous one (like 2011) I find myself poring over his stat line to see if anything remarkable has changed. More often than not, I end up concluding the same thing each year: he’s a good pitcher who—as most non-strikeout pitchers do—relies heavily on the random distribution of his batted balls. The things he can control—like strikeouts, walks, and to some degree home runs—suggest that he’s a completely competent starting pitcher. Not one who you’d necessarily call an “ace”, but not someone who belongs in the bullpen as so many people preached back in his miserable 2010 campaign.
And now that he’s off to another great start (3-0, 0.41 ERA), I figured I’d check again, just to see if anything looks a bit different over these first 22 innings of 2012.
First, let’s look at a few things that we might call “skill-stats”—those attributes that more often than not are repeatable skills and where an improvement might be viewed as something that could continue going forward. Consider, for example, the following:
So far this year, Masterson is striking out more hitters than at any time since becoming a starting pitcher; all this while holding his walk-rate fairly steady. 1 His consequent strikeout-to-walk ratio has jumped from a pedestrian 2.0 to an above-average 2.5. To give you some context, pitchers who had a K/BB rate of 2.0 last season had names like Jake Westbrook, Ross Detwiler and Jeremy Guthrie, while a 2.5 would put you in the neighborhood of Yu Darvish, Yovani Gallardo, and Bud Norris. Those aren’t the best pitchers in the league, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Something like the difference between a #2 and a #3 starter, perhaps.
Couple that K/BB improvement with an increased ground ball rate (his 60.0% would be a career high, were he to maintain it), and you can see why Masterson’s 2013 campaign is off to such a terrific start. Groundballs tend not to become home runs very often, and that’s a very good thing.
Unfortunately, there are other ways to skin this cat, and some of Justin’s peripherals would suggest that he’s just been flat out lucky so far with regard to runs scoring.
For example, through his 2012 season, Masterson saw just over 30% of his batted balls fall in for hits (BABiP of .308); so far this year it’s below 20% (.196 BABiP). It’s incredibly unlikely that much of that improvement has to do with a newfound ability to minimize “groundballs with eyes”. 2
On top of the batted-ball issue (or perhaps because of it), Masterson is stranding runners at an otherworldly rate. So far this season, 95% of all base runners he’s allowed have been stranded (i.e. not scored). Compare that to a career average of 70.4%, which falls right in line with the league average, and you start to see some of that good luck pop out at you.
One more thing. For his career, roughly 10% of the flyballs hit off of Masterson have become home runs. So far this season he’s allowed 15 flyballs and allowed zero home runs. That’s obviously not sustainable over the course of a season, as eventually some of the flyballs are going to leave the park; I’d bet on about 10% of them actually.
In my opinion, there will always be two hot spot issues for Masterson: (1) commanding his fastball; and (2) surviving against left handed batters. So far this season his walk-rate is holding steady while lefties are hitting an absurd .146/.222/.195 against him. So yeah, there are some positive signs with Masterson so far this season. But before all is said and done, I’m guessing the former holds pretty steady while the latter may change quite a bit.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the random when it goes right for us. Masterson has now thrown 22 innings, which is about 10% of what he’ll throw this season. Those innings count, and they’re already in the books. He isn’t “due” to pitch worse than we’d otherwise expect because he’s been lucky so far—that’s just not how probability works.
Regardless, the improvements in his strikeout rate along with the movement and control he has on both his sinker and his slider lead me to believe that Masterson may look better now than he did even in 2011. So long as nothing major changes, I’m pretty confident that he’ll be worthy to give us a good chance to win every fifth day.
Now, about those other four days….
AP Photo/Mike Carlson
Just one more reason not to use “per-9” stats if you can avoid it: Masterson has walked 10.0% of the batters he faced this season compared to 9.7% last season—his walk rate is actually slightly up this season. But because BB/9 is measured with a denominator of outs rather than plate appearances, his “per-9” rate looks lower in 2013. Which is just to say, FRACTIONS BIOTCH!
It is possible that some of it has to do with improved defense, of course. Though, given our outfield, you’d expect the defensive improvement to come mostly on flyballs, which Masterson typically eschews.