There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Justin Masterson. The Indians are rumored to be listening to offers on both he and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, and either of those moves could have a dramatic effect on Masterson’s fantasy value.
Fantasy owners would likely have their own uncertainty of Masterson whether or not he was in trade rumors. Zach Sanders listed him as the 28th-best starting pitcher last season worth $11 in standard formats, but Masterson showed a big spike in his strikeout rate over previous seasons and has a reputation as having extreme platoon splits.
However it happened, Masterson’s 2013 results were tremendous. He struck out more than a batter per inning and led the league with a 58 percent groundball rate. In fact, Masterson is one of just eight qualified starters with a 9.0 strikeouts per nine and 50 percent groundball rate or better since the turn of the century.
Strangely, four of the eight pitchers reached those plateaus in 2013. More importantly, every pitcher enjoyed success. Masterson may not have the same reputation as Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, or even A.J. Burnett, but his 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP are more or less in the middle of the range of his comparable pitchers.
Masterson’s improved performance may seem dramatic, but it follows a dramatic change in his pitch usage. From 2010-2012, Masterson used his slider between 14.9 percent and 19.3 percent of the time each season. Last year, he increased its usage to 26.6 percent, and he saw his strikeout rate improve versus both right-handed and left-handed batters.
His overall walk rate of 3.5 batters per nine is still high compared to elite pitchers, but as the preeminent groundball specialist, he should be able to erase many of his baserunners with double plays, even if he failed to do so at an elite rate in 2013. In 2012, he induced 26 GIDPs, fifth-most in baseball. Last season, he induced only 17 GIDPs.
One potential reason Masterson saw a decline in GIDPs is his infield defense. Collectively, they cost the team 31 runs per DRS, the sixth-worst total in baseball.
Two players, in particular, dragged the team down. Mark Reynolds produced minus-15 DRS split between third and first base in less than half a season in Cleveland. He is no longer with the team. The other is Cabrera, who was minus-16 at shortstop, and who could be gone next season, as well.
Masterson took a big step forward in 2013, and he should continue to improve as players such as Nick Swisher, Yan Gomes, and Francisco Lindor—who JD Sussman and others expect to be an elite defender in the majors—take innings from the team’s previous substandard defensive options. I expect Masterson to end 2014 where he started it, inside the top-30 of starting pitchers.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt