Let’s Talk About Justin Masterson

Perhaps I should have written this piece last week. Because last week, Justin Masterson had a sub-two ERA and people were talking about him and his new approach against lefties. Then again, this week he still has a 2.25 ERA and he’s ostensibly the same person. That’s the whole problem with believing in him, though — he’s still the same person.

In order to believe in change in an established pitcher, I want to see something change. Velocity. Pitching mix. Pitch usage. The quality of a pitch. First-pitch strikes.

I see none of these changes in Masterson, and least not at a level that would make me interested in a mixed league.

The main problem with Masterson is that he’s a sinker/slider guy primarily and is missing a pitch that breaks the other way. Even Sergio Romo has a two-seamer and a changeup he uses sometimes in order to change things up, and anyway the reliever game is different. Masterson doesn’t have the big velocity that Michael Pineda had in Seattle either. He’s basically Bud Norris with more ground balls and fewer strikeouts. The jury is out on Tony Cingrani and his one pitch. The comps aren’t so great with Masterson, even if we are kind to the Jamaican hurler in Cleveland.

Another way of showing the problem. Max Marchi broke down platoon splits on pitches a while back. Here are the results of his work:

pitch platoon
Sinker 1.07
Slurve 1.07
Heater 0.79
Slider 0.54
Rider 0.54
Cutter 0.41
Jumping fastball 0.28
Rising fastball 0.21
Power change 0.08
Tight curve -0.17
Roundhouse curve -0.65
Straight change -0.77

So Masterson throws two of the platoon-iest pitches. And you know Masterson has spent entire games where he hasn’t even thrown a slider, which just happens to be his second-platoon-iest pitch. His arsenal is just not conducive to getting lefties out, and he hasn’t been able to develop the changeup that he used to talk about. That’s how Masterson has accrued an FIP over four and a half against lefties while showing one close to three against righties.

There is the fact that of his 2011 season. He stopped walking lefties that year — his career walk percentage against lefties is 9.7%, but that year he dropped it to 5.3%. That might be something to believe in, if it hasn’t been different in every other year of his career. (Including this one — his walk rate this year is right in line with career norms.) And ‘not walking’ isn’t quite a sustainable approach. If you don’t walk them, and you can’t strike them out (career 14.1% strikeout rate against lefties), you’re just letting a ton of balls into play. (And praying.)

This year, Masterson has a new approach. He said he would use his slider against lefties more, and he has. He’s using his slider a quarter of the time this year, up from 15-17% in years past. The slider has a lesser platoon split than the sinker, but it still breaks towards a lefty bat. Many righties try to nip the inside corner with the slider, or start it off the outside corner and bring it back to the zone. That can work. Romo does it often. Romo has elite control. Masterson’s is okay, but not elite. Leave that pitch a little bit too close to the plate and it’ll drift right into the heart of the lefty slugger’s wheelhouse.

This is what Masterson’s heat map of sliders looks like.

mastersonsliders

There’s one nice cluster of front-door sliders, and then a whole lot of danger.

Masterson got beat up on Sunday, and lefties did much of the damage. Nine of the thirteen baserunners Masterson allowed were lefties. And, considering that Masterson is currently not displaying the only skill against lefties that has worked for him in the past — avoiding the walk — it’s probably better to be cautious with him. In mixed leagues, he’s a great spot-starter against teams without great lefty power, and in deep leagues, he’s a guy you roster and try to bench against the lefty-heavy teams when you can.

We hoped you liked reading Let’s Talk About Justin Masterson by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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“We need to talk about justin” – hits theaters this summer