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Time for Indians to move Justin Masterson to the bullpen

Aug 11, 2010, 12:17 PM EST

Justin Masterson allowed seven runs in five innings last night for his league-leading 11th loss and is now 5-18 with a 5.19 ERA since going from Boston to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez trade last July.
Normally that type of performance would suggest someone simply isn’t a good pitcher, but in Masterson’s case it likely just means he’s not a good starting pitcher.
As a right-hander with a low arm angle and shaky control Masterson struggles against left-handed hitters and in a starting role opposing managers can stack the lineup with lefty bats against him. However, he’s always been dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .226 batting average and .623 OPS compared to a .301 batting average and .852 OPS versus lefties.
Not surprisingly Masterson has a 3.28 ERA and 72/25 K/BB ratio in 74 career innings as a reliever. I’m all for giving young pitchers a chance to sink or swim as starters before moving them to the bullpen and Masterson is likely still capable of being a decent fourth or fifth starter, but his raw stuff and arm angle are seemingly built for late-inning relief work.
His struggles as a starter have probably soured many Indians fans on Masterson, but as an extreme ground-ball pitcher who’s death on righties he’s a role change away from potentially being a major asset.

  1. Kung - Aug 11, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    The LH/RH splits are true, but Masterson is also being victimized by the Indians’ poor defense. From WaddellCanseco @ Athletics Nation:
    “Here are three pretty good groundball pitchers with stats by Fangraphs:
    Hudson — 2.24 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.58 tERA
    4.77 K/9, 3.04 BB/9, 11.9% LD, 65.3% GB, 20.9% OF FB, 1.9% IF FB
    Cahill — 2.56 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 3.79 tERA
    5.12 K/9, 2.76 BB/9, 13.8% Line Drives, 56.4% Ground Balls, 28.2% OF Flies, 1.5% IF FB
    Masterson — 5.40 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 4.02 tERA
    7.01 K/9, 4.00 BB/9, 14.7% LD, 63.5% GB, 20.9% OF FB, 1.0% IF FB
    FIP only takes into account K/9 and BB/9 (as well as HR/9), whereas tERA takes all the others into account instead of HR/9, because HR/9 are very much affected by park and random fluctuation.
    The ERA’s have Hudson the best and Masterson miles behind the other two, but we can see that the peripheral numbers for all three are similar, with Masterson having more strikeouts and more walks, but similar batted ball types. We can also see that the low LD% and OF FB% make the tERA for all three better than their FIP.
    Let’s look at park and defense as possible sources of the difference:
    Fielding Runs Above Average by UZR on Fangraphs:
    Athletics: Team +17.8 runs, Infielders +22.9 runs
    Braves: Team -10.3 runs, Infielders -2.7 runs
    Indians: Team -37.3 runs, Infielders -25.7 runs
    Park Factors by statcorner (with 100 being average, and numbers below being tougher for hitters):
    Oakland: wOBA 95 for LH batters/92 for RH batters
    Atlanta: wOBA 97/99
    Cleveland: wOBA 98/99
    We can see here that Cahill is helped the most by his defense, and particularly the infield defense which his GB tendencies exploit. Hudson’s defense is below average overall, but the IF defense has been nearly average — at least while Escobar was there. Masterson’s defense has been terrible overall, and especially the infield — mainly SS.
    We can also see that Hudson and Masterson throw in slight pitchers’ parks but Cahill pitches in a very favorable park.
    Therefore we should not be surprised that the true ability of these guys is a lot closer than ERA would indicate. Hudson has been the best, Cahill also very good and Masterson also pretty good, but the Braves adequate IF defense and A’s excellent overall defense make Hudson and Cahill look miles ahead of Masterson, which they really aren’t.”

  2. The Common Man - Aug 11, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    I’m with you, Aaron. But only after he loses 20 games. I always have loved that.

  3. JBerardi - Aug 11, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    1. By ERA and win-loss record, he’s been terrible. He’s also got a very high .347 BABIP, he plays for a terrible team, and every predictive stat you could name says he’s been at LEAST an average AL starter. He’s 22nd in the league in xFIP. He hasn’t been nearly as bad as his ERA and W/L record indicate.

    2. His upside as a starter is considerable. He leads the AL in ground ball percentage (63.4%) by a wide margin, and he’s got a healthy 6.95 K/9 rate. That’s a rare blend of grounders and whiffs, and not the calling cards of a “decent fourth or fifth starter”. Those are second/third starter numbers. They’re also things you can’t really expect a pitcher to learn or develop at the major league level. K rates virtually never increase once a pitcher has established a level there, and basically no one gets as many grounders as Masterson does, whatever the circumstance. On the other hand, pitchers often do improve their walk numbers with age, and learn or refine secondary pitches (Masterson needs a legit change up to pitch to lefties). He can make those improvements, and if he does he’ll be a very good starter…

    3. …Which brings me to my third point. If he’s going to improve, he’s got a much better chance to do that as a starter than as a reliever. He’s not going to improve his changeup in the bullpen, he’s going to abandon it. Moreoever, it’s a lot easier for a player to transition from a starting roll to a relief roll than it is the other way around. So why move him now? Why not give him every chance to succeed as a starter while the Indians are terrible? If he hasn’t improved in a couple years and the Indians think they have a shot in the Central, sure, transfer him to the bullpen. But until that time, I don’t think you can justify taking him out of the rotation.

  4. Detroit Michael - Aug 11, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    It seems to me that the Indians should let Masterson remain a starter until they have five better candidates.
    Using baseball-reference.com, as a starter in his career, Masterson faced 1,245 batters with a 4.87 ERA. As a reliever in his career, Masterson has faced 303 batters with a 3.28 ERA. Reasons for the difference are apparent throughout his stat line. As a starter, he has worse K/IP, worse BB/IP, worse HR/IP, and worse BABIP. At some point, keeping him as a starter no longer makes sense, but until they have better candidates, I don’t know why they’d want to abandon the effort now.

  5. BC - Aug 11, 2010 at 2:54 PM

    Why not try him as the closer now that Wood is gone?

  6. Trevor B - Aug 11, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    A few years ago I thought Masterson had Ace written all over him. I even drafted him in a prospect draft for a fantasy baseball keeper/dynasty league I am in (where he still sits in my farm system). My opinion is the Red Sox hampered his developement by keeping him in the bullpen and only having him spot start for nearly 2 seasons. It is hard on a young pitcher with an amazing fastball to develope his secondary stuff when he is used as a reliever and asked to primarily throw that fastball. I’m not sure if Masterson has any options left for the minors but if so Cleveland might be wise to use one for the rest of this season and let Masterson develope more and gain more confidence against some weaker opponents. They’re season is shot so they can put almost any chump in that rotation now and they don’t have to worry about missing the playoffs. Regardless if handled properly Masterson could even ALMOST replace C.C. for the Tribe.

  7. pwt3d - Aug 11, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    Chris Perez is the Indians closer for the forseable future, i.e. until he can become a free agent. He needs to be an 8th inning setup guy, he simply does not have the control to pitch inside to lefties on a regular basis. Once the Orioles got to see him once, they knew they could lay off anything inside. The Red Sox tried to reaquire him before the deadline for a reason…and it wasn’t to start.

  8. bigtrav425 - Aug 11, 2010 at 6:39 PM

    the issue with that is we dont have anyone better then him!…i think he has decent stuff.he just needs a good pitching coach and catcher and we have neither right now

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