Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breakout Performances: Justin Masterson

Justin Masterson is making his 5th start of the season tonight against the Kansas City Royals. Through his first four starts of the 2011 season, Masterson is 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA.

Since acquiring Masterson at the 2009 trading deadline from the Red Sox as part of the Victor Martinez trade, the Indians have held steadfast to their plan to develop Masterson as a starting pitcher, despite his previous success in the bullpen. Masterson, they theorized, did not have the sort of electric stuff that would generate loads of strikeouts make him a shut down reliever, but rather that his balanced repertoire, apparent durability and ability to induce ground balls would make him far more valuable, long term, as a starting pitcher.

Through 2010, this plan was good only in theory, as Masterson had a particular difficulty with left handed hitters. His long three quarters delivery and sinking fastball action made him very tough on righties, but lefthanders didn't have to deal with the fact that the ball appeared to be coming straight at them out of his hand. Note the splits, from 2008 through 2010.

Against lefthanders:

LHB Total922221081370.2910.3810.4338.5376.73041.909

And against righthanders:

RHB Total81314651900.2280.3040.32212.5084.27958.071

The splits are striking. Masterson was walking only one of every 12.5 righties, and one out of every 8.5 lefties. He was striking out one of every 4.3 righties, and only striking out one of every 6.7 lefties. He was allowing a home run to a righthander once only every 58 plate appearances, but allowing one to a lefty one every 41.9. In essence, against righties he looked like a Cy Young-level Felix Hernandez, while against righties he was a late-model Nate Robertson. This led to opposing managers stacking lefthanded hitters in the lineup. In 2010, over 55% of the batters Masterson faced were from the left side.

Noting these troubles against lefties, many commentators begin to call for Masterson to be put back into the bullpen. There, it was argued, it would be easier for his own team to manage the players he pitched against, guaranteeing he'd face a majority of righthanded batters. The Red Sox were rumored to have contacted the Indians several times last summer about reacquiring Masterson to help solve their ongoing bullpen problems. The Indians held firm though, believing that the only way Masterson would improve against lefties would be to get experience pitching against them. Since the Indians weren't playing for much other than pride and experience, Manny Acta left Masterson in the rotation to take his lumps. At the end of 2010, he was 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA.

In 2011 though, Masterson has been one of the best pitchers in the American League - fourth in the AL in ERA (and the only pitcher not in the AL West in the top 6), tied for second in wins, and, most importantly, one of only three qualified AL pitchers who have not yet allowed a home run. So, can he keep it up? Has Masterson figured out lefthanders, and is on his way to a run as the ace of the suddenly competitive Cleveland Indians? Or will the Royals and the rest of the AL spend the next month sending Masterson back to earth?

RHB Total480450.1400.2290.14012.0009.600(INF)
LHB Total6005100.2830.3560.37712.0006.000(INF)

As you can see, righties are as punchless as ever against him. Those of you who have seen him this year have seen just about everyone who comes up against him from the right side hit a meek groundout. His batting average against on balls in play is extremely low, but as a ground ball pitcher in front of what appears to be a good defense, a low BABIP wouldn't be a shock.

However, there do look to be some real improvements against lefthanded batters as well. His walk rate against lefties, which had been improving consistently throughout his career, has been up to once every 12 batters, right around his career mark against righthanders. More striking, though, is the drop in SLG - 53 points lower than his career numbers, and 37 points lower than the career best he established last year. Still, it's a little early to call this a sustained improvement - a couple hanging breaking balls to Alex Gordon, and we're right there again.

So far, Masterson's pitching line profiles with about a 3.67 ERA in front of a normal defense. Giving that Cleveland's defense appears above average, and that Masterson allows more ground balls than most, I'm comfortable putting his equivalent ERA so far in 2011 around a 3.50. We need to see continued stinginess with the long ball to designate this a true breakout performance, but so far in 2011, Masterson is rewarding the Indians patience.

Photo Credit: By Keith Allison on Flickr (Originally posted to Flickr as "Justin Masterson") [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/Justin_Masterson_on_August_30%2C_2009.jpg
Tables made with TABLEIZER! at http://tableizer.journalistopia.com/

Statistics from Baseball-Reference

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings

Some random thoughts around the baseball universe.

Top prospect Bryce Harper is heating up. Playing for the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, Harper last night went 3 for 3 with a double, homer, 6 RBI and two walks. That brings him to a .306/.414/.551 line for the season, against competition generally three to four years older than he. He's spent the past three days abusing the poor Hickory Crawdads, going 6 for 10 with two walks, two doubles, two homers, 7 runs scored and 7 RBI.

Jed Lowrie, through 630 career plate appearances, has a .267/.346/.447 slash line, with 44 2B, 16 homers and 93 RBI. In a league with a very weak pool of shortstops, the Red Sox will be thrilled to get that sort of production. In 2010, only three shortstops had an OPS over Lowrie's career .793 - Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Stephen Drew. Marco Scutaro has been mentioned in trade rumors, but I expect him to remain on the roster all season, getting spots starts and acting as a serviceable injury replacement if any of the infielders go down.

Remember the rookie of the year race in 2007 between Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki? Braun's slugging beat out Tulowitzki's balanced game in the eyes of the voters in an extremely close 128-126 vote. So far this year, they've been the two best players in the National League (with apologies to Matt Kemp). Braun has a .382/.494/.691 line, while Tulowitzki is not only hitting .329/.435/.729, but is also supplying what may be the majors' best defense.

It's nice to see that Alex Gordon may finally be having that breakout season that everyone hoped he would, but keep in mind that his BABIP right now is .439. Bring that down to a still-above-average .333, and his overall line drops from .361/.404/.542 down to .277/.326/.458 - much closer to his career .244/.328/.405 entering the season. In other words, if you have him on your fantasy team, ride the hot streak--but don't trade Carlos Quentin.

Jose Bautista has been doing everything in his power to prove that 2010 wasn't a fluke, leading the AL in OBP and ranking 3rd in SLG early on.

With the help of Petco Park, Aaron Harang has looked good early on. Harang was one of the most underrated players in the league from 2005-2007, actually leading the NL in both strikeouts and wins (though with only 16 in a kind of fluky year) in '06. Then, with some of the zip seemingly lost from his fastball, Harang went through three years marked by mediocrity and injury. There's no way of knowing how his arm will hold up, but the pitching quality seems to have returned - through 4 starts, he's thrown 24 innings with a 1.88 ERA, 21 strikeouts and only 5 walks. Again, it's very early, but it's a story to watch.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Happy Patriots' Day!

The only morning start time on the 2011 MLB schedule is, of course, the annual Patriots' Day game at Fenway Park. JD Drew is hitting leadoff for the Sox. I may be the only one, but I like this move. Even while struggling, Drew's patient approach allows him to see a lot of pitches, and hitting first he may feel less pressure to be aggressive with men on base. Drew's OBPs have remained high throughout his Red Sox career even when his power has slumped, so this may be the best way to get both Drew and Crawford going.

*UPDATE - And a triple to lead off is certainly a good way to make it look like a genius move.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Welcome back, Grady!

The Dunne Deal fan favorite Grady Sizemore returned to the Indians lineup today, and hit his first home run since August 27, 2009. Sizemore also doubled, leading the surprising Indians to a sweep of the Orioles, and giving Fausto Carmona his first win of 2011.

From 2005 through 2008, Sizemore hit .281/.372/.496, averaging 41 2B, 7 3B, 27 HR and 29 SB a year, while playing very good center field defense. In 2006, as a 23 year old, he led the American League in wins above replacement (as calculated by baseball-reference). Grady is still only 28, so if he is healthy, the Indians could very well be for real.

Friday, April 01, 2011

2011 Opening Day Liveblog

4:00: Happy Opening Day! The day begins with the sad news of the passing of former Sox GM Lou Gorman. It deserves a longer post at another date, but Gorman never got enough credit for the late 1980's success of the Red Sox because of some poor moves he made later in his career. R.I.P. Lou.

4:06: Sox lineup: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford, Youkilis, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Cameron, Saltalamacchia, Scutaro.

Thoughts - normally, even against a lefty, the regular lineup will get the chance to start on opening day, but CJ Wilson is especially tough on lefties. Hence, Cameron starting in RF over JD Drew. Other than that, the lineup is a clear message from Francona that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the starter. Saltalamacchia is generally considered a better hitter lefthanded, while Varitek is better righthanded.

4:12 Bad omen for the Rangers season, don't you think?

4:17 So much for Kevin Youkilis having a poor spring training, huh? It was almost like the sportswriters in Boston needed SOME negative to write about. If Youkilis is healthy, he will be excellent.

4:20 Jon Lester is making his first opening day start. He has to now be considered the best homegrown starting pitcher since Roger Clemens.

4:22: I like batting Ian Kinsler leadoff. Other than 2009, he's had excellent on base percentages. It's good to see around the league that managers don't feel the need to throw the fastest player in the leadoff position anymore. Not that Kinsler is a slowpoke, of course.

4:24: Adrian Gonzalez sure is smooth at first base, isn't he? Coming way off the base on the bad Youkilis throw in order to keep the double play in order turned out to be an important play, and he made that scoop of the Pedroia throw look completely routine.

4:34: Easy 1-2-3 inning for CJ Wilson on the heels of a rough first. I mentioned yesterday that Wilson's control will be a key to the Rangers season.

4:38: A lot has been made of Michael Young's subpar defense - too much, I think. There are plenty of poor fielding shortstops getting run out there on a daily basis, and most of them can't hit like Young. If he can still play even a mediocre shortstop, he'd be a net benefit to a lot of teams. The Milwaukee Brewers, perhaps? For a team that fancies themselves as a playoff contender, he's a better player than Yuniesky Betancourt. Plus, defense has never been a focus for the Brewers.

4:53: The successful conversion of CJ Wilson to the rotation last year may yield several copycats. The Tigers are doing the same thing with Phil Coke. It makes sense - several good minor league starters come to the majors in the bullpen in order to fill a role, and then end up stuck there for several years. It happened with the Red Sox with Jonathan Papelbon. The Rangers would do well to follow their own lead on this one. Neftali Feliz could end up their ace starter for several years. The Rangers shouldn't let their 2010 success distract them from their long term goals.

5:00: This Adrian Gonzalez thing seems to be working out nicely. Two at bats, three RBI.

5:18: A rip by Adrian Beltre. That one year contract couldn't have worked out much better for him - he got to have a big season in a park that was perfect for him. Texas should be a nice fit for him as well. Expect Beltre to get career hit #2000 and career home run #300 around late August.

5:27: Three run homer for Mike Napoli on a curveball down and in. Will this be the year that Napoli finally gets enough at bats to put up a 30 home run season? He's homered once every 16.8 at bats for his career. That means, given 550 at bats, he'd average 32.7 home runs per year. Apparently the Angels didn't need that sort of offense though.

5:47: Matt Albers warming up in the bullpen. I still don't see how a guy with a career 5.11 ERA and a 1.38 K/BB should be on the team over Alfredo Aceves or even Scott Atchison, but if my complaint with the roster is the #25 player I suppose things are ok.

6:03: I always like when the TV broadcast stays with the game while the starting pitcher walks off the field. It's nice to see the crowd reward a good performance.

6:18: Tough outing for Jon Lester. It was the first outing since April 9, 2008 that Lester failed to strike out a batter. Very unexpected, considering his 225 in each of the past two seasons.

6:23: In addition to the lack of strikeouts, it was the first time in Lester's career that he allowed three home runs in one game. So, despite only allowing the five runs, a very strong case could be made that this was the worst start of Lester's career.

6:35: 41-year old Arthur Rhodes in the game. How many pitchers miss their age 37 season with an injury and are able to make a comeback? In the three years since his Tommy John surgery, he's appeared in 196 games, with a 2.32 ERA. Modern medicine is an amazing thing.

7:00: From Arthur Rhodes to Darren Oliver. Oliver is 40, and spend a couple months with the Red Sox as a starting pitcher in 2002. After falling out of the league in 2005, Oliver has reinvented himself as a quality short reliever.

7:18 Red Sox strike out their first batter of the game on batter #37. Makes it awfully tough on your defense when your pitchers can't punch a couple out on their own.

7:23: Brutal performance by Bard. A guy who gets by throwing very hard has little room for error. Bard's fastball is straight, so he needs to throw it in the high 90's at least to be successful. Even at 97, major league hitters will consistently crush a straight fastball, which is what just happened. No reason to panic yet, but it's worth watching to see if Bard maintains that high velocity that made him successful last year.

7:26: Team record 17th season with an appearance for Tim Wakefield. Before the season is done, Wakefield will have the chance to make a few starts and make an impact. Wakefield needs seven more wins to reach 200 for his career.

7:39: Big game by Mike Napoli leads the Rangers to the win. Used correctly, Napoli could be a key factor in their attempt to defend the American League pennant.