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.
And against righthanders:
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?
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