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2012 Player Preview: Justin Masterson

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s No. 1 starter: Justin Masterson.

Background: The Boston Red Sox took Masterson, who turns 27 next week, out of San Diego State University in the second round of the 2006 MLB amateur draft. In 2008 he landed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list and made his big-league debut with Boston, appearing primarily as a reliever. He came to Cleveland along with Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone via the 2009 Victor Martinez trade.

Last year: Masterson enjoyed a long-awaited breakout season and emerged as the true ace of the Tribe staff. His 12-10 record might not look too impressive, but he threw 216 innings with a 3.21 ERA (124 ERA+). Other than better BABIP luck, the key to his success was his ability to handle left-handed hitters—the 101 OPS+ southpaw hitters managed against him speaks to how he shored up that weakness. FanGraphs put him at an incredible 4.9 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference estimated his value at 4.1 WAR; even Baseball Prospectus‘ conservative 3.3 WARP rating shows that he had a very good season.

Key factor: Strikeout rate. Masterson had a 8.4 K/9 rate when he came to Cleveland in July 2009, and despite the move to the rotation he held steady at at 8.2 K/9 after joining the Indians. But in 2010 that slipped to 7.0, and it fell even further to 6.6 K/9 in 2011. Part of that is from moving back to the rotation and it hasn’t stopped him from being successful, but it’s a potentially worrisome trend considering the Tribe’s seeming organizational preference for contact pitchers. It will be hard for him to maintain his ace status if he continues to miss fewer and fewer bats.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Everyone agrees that Masterson is in for a hearty dose of regression. The range of projected ERAs looks pretty wide—there’s a big difference between a 3.71 ERA and a 4.10 ERA—but if you take out the optimistic ZIPS and the pessimistic Steamer the consensus is pretty clear: he’ll give the Indians almost 200 innings of about league-average run prevention. Seems a little low to me.

The biggest thing I’m struggling with, though, is the gap between his projected ERA and FIP. His mean projected ERA is 41 points over his FIP, and every system has him underperforming his peripherals by at least 30 points. Apparently the idea that Masterson will always underperform his context-neutral stats is still pervasive even though he outperformed his peripherals in 2011. I guess that didn’t count.

Best-case scenario: Masterson keeps doin’ what he’s doin’. Essentially it’s 2011 all over again, maybe with something of a rebound in his strikeout rate and some greater run support. He gets an All-Star nod and maybe a couple bottom-ballot Cy Young votes en route to a solid outing in at least one Game One of a playoff series.

Worst-case scenario: The high hit rates and low strand rates of the past weren’t just bad luck. His strikeout rate continues to decline and the gains he made against opposite-handed hitters prove to be short lived. Think 2010 (6-13, 4.70 ERA), not 2011.

Most likely scenario: The mean projected peripheral numbers look pretty good to me, but I don’t see the reasoning behind assuming he’ll underperform his DIPS stats as drastically as these predictions all do. I’d expect his ERA will be closer to his 3.46 projected FIP than 3.87, which when combined with some (hopefully) increased run support should boost him to at least 13 or 14 wins.

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