We’re some three weeks into the 2012 baseball season, and things are looking up for the Cleveland Indians. A disastrous ending to Opening Day was cured by a dominant West Coast road trip, with every part of the team clicking at some point. Youngsters like Jason Kipnis are showing their value to the team, while old salts like our boy Travis Hafner are back to some semblance of their old ways.
But this is a team that will go as far as its pitching staff will take it. That staff is led by the massive Jamaican, Justin Masterson. In 2011 Masterson came into his own, made the leap from bullpen to front-line starter, and proved the Tribe to the the winners in the Victor Martinez deal. He pitched 216 innings with a 3.21 ERA (124 ERA+) and a 1.24 WHIP. He tailed off at the end of the season with his K/9 rate dropping to 6.0 in September from a high of 7.3 in July, and he allowed 34 earned runs over 11 starts in August and September. But all in all, it was a great season, and a portent of things to come. Or so we hoped.
When Masterson kicked off the season with eight dominant innings of 10-strikeout domination, Clevelanders had every right to be ecstatic. He even got four runs of support, unheard of in 2011. With this guy leading the charge, the Tigers would soon be shaking in their boots. Then he lasted just five innings and gave up eight hits while striking out only two in a 10-6 loss to the White Sox. Next was a 3 ⅔ inning outing, 71 pitches, four walks, and eight earned runs versus the soft-hitting Mariners. He couldn’t find the plate in the pitching-friendly environs of Oakland and the Athletics rocked him in five innings with six hits and four runs as he allowed six walks. We saw a bounceback of sorts against the Angels, when he earned the win while allowing two runs on four hits in 8.1 frames, but he still walked five Halos hitters.
In short, things have gotten a little ugly. This is the same guy threw 103 fastballs out of 104 pitches last July, and now he seems to be cautiously nibble at the plate with off-speed pitches. He’s given up four home runs, a number he didn’t eclipse till July last year. So what is wrong with Justin Masterson?
The first culprit we have to look at is his pitch selection. Last year, Justin could have gotten by with two pitches: his four-seam fastball and his bowling ball sinker. He threw the fastball 44 percent of the time last year, and the sinker 40 percent. This year though, that number has shifted, down to only 23 percent fastballs and a jump to 50 percent sinkers. If there’s one thing any Indians fan knows, it’s when a sinkerballer goes bad, it gets ugly quick. A fictitious pitcher named Fausto Carmona comes to mind.
Not only is he leaning more heavily on his sinker, but his slider usage has jumped four points to 18 percent, and his rarely used changeup from 2011 (.1 percent of pitches) is now at 7.5 percent. Perhaps he’s trying to be less a hurler and more a real pitcher (whatever that means), and what we’re seeing here are growing pains. But David Price gets by on two pitches, and A.J. Burnett got pilloried by the New York media with the same thing. If it’s what turns Justin from a solid ace to a top-five pitcher, more power to him. But that fastball, man—you’re 6’5″, 250. Just throw it.
Manny Acta has said that Masterson just needs to throw strikes. That couldn’t be more true. After that opening game where he was nigh unhittable, the walks have piled up yet he’s struck out only 10 in four games. It’s not like he’s getting pinched by umpires, he’s just missing the zone. According to Fangraphs’ PitchF/X, against lefties he just pounded the zone with his fastball, but this year he’s missing up and away. It’s not a good place to miss against big league hitters—no wonder he’s had homer problems. Against righties he likewise kept it away from them, owning the outer half of the zone while this year, it’s just spraying everywhere. He does have a decided advantage against righties (.301 OBP against same-handed hitters versus .364 career to lefties, but .273 to .385 this year) but he still is unable to really put the pitch where he wants it.
Back to that changeup though, he threw something like four of them last year. All season. This year not only is he using it more, but he’s letting it stay up, where it becomes a BP fastball. Changeups are effective down, preferably away, where it looks a fastball to the batter before the bottom drops out. The slider has the same problem: He’s just living too much in the middle of the zone. Last year he consistently threw it away from right-handers, and when he deployed it against left-handers, Masterson kept it low.
Now, when Masterson had that fastball-rich start, his velocities sat between 89 and 97, according to FanGraphs. His average fastball velocity last year was 93.1 mph, his sinker sat at 92 and his slider at 83. This year? His fastball isn’t so fast at 90.4, his sinker more casual at 90.4 and his slider slips in at 81.4. His change piece has slowed from 87 to 86 as well, but the drop in fastball velocity only has it backing up on its counterpart. Maybe he’s not stretched out yet for a long season, or maybe the cold weather is getting him down. He’s tickled 95 in a couple starts after all, so the ability is there. Like Ubaldo Jimenez, though, the drop is troubling and not insignificant.
When Masterson finds himself pitching with men on base this year, it’s like he forgets he can dominate any batter in the game. With the bases empty opponents post a .520 OPS against Justin. It leaps to a Ruthian 1.101 with men on. It seems like he can’t bear down, if you will, recording only five strikeouts with seven walks with men on base in 54 plate appearances as opposed to 15 punchouts and 10 walks with the bases empty through 80 PAs. In the A’s game especially, he just looked shaken on the hill. Again, is it just because it’s early, and we’re overreacting here to a blip on the radar of the long season, or is this Carmona all over again?
With any luck, Radinsky will figure out what Masterson is doing wrong, and the tweak can be made. The 2008 season was ruined in part because CC Sabathia was so horrible early; similarly, this team can’t afford to be derailed by an ineffective ace. If it’s just that he has to be more aggressive, that can’t be that tough and maybe that last start is the beginning of a turnaround.
In looking at the charts at FanGraphs that catalog release points of pitches, this year Masterson is letting it rip higher up than last season, at a height of no lower than five feet consistently, as opposed to hovering below the five-foot mark last season. In the game of inches baseball is, he might as well be throwing underhand with the difference that makes. Masterson’s giganticness and odd delivery (for his size) are where his success comes from. This is Radinsky’s first real shot as a major league pitching coach to fix a major problem, and the entire Indians future relies on it. So, you know, no big deal.