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2013 Indians Player Preview: Justin Masterson

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we head to the rotation the first time with the Indians’ 2013 Opening Day 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 and has been a fixture in the Tribe’s rotation ever since.

Last year: After taking a big step forward in 2011, Masterson took two steps back in 2012, going 10-12 with a 4.93 ERA (79 ERA+). Though he got his strikeout rate back up to just under 7.0 K/9 and he continued to get batters to beat the ball into the ground (56 percent groundball rate), he—for lack of a better word—lost control of his control and his walk rate ballooned to nearly 4.0 BB/9. Still, there’s a chance much of his struggles were just bad luck: FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all pegged Masterson’s true talent level between 4.15 and 4.17.

Using Masterson’s DIPS stats, FanGraphs estimated his worth at 2.3 wins above replacement.Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus pegged him as a replacement-level starting pitcher.

Key factor: Ability to face left-handed hitters. Like virtually every pitcher, Masterson has an easier time facing same-handed hitters, and after making some substantial strides in that regard in 2011 he regressed in a big way in 2012. Southpaw hitters hammered Masterson to the tune of an .826 OPS against; relatedly, he walked more than one out of every 10 lefties he faced. He’s never going to look like an ace against left-handed hitters, but his 2013 season will ride on whether he can learn to get them out at all.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

These are by far the most divergent projections we’ve seen in our series so far. Hooray for unpredictability!

Best-case scenario: It’s 2011 all over again. Masterson gets his confidence back and is able to challenge left-handed hitters the way he did two years ago—with a much-improved defense behind him, he has less to lose by letting them hit it. He holds steady with the strikeouts and groundballs, giving the Indians 200-plus innings with a low-3.00’s ERA and a dependable workhorse who can start Game 1 of the ALDS.

Worst-case scenario: It’s 2012 all over again. Simply put, left-handed hitters continue to prove insolvable for Masterson and there is nothing to stop opposing teams from filling their lineups with lefties and going to town. He’ll still be a valuable asset for his durability and with better fielders behind him his ERA won’t approach 5.00 again, but the days of him passing for an ace are far behind him.

What to expect: At the risk of sounding like Thomas Friedman, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. We’re not likely to see Masterson’s name in the Cy Young conversation at season’s end, but he’s not nearly as bad as he looked in 2012. As a big fan of Masterson I’d take the over on his average projection, but that looks like a pretty good place to start.

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