Explaining Justin Masterson’s 2012
By Ronnie Tellalian
Justin Masterson has struggled in his role this year with the Cleveland Indians. The young ace was unable to build on his fantastic 2011 season, and, like the rest of the team, faltered throughout the 2012 campaign. His ERA has dropped over a run and a half, and he is second in the Majors in loses, trailing only teammate Ubaldo Jimenez. But what caused the fall from one season to the next, what has changed to cause Masterson to go from an excellent season, to a poor season?
At the surface, there isn’t much to tell us why things have changed. We can see his ERA is different, (3.21 in 2011 to 4.97 in 2012) we can see his record is different, (12-10 to 11-15), but these things don’t really tell us why his season has been so poor. He hasn’t given up many more hits either (211 in 2011, or 201 in 2012) so what is it? Why has Masterson been such a different pitcher in 2012 than he was in 2011?
When we look at the types of pitches he is throwing, and how often he throws each pitch, we begin to see a discrepancy from 2011 to 2012. Masterson throws a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and the occasional change-up. These are the same pitches he threw in 2011, the same pitches he throws now, and the same pitches he has thrown his entire major league career, but, the frequency in which he throws each pitch has changed considerably.
In 2011, he used his change-up only 0.1% of the time, a miniscule amount. In 2012, he has increased that to 2.4%, still not a lot, but a lot more than 0.1%. His slider, in 2011, he threw 14.3% of the time, that has increased to 19.4% this year. Thus far, we see that his off speed pitches are being utilized quite a bit more often then they were in his fantastic 2011 season. Now we get to the major changes. His sinker, which he threw 40.3% of the time in 2011, has increased to 57.3% of the time in 2012, this is a huge difference. He clearly has relied much more heavily on his sinker this year than he has in the past. In the past, he had much more balance between his fastball and his sinker, throwing his fastball 44.8% of the time in 2011, but he has very much diminished the use of his four-seamer, by throwing it just 20.4% of the time in 2012.
This discrepancy in the use of his fastball from 2011 to 2012 may account for the increase in walks. He walked only 65 batters in 216 innings in 2011, but in just 195 innings in 2012, he has accumulated 83 walks. That’s more than a batter per nine innings from 2.71 BB/9 to 3.82 BB/9.
He changed the way he used his pitches also. In 2011, when he was ahead of batters in the count, he threw his fastball 48% of the time, and his sinker 43.5% of the time, but in 2012, he used his fastball only 41% of the time, while using his sinker 49.5%, an almost complete inverse of the previous year.
Masterson has obviously evolved his game into becoming a pure sinkerball pitcher. The good thing about sinkerballers, they give up very few home runs relative to the league. The bad thing, they rely heavily on their defense to make plays on the large number of ground balls they produce.
Masterson’s sinker is a ground ball 68% of the time it is put into play, his fastball and slider are ground balls only 45% of the time. This means that an increase in the use of his sinker translates into an increase in the number of ground balls batters will hit off of Masterson.
In the early 2000’s a baseball researcher named Voros McCracken did an extensive study on pitchers statistics, and how they related over the coarse of his seasons. He found that the amount of balls that fall in for hits does not remain consistent from one season to the next. He concluded that a pitcher has little control over a ball in play, once that ball is put into play. He began searching for a way to measure exactly what the pitcher could control, and only what the pitcher could control. Things like home runs allowed, strikeouts, and walks, McCracken concluded, were more under the pitchers control than whether or not a blooper fell in for a hit or was caught for an out. So he developed a statistic to measure those things that are under the pitchers control, and put it on the scale of ERA. This new stat is called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Just like ERA, and FIP of 2.90 is excellent, while an FIP of 4.50 is very poor.
When we look at Masterson under this scale, we see that maybe bad luck has played a role in his poor 2012 season also. In 2011, he posted an ERA of 3.21, and an FIP of 3.28, very similar. In 2012, while his ERA is very poor, at 4.97, his FIP is a more average 4.22.
The way he has used his pitches may have lead to his increased walks, but the young, ever changing infield may have also played a large part in all those ground balls turning into hits and base runners, and, therefore, runs. Masterson is a good pitcher, no doubt, but whether or not he will be able to rebound in 2013, and be the ace the Indians need him to be remains to be seen. As a fan, I am optimistic, and I will root for Justin Masterson as long as he wears Tribe colors.
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