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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | July 24, 2014

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Tribe’s Success Must Start With Masterson

During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players on the 40-man roster that is in need of a major bounce back season from 2012.

By Bob Toth

While the Cleveland Indians actively addressed significant concerns on offense and on their bench during the offseason, no major additions were made to the starting rotation, a glaring weakness last season.

Veteran unknowns like Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka have opportunities to latch on to a spot in the back end of the rotation, if they prove able to resurrect their once-promising careers. Several other younger players are also vying for the chance to join veterans Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Brett Myers as members of the starting staff.

Regardless of who makes the team, they will all look to improve upon a starting rotation that was credited with 76 losses in 2012, included two starters with at least 15 losses, and collectively shared a 5.25 ERA amongst the ten different pitchers to make a start.

For the 26-year-old Masterson, named by manager Terry Francona on Tuesday afternoon as the Indians’ Opening Day starter for the second straight season, he knows that he and his rotation teammates need to perform better on the field than they did just one year ago. The outcome of the upcoming season will ride on the success or failure of Masterson and the others starting with him on the mound.

“We will go as far as our starting staff goes,” Masterson said during an interview on SportsTime Ohio’s Spring Training Daily on February 19th. “And along with that, we need to make sure that we go out there and set the tone, which we can. There is no more pressure; it’s the same pressure we had last year. And I’m putting more pressure on myself than anyone on the outside can put on me because that’s what I need to do. I need to lead the team, set the tone, and really help this team have a chance for victory every time we go out there.”

After making giant strides throughout the 2011 season, Masterson was the Opening Day starter for Cleveland to begin the 2012 campaign. His first start of the year turned out to be one of his best of the season, as he gave the Indians eight innings of work while allowing just one earned run on two hits. He walked one while striking out what would be a season-high ten batters. He did not factor in the decision, a 7-4 16-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

He got hit around quite a bit throughout the rest of the month of April, losing two games and earning no decisions in another pair. Three of his five April starts failed to exceed five innings, and he struggled with his command at times, walking 15 batters in the last three games of the month. He struck out as many batters in his final four starts of the month (ten) as he did in the Opener.

As May rolled in, Masterson appeared to be back on track. Coming off of an April 27th 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels, where he allowed two earned runs in eight-and-one-third innings, he gave the Indians four quality starts in six appearances. He reached the sixth inning in all six games. He averaged five strikeouts and just under seven hits per start and limited the opposition to less than three walks per game. Six earned runs to Boston on May 13th and seven earned against Kansas City on May 29th, however, forced his monthly ERA to 4.93 and had his season ERA at 5.14.

The month of June was the best of the year for Masterson, despite posting a 2-3 record in five starts. He provided the team with four quality starts, averaged seven innings per start, allowed just one walk or hit per inning, and gave up just eight earned runs on the month, four of which came in a 6-4 loss to New York to end his month. He had three straight starts of seven innings or more with six or more strikeouts, all while allowing no more than one earned run.

Immediately following what looked to be a promising turn of events for Masterson, the inconsistencies returned. Twice in the month of July he gave up eight earned runs. Three other times he allowed one run or less.

Over his final dozen starts to the season, Masterson’s roller coaster ride of ineffectiveness continued. He sandwiched high quality outings (six different starts with two earned runs or less allowed) around several other poor ones (four games with six earned runs or more allowed). He finished second in the American League in wild pitches with 14. He gave up the fifth-most walks (88) and hits (212) in the AL and was third in losses (15) and earned runs (113).

He finished the season with an 11-15 record and a career-worst 4.97 ERA.

It really was a feast or famine kind of season for Masterson. When he was locked in, he was almost unhittable. When he was off, he gave up runs in bunches.

Of his major league-leading 34 starts, Masterson had 20 in which he allowed three runs or less. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, he had nine more starts during which he allowed six earned runs or more.

“You’ve got some guys, even Ubaldo and myself, who didn’t do as well as we’d have hoped last year,” Masterson said. “I had seven or eight just really bad games that kind of skewed a lot of stuff.”

While his season failed to reach the expectations placed on him as the staff’s number one starter, he was not entirely to blame. His offense provided him with 3.77 runs of support during his starts. In 20 of his appearances, his offense gave him three runs or less to work with. Only Corey Kluber (3.26) had less run support amongst starters with a dozen or more appearances for the Tribe last season.

The 2011 season had given the Indians some hopes that Masterson could become the ace of the pitching staff for years to come. When the season ended, he either led or was tied amongst Indians’ starting pitchers in several pitching categories, including wins (12), ERA (3.21), starts (33), complete games (1), and innings pitched (216).

One unknown factor for Masterson will be the effect that Francona, his former manager in Boston, has on him during their reunion in Cleveland.

“With Justin Masterson I’m buying into the person,” Francona said during a social media event at TribeFest. “I was with him in Boston; he was a part of that trade for Victor Martinez. I’ve known Masty since he was right out of college and I love him to death. He probably battled more shoulder problems last year and it probably got in the way and bothered him all year. I think he’s ready to go, I think he’s excited, and I think he can be that force that we desperately need to put us on his shoulders.”

When healthy, those same shoulders have given the Indians a solid rotation arm, capable of dominating the opposition. He is a solid innings eater, averaging 201 innings over his last three full seasons as a starter. He has remained, despite some minor injuries, able to start an average of 32 games in each of those seasons.

He should benefit from what looks to be a more potent offense on the field this season. While he refused to assign blame to the lack of run support behind him at times last season, he does recognize the perks of having a more productive and consistent offense aiding his cause.

“Those days you maybe don’t feel the greatest,” Masterson said, “you have the little extra confidence I think this year to be like, ‘alright, you know what, just go out there, keep it to three, keep it under three, and we should have a chance to win’, rather than ‘I don’t feel good, I still got to keep it to none, I gotta make sure no one gets on there’.”

Masterson is a groundball, sinkerball pitcher who has to rely on the infield defense behind him at all times. He is not prone to the long ball, averaging 0.6 home runs allowed per nine innings over the last three seasons. His 0.785 rate last year was sixth-best in the AL.

The hopes for a successful season in Cleveland will rest on the ability of several members of the starting rotation to return to their previous forms, starting with Masterson. Healthy again, he may be able to regain some of the control he struggled with throughout much of last season. He cannot expect to be again amongst the league leaders in wild pitches and walks and still have a positive effect on the outcome of games. He knows he must rebound from a disappointing season and take charge at the front of the rotation, beginning with Opening Day.

“I look to be the leader of this staff and to set an example and to go out there and set the tone,” Masterson said in a February 16th video on MLB.com regarding Indians players and their 2013 goals. “You do that by going out and performing, which didn’t always happen last year. And so my goal is to be the leader of this pitching staff and to set the example, and when something needs to happen, guys will look to me to go out there and get the job done.”

Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com