Nick Hagadone was probably the centerpiece of the deal which shipped Victor Martinez out of Cleveland, as he entered the 2010 season ranked in the top 50 by Baseball America. However, another piece in that deal has shown a compelling combination of potential and production at the Major League level, and that is right handed starting pitcher Justin Masterson. Masterson showed both in his 28th start of the season for the Indians last night, holding the Angels to only one run – a Torii Hunter solo home run – while striking out five and walking two over seven innings of work.
As usual, the ground ball was the most prevalent ball in play type for Masterson on Tuesday night, as he allowed eight grounders, seven flies, and three line drives in a start which saw far more balls in the air than the typical Justin Masterson start. Entering this start, Masterson was showcasing an otherworldly 60% ground ball rate. With only 40% of balls in the air and only 24% of them as fly balls, it’s no surprise that Masterson has limited opponents to 0.74 HR/9 this season.
That number is crucial for Masterson, as he has an issue with walks – over four per nine innings – and doesn’t have crazy strikeout numbers to back it up – his 6.85 K/9 is hardly remarkable. However, thanks to that ground ball rate and the resulting limited amount of home runs allowed, Masterson carried a 4.15 FIP into last night’s game along with a 4.17 xFIP. The only problem was a 5.04 ERA.
It’s not as though his batted profile suggests that he’s a player that DIPS would miss on. He doesn’t allow many line drives (15.4%) and his 4.00 tERA comes out ahead of his FIP and xFIP. The problem has been allowing hits on balls in play (.336) and, more importantly, an inability to strand runners (66.2% LOB). It’s not like these issues have plagued him since he broke into the league in 2008 – his career LOB% is 70.4%, thanks to a good 2008 and a poor 2009 in that department, and his BABIP in 2008 was a paltry .243.
As a player who thrives on the ground ball, defense could be a key to Masterson’s struggles. Indeed, the Indians’ DER sits at .684 according to Baseball Prospectus, 22nd in the Major Leagues. The infield defense has left some to be desired, although I would hesitate to call it terrible. Asdrubal Cabrera has been between average and poor at SS depending on who you ask; Jhonny Peralta is certainly below average at 3B as is Matt LaPorta at 1B and Jason Donald, the backup SS. Luis Valbuena has been solid at second base. It’s certainly not a good infield, but blaming all of Masterson’s issues on it would be too much.
What’s more likely is that Masterson simply has been the victim of poor luck, and although there may be something about his spray chart that would result in him running a high BABIP, it’s certainly hard to make that claim right now, both given the lack of a reliable sample size and the fact that his .311 career BABIP is hardly an outlier. As his career continues, we should expect his ERA to fall towards average, as that’s what his unique peripherals suggest. If that is indeed the case, the Indians will have added a very valuable starting pitcher to their team, with more to come from the minor leagues in return for the Victor Martinez trade.
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