Based on traditional metrics like wins, losses, and ERA, Justin Masterson has been a below-average starting pitcher during the past two seasons. With a 10-23 record, and an ERA above 4.50, the former prospect looked like a superficial candidate for the label of “bust”. But defensive independent metrics suggested Masterson was a quality starter – who struggled shaking the luck dragons known as left-on base percentage (LOB%) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In 2009 and 2010, the RHP's average on balls in play was roughly 25% more than the league average, which came despite a fantastic ground ball rate. It certainly did not help that most of those ground balls came in front of the second worst defense in the league during the same period. With an increased amount of balls finding holes, his strand rate fell about 6% below the average of his peers. In terms of the things he had control over, Masterson was much better. Both his FIP and xFIP (eXpected FIP) settled around the 4.0 mark. Although his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell under 2.00, he allowed just 26 home runs in 309.1 innings – a byproduct of the insane amount of groundballs allowed.
This season, it appears as if he is experiencing a breakout. Through five turns in the rotation, he is a perfect 5-0 with shiny 2.18 ERA. Despite the improvement in traditional marks, Masterson is roughly the same pitcher he has been for a few years now. Masterson’s 2011 xFIP of .3.77 is slightly lower than his 3.87 xFIP of a season ago; the .10 point improvement, however, has little to do with his ERA being sliced in half. He has also seen an improved FIP despite dropping a full strikeout per nine innings. The improvement is largely because he has allowed just one home run in 33 innings. Even with his power-zapping sinker, he’ll likely allow a few more home runs going forward, which is fine considering his xFIP. Masterson continues to rely heavily on just two pitches: the sinker and the slider. His changeup is still thrown on occasion, but is pretty much a “show me” pitch in regards to usage. Call me “old school” but I prefer a starter with at least three offerings. After inducing nearly 60% groundballs last season, he will finish the month of April with a GB rate of 62.5% While things remain status quo for the most part, Masterson has been the benefactor of luck thus far. Despite a middle infield (Asdrubal Cabrera and Orlando Cabrera) that sits toward the bottom of the early season defensive rankings, Masterson’s BABIP is .255. In conjunction with the lower BABIP is a strand rate of 82.5%. It should also be noted that he has shown some improvement versus left-handed batters, but, of course, in a limited sample size.
Masterson and the Indians have been a nice story to start the season. Few (except Joe) had the Tribe being competitive this season, and even fewer had him being among the top starters in the league. While the success of the team comes as a surprise compared to previous years, Masterson is pretty much the same pitcher as he was before. But now he comes wrapped in good fortune.