A Closer Look: Justin Masterson

21 05 2010

Time for another breakdown, the most enjoyable yet (which also means the longest). If you are looking for a quick read, put this on hold. But, when you are craving some baseball later today, load this guy up, sit down, concentrate, and enjoy yourself while you follow me through a jungle of ambiguity to a clearer view of Justin Masterson’s 2010 campaign.

Justin, how does your "xFIP" stack up?

This article begins with my boy Dave, the Super 7 Foundation’s 2010 ‘Best Young Chef’ award winner and fellow Lebrontourage columnist, asking me about Tribe starter Justin Masterson: “break him down Z. He K’s dudes but lets up too many hits. And, it’s like he doesn’t trust the fielders.” What’s Masterson’s deal, head case? Get ready for the most complicated statistics (mathematically and theoretically) we’ve used yet (I’ll ease them in) and let’s take a closer look.

Dave’s first observation is that Masterson “K’s dudes.” Indeed he does. At 9.63 K/9 he has the 9th highest rate of strike-outs for any starter in the bigs (min. 40 IP). Masterson is striking out over a batter an inning, which means strike-outs account for 1/3rd of the outs he gets. Thank God, because he isn’t getting many other guy’s out.

When guys aren’t striking out, most are getting on base. Masterson is allowing an average of 11.25 hits per 9 innings pitched (H/9). Which, confirms Dave’s 2nd observation- “dude let’s up too many hits.” Typically, you want your pitchers closer to 8 and hopefully more like 7 H/9.

To exacerbate the problem, Masterson is walking on average 5 batters per 9 innings (BB/K) which gives him the 8th highest walk rate for starting pitchers in the MLB (min. 40 IP). If you combine the two base-runner rates, Masterson has to deal with an average of 1.85 base runners an inning (WHIP). When 34.5% of your runners score, that means you are going to be giving up a lot of runs, thus Masterson’s logically soaring 5.65 ERA.

So what, Masterson’s stats prove he is just a bad pitcher? Not quite.

Dave’s 3rd observation is also true- the man doesn’t trust his fielders. Young strike-out pitchers can often have high walk rates because they struggle to control their diabolically nasty pitches. But Masterson’s walk rate is not a result of his control.

Masterson is throwing 61% of his pitches for strikes. That number is on par with Ubaldo Jimenez (61%), this year’s best starting pitcher so far AND Tim Lincecum (63%), who is widely acknowledged as the best pitched in MLB.

This tells me Masterson is probably putting pitches where he wants (thats too many strikes to be ‘missing the target’ on), but is walking guys because he is ‘nibbling.’ As if that wasn’t enough, his 47% rate of pitches in the strike zone is the exact same as stud Ubaldo Jiminez. In other words, because he doesn’t want to give up hits, he is trying to keep the ball off the plate and away from contact, trying to get more called strikes. When he does want to be in the strike zone, he is throwing fast balls (80% of his pitch selection), trying to get swinging strikes.

As damning evidence of his control, 62% of contact made by hitters off Masterson results in a ground ball. If he doesn’t trust his defense, he is looking to avoid ground balls (they have the highest likelihood of error) and thus looking to avoid contact- again, he wants called strikes. Similarly, Masterson is throwing his slider (a ground ball inducing pitch) 7% less often this season, replacing it with an 8% increase in fastball (a strike-out pitch) use.

So, it’s not control; is this just a case of trust and nerves? At 25 years of age and with only 3 years of previous professional experience, it’s logical that Masterson wouldn’t yet be confident. But, I don’t think this is the case either.

Since a player that performs well in a crucial situation isn’t someone we would consider to have problems with their nerves, let’s consider how ‘clutch’ Masterson is.

By assigning each possible outcome a numeric weight based on its value (I.e a HR is worth 1.00 while a walk is .25) we can asses how much of an asset a player is to their team (for pitchers consider the example that a K is 1.00 while a BB is .15); the higher the number, the more production.

Well, we can also adjust the weight of each play depending on the situation (because baseball loves numbers and people track EVERYTHING). So, a walk with the bases loaded in a tie game in the bottom of the 9th is just as valuable as a home run- both outcome results in a win. By then comparing player scores in ‘clutch’ situations to a players output in regular situations, we can come up with a ‘clutch rating.’

Masterson’s clutch rating is 1.18, meaning he performs better than normal in ‘clutch’ situations. Jimenez and Lincecum rate at .56 and .19 respectively for comparison.

This number isn’t proof Masterson is actually amazing- Masterson isn’t better in tight spots than those guys. Since Masterson’s numbers (WHIP & ERA) are so bad normally, it isn’t saying a lot that he outperforms them. Similarly, with Lincecum and Jimenez pitching nearly flawlessly normally, it is hard to improve when the game is on the line; what’s better than flawless?

So what, Masterson still sucks? No, the number is only valued in this case to address the question of nerves: Masterson pitches better in tight spots than he does normally, which at least suggests that pressure doesn’t get to him and the problem isn’t all in his head.

Then what’s the problem? Why wont he trust the defense?

Simple. They suck.

Let’s start with my favorite stat, BABIP (batting avg. of balls in play). Masterson’s BABIP against is a whopping .399; meaning that contact is resulting in a hit far more often than could typically be expected (avg. is .300). BABIP is a good indicator of batters getting lucky hits- bloopers, tomahawk chops, etc. Or, if historically high (with little variation year to year), that a guy allows too much good contact and isn’t cut to be a MLB pitcher.

But, it’s also a testament to the defense being played. The worse the defense – the fewer balls they get to, more errors made, rate of potential doubles plays turned – the more often contact will result in a hit. It’s simple logic.

By determining (1) the percentage of errors to balls played, (2) balls played to balls hit in a player’s area of responsibility, and (3) the percentage of double plays turned, we can get a remarkably accurate statistical account of what a player offers on defense. Further, we can convert this rating number into an estimated number of runs saved or allowed (awesome, I know). By then dividing this number of runs by 150 (an expected number of games played by the position player) we can determine how many runs that player will cost the team that season.

The Tribe infield:

3B- Johnny Peralta, on pace to cost the team 18.4 runs.

SS- Asdrubal Cabrera, on pace to cost the team 25 runs.

2B- Luis Valbuena, average, will save the team 1 run.

1B- Matt LaPorta, mildly beneficial, will save the team 10 runs.

Since Masterson is inducing grounders 62% of the time, we will focus on the infield as the defense he doesn’t trust. While the team as a whole is below average defensively, ranking 23rd (out of 30) at an estimated 5 runs cost, that’s with the defensive prowess of the OF saving the numbers.

The infield is on pace to cost the Tribe a whopping 32 runs this year and that’s only with guys at their best positions (Luis Valbuena in 4 games at short this year, for example, has performed so poorly that at a 150 game pace he would cost the Indians 114 runs alone).

So, can we blame Masterson for being a bit weary of throwing grounders? It must be nice to be Tim Lincecum, who’s BABIP is just under average, at .285. He receives a marginal benefit against the expected average, which we can account for by the steller Giant’s defense, who is on pace to save the pitching staff 13 runs this year. And, while the Rockies are about even with the Tribe in terms of overall D (expected -4.6 runs this year), their problems exist in the outfield. At least Ubaldo’s infield can field the majority of ground balls and is only like to cost the staff 9 runs.

So what, all that we can say is that we can’t know how good J-Mast is because of the D? I read all that for a simple, ‘his stats are misleading, but I can’t say whether or not he has talent?’ “SCREW YOU TONY!”

Whoa whoa, would I leave you hangin’ like that?

Let’s figure out a way to remove non-pitcher variables from a pitcher’s performance as best we can. Let’s start by identifying what possible outcomes are solely the responsibility of the pitcher: BB, HBP, HR, and Ks. Jhonny Peralta’s defense plays no part in any of those outcomes, they are all on Masterson.

Now, you can argue that the pitcher can control type of contact too- I.e if Masterson throws a sinker, he is taking part in the resulting ground ball (inducing it if you will) and thus ground balls should be considered in any measure of a pitcher. And, similarly, that types of contact have probabilities- I.e I mentioned in the Kearns article that typically line drives fall for hits, around 75% of the time. Thus, we should take the type of contact into consideration when evaluating a pitched.

Well, someone has to field that grounder or catch a fly ball, so I’m leaving any consideration of them out. I want to know what’s happening when ONLY Masterson and the batter are involved.

Before we calculate, let’s go one step further. Home-runs are impacted by lots of variables- the wind that night, the ball park, the humidity, sea level, etc. It seems unfair and inaccurate to base an evaluation of Ubaldo Jimenez on ‘HRs allowed’ since he pitches half his games in Coors Field (2nd easiest place to hit a HR)! And, similarly, that J-Mast’s HR stat will be affected by his pitching in Baltimore (4th easiest), Arlington (7th), and New York (easiest) in any given year.

To neutralize these variables, we can use an average HR to fly-ball ratio. How many fly balls were hit that year, how many resulted in HRs, and thus how often does a fly ball turn into a home run? Since we have Masterson’s fly ball rate, we can figure out how many HRs could be expected from him in a completely neutral setting.

Now, we can take BBs, HBP, Ks, and the neutralized HR stat and predict how many runs these outcomes would result in. Or, a predicted and modified new Earned Run Average (ERA) that isn’t impacted by variables out of the pitcher’s hands. Meaning, we are trying to rate Masterson’s pitching without penalizing him for the Tribe’s D or pitching in offensive ball parks.

I present, ‘xFIP.’

Masterson’s xFIP is 3.60.

That’s a long cry from his 5.65 ERA.

Ubaldo Jimenez’s? 3.51.

So, I’m just saying Masterson’s numbers are a product of a lot more than just his pitching. And, his pitching is a lot better than what his numbers are suggesting. At first glance a standard stat line of 0-4, 5.56 ERA, and 1.875 WHIP in 43 innings is demotion worthy; yet I think Masterson is the best starter the Tribe has, just based on seeing his stuff. Turns out, the numbers suggest it’s not my imagination.

Am I saying J-Mast is as good as Ubaldo or in the same ball park as Lincecum? No.

Am I suggesting that these numbers and the models I use are infallible and completely accurate and solely indicative of true performance? Hardly, if I thought that, or crazier, if I was right, I would have a job running an MLB dynasty team right now.

I’m just playing with models. Attempts to analyze information in a vacuum in an attempt to understand parts better and to make predictions. It’s called Economics and if you’re thinking I’m loony right now for looking into this stuff, consider this: you are trusting your bank, financial advisor, doctor, Chair of the Country’s Federal Bank, the military, your utilities providers, etc with doing the exact same thing to analyze choices. Meanwhile, I’m asking models for a fun and risk-less shot at some insight into a game I love; they have to be worth at least that if they are trusted with so much more.

Finally, does this mean Masterson can be expected to pitch like Jimenez is now, in the near future? Probably not. A) The defense isn’t getting better anytime soon and B) He is only 25 and this is really his first season as a big league starter (let alone a keystone to a staff), you have to learn the craft of pitching and learn the hitters; plus, C) He has to pitch in the AL.

But, I do think the Tribe got some real talent from Boston here. Masterson’s ability to strike-guys out is fantastic and his stuff is still raw. Though a 4th pitch would be nice, he will improve drastically if he continues to develop his change and slider- 10+ K/9 is no fantasy. That means regardless of run support or defense, he will pitch the Tribe to some victories.

Don’t give up on him yet.

Fingers crossed, if he can stay healthy and avoid being poisoned too much by Manny Acta, in the long run he just might be the next staff Ace that team Shapiro/Antonetti can trade away.




One response

21 05 2010

I bow before the statistical knowledge that is the “Z Man”.

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