Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Room for Improvement: Justin Masterson

Here's a weird one: in looking to see if I was being too homerrific and overly optimistic about Justin Masterson, a huge young pitcher being converted back from the bullpen to the rotation, I found that Baseball Prospectus thinks I'm selling him short by a significant amount. Frankly, I'm going to stick to my guns here and go with the lower projection, because I have a point at the end of the series, and if there's some slack in it, perhaps Masterson can pick it up for me. You may want to go ahead and use BP's projection: they're more experienced and professional than I am. If I'm going to be wrong, I'd rather be pleasantly surprised.

One of the things lots of analysts will tell you is that teams often undervalue players who could help them more because they focus on what the player can't do instead of trying to leverage what they do well. Adam Dunn is an offensive force, but because he strikes out a lot, some teams would not touch him. You can be slow and be valuable. You can have a subpar fastball and be valuable. I have swallowed the mantra hook, line, and sinker, and believe that there is value in looking past a weakness to get to a strength.

That is, except when it comes to Justin Masterson.

See, Masterson throws from a low arm slot that makes him vulnerable to left-handed hitters. Last season, Masterson held righties to a .203/.285/.302 line against right-handers (and .196/.274/.298 the year before). This suggests a sustainable skill. Not only that, but he strikes out nearly a guy an inning, something that carried over from the bullpen. A funny stat from the spring (I know, it's spring, it doesn't mean anything) is that in 10 2/3 IP, Masterson had struck out a tremendous 16 hitters. And gave up 16 hits. He was completely unhittable, except when he was completely hittable.

And at least part of that reason lies in the fact that lefties do not find Masterson to be very intimidating at all, smacking him to the tune of .323/.399/.470. More shocking, he gave up 37 walks to left-handers, part of a 60-walk total in only 129 1/3 IP. (To his credit, he has walked only 3 this spring.)

Here's the disconnect, then: there is a certain amount of "pitching around" lefties a starter can do, and certainly, if Masterson can start, he should. He can always go back to the 'pen someday, but right now he's clearly one of our five best starters and the only one who actually posts strikeout numbers over the league average. (Fun fact: Masterson struck out more hitters per nine innings than Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers COMBINED. He is about 0.10 behind Huff and Sowers combined.) Masterson isn't bad at supressing the longball, which makes sense since he's got a consistent 60+% groundball rate. (He had a 1.46 GB:FB in Cleveland, but he strikes out a lot of guys, so you're never going to see the Westbrook-level numbers here.) But if left-handers are posting a .869 OPS against you ... well, look ... that's a tough way to make a living.

Still, the elements for success are there: high groundball rate, high strikeout rate, low home run rate ... he's walked way too many guys to this point, but this is not an insurmountable problem. The lefty-bashing ... that may be. He did have that sick 12-K complete game to end his season, and four of his last eight starts featured 1 or fewer earned runs, so it's not like he got pounded regularly.

Now, one of the things I missed in looking at this analysis is that I had Masterson listed as a 2.5 VORP pitcher last season. True, that's what he was in Cleveland, but that number is very misleading. He posted 12.4 VORP (half of his time was as a reliever) in Boston in 2009, and posted a 23.4 VORP as a pure reliever in 2008. I don't see that he's going to do anything but start, and maybe he's a better reliever than starter, but the fact is, over the course of the SEASON, Masterson was a 15-VORP player last season. If I tell you he will improve to 17.5 next season, well, that's hardly a blip.

So what would it take to get up to 17.5? Well, consider that BP's current projection actually has Masterson as a 32.8 VORP player with a 3.90 ERA in 175 innings. I guess that's not inconceivable, given that he's compared to power relievers and sinkerballers like Derek Lowe. I don't see where that ERA comes from, but he did post a 4.55 ERA as an Indian last season, so that's not a huge improvement. Aaron Laffey squeezed 10.9 VORP out of way more pedestrian numbers (1.6 more H/9, about the same ERA, far fewer Ks, 1 fewer BB/9, 121 2/3 IP), so 17.5 VORP might actually be conservative.

Still, until I can be convinced that he can get deep into ballgames without walking 4 or 5 guys or at least holding lefties to something less horrifying (is .800 OPS too much to ask?), I am going to stay with my initial estimate and say that it is reasonable to expect a 15-point increase in VORP from Justin Masterson in 2010.

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