There was nobody raising their eyebrows when Terry Francona announced that Justin Masterson would be the opening day starter when the Indians start the season in Toronto. With a starting rotation that is less than stellar on paper, selecting Masterson was the right choice entering the season. He stands to be important if this year’s Indians are to make a run for the playoffs. Masterson, who seems he has been in the majors forever, will probably be there for a while longer, as he’s only 27 and as he’s demonstrated that he can throw 200 reasonable innings every year. But is Masterson a true number 1 starter?
Conveniently, his entire big-league career has come during the PITCHf/x era. If you look at Masterson’s breakdown of pitches thrown in his career, he features a sinking fastball, which he throws around 85% of the time and a slider, which he throws around 17% of the time. He doesn’t feature a third pitch or at least another pitch to keep hitters honest. These uneven ratios and lack of a third pitch concerns me whether he is qualified to be a number 1 starter, or a starter at all. Unless one of your pitches is so far superior like a Steve Carlton slider or a Dwight Gooden curveball, most starting pitchers can’t get away with just throwing two pitches. Even Nolan Ryan with his 100 mph fastball threw three pitches. With Masterson’s three-quarter arm angle and propensity to throw groundballs, he would be an ideal relief pitcher. Also, as a reliever, you only need to have two pitches anyway since you are only facing hitters one time through the lineup. For his career, Masterson has a 3.26 ERA as a reliever and a 4.28 ERA as a starter. I know the Indians are short on starting pitching, but they should do the smart thing and put Masterson in the bullpen.
Masterson though, of all the starters, seems to have the most potential to "bounce back." He has been top seven among qualified pitchers in ground ball rate in each of the last three years, and, as a result, he has also been top 20 in ISO allowed in those three years. That ability to prevent hard contact and extra base hits is probably one of the three most important run prevention skills. As for the other two, the ability to strike batters out and the ability to avoid putting them on base for free, Masterson has about a league average strikeout rate for his career, but his ability to limit free passes has been below average as his career BB% is 9.2% (3.58 BB/9).
Another reason Masterson will probably have a "bounce back" year in terms of marginally improved statistics is that we’ve seen what he can be when he keeps the walks under control. He cut his walk rate down to 7.2% in 2011, and his ERA was an impressive 3.21. His SIERA and xFIP were both in the mid-three’s, but with his ability to induce weak contact, Masterson can outperform the ERA estimators when he limits the walks. Masterson's ERA problems have come from an uptick in the HR/FB and BB% areas. If his ERA normalizes without those two elements improving, he's a fringe SP at best anyway.
For the sake of the 2013 season, I hope Masterson proves himself as a legitimate 1 starter. If not, it will be another long season.