Every year in the Major Leagues, some players jump out in the early part of the season and astound us in small sample size wonder. This year, John Buck and Chris Davis have been pretty astounding. And yet, when a position player jumps way out ahead of his normal stats, we expect regression. Pitchers sometimes get more of a pass. But what about the case of Justin Masterson, the pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who has started the young season at 3-0 with an 0.41 ERA. Is Masterson setting a new gold standard for his career or his this pyrite or fools gold?
Where a score of 50 is average, Masterson has already garnered Game Scores of 63, 78 and 83. He gave up a run in the third inning of his first start of the season and has now thrown nineteen straight scoreless innings. He seems to be getting stronger as those Game Scores indicate. So what is going on here? Is not this the same pitcher that went 11-15 with an ERA of 4.93?
Let's look at some numbers to see if this is basically a short sample size fluke or if it shows Masterson doing something different or more effectively.
On the gold side:
Masterson has always been a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball percentage is 56.1% and his ground ball to fly ball ratio is at 2.11 for his career. He has upped the ante on the ground balls this season and currently sits at a ground ball percentage of 60% and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 2.31. As such, his sinker is getting the job done on batted balls.
At the same time, Justin Masterson is adding (to this point) more sliders to his game plan. In the last three seasons, Masterson has thrown his slider 19.9%, 14.3% and 19.5% respectively. This year, he has thrown it 26% of the time and the pitch has been great for him. His game charts show that he has always had good movement on the pitch, but that movement is even wider horizontally than in the past. After PITCHf/x rated his slider at only 1.7 runs above average for the entire season last year, that services has already attached five runs above average for a score on the slider already. And just for historical perspective, that pitch was rated at 6.5 in 2011 and 4.4 runs above average the year before that.
One aspect that may be related to the slider is that not only is Masterson inducing a lot of ground balls, but his popup to the infield rate is way up so far this season.
A better defense around him. Last season, the Indians finished 24th in team fielding efficiency for the season. This season (which is young yet), the team is rated fifth. All his fielders except for Cabrera at short are having in the positive fielding seasons. Again, it is early yet. Let's see if the Indians can maintain that.
Some other things on the positive side include no homers allowed, which really is not a fluke since Masterson has always been stingy in the home run department. Also, his strikeout rate is up slightly despite not increasing the amount of swing and miss percentage or swinging outside the strike zone percentage.
He is also pitching at a faster pace this season. After averaging in the 18+ range in seconds per pitch (which is great), he is in the 16+ range this season. I am personally a big fan of a fast pace for a pitcher.
What the numbers seem to show is that Masterson has his highest first pitch strike percentage of his career, has a slider that has been killer and is inducing even more ground balls than usual. Ground balls and infield fly balls do wonders for balls in play finding an out somewhere.
On the pyrite side:
No matter how good Masterson's pitches, first pitch strikes, etc., have been, there is no way he is going to go through the season with a .196 BABIP that he has right now. Somewhere around .260 is doable in a great season, but .196 is just screaming for regression.
Also screaming for regression is Masterson's strand rate. Granted, Masterson's WHIP is outstanding at 0.818 so there are less runners to strand. But a strand rate of 94.7% is not going to hold up no matter how good he pitches.
Competition. Of the three teams Masterson has beaten, two of them (Blue Jays, Rays) are in the bottom five in runs per game. The White Sox were in the top ten, so he did beat a good offensive team (thus far) in this last outing. Let's see what happens when he faces some tougher offensive teams.
One thing that has to be remembered here is that Justin Masterson's FIP was -.78 compared to his ERA in 2012, a very big difference. He pitched in front of a weaker defense and had a bit of an off year with his slider. His batted balls already lend itself to low BABIPs but expect his to rise as the year progresses. Justin Masterson will not be this great all season. But there is no reason why he cannot be of All Star caliber and build on this start for a terrific season.