May 22, 2013
Cool Slider, Bro
Nick Swisher is one of my favorite players in baseball to watch play the game because I appreciate how he works a count and genuinely seems to enjoy playing the game. My favorite part about his game actually comes off the field, because he is comedic gold when you get him talking on a topic he is excited about. Take his recent assessment of teammate Justin Masterson.
Swisher was asked by Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer to describe teammate Justin Masterson in three words, and in the most Swisher response ever, he replied, “Power sinker, bro.” Swisher expanded his bro-view of the hurler by adding, “What’s really impressive is the number of strikeouts he’s had. Look at any great team and it starts with that number-one guy.”
Not all number-one starters are created equal, but that is what Masterson has become for Cleveland in 2013. He entered the season with just 39 career wins against 53 losses, a 4.17 ERA, and a 1.39 WHIP. Anyone who has owned Masterson has been frustrated by his inability to lose the mayorship of Splitsville, because he has been extremely efficient in retiring right-handed hitters but has continually struggled to limit lefties.
Coming into 2013, right-handed hitters had a career 602 OPS against Masterson while left-handed hitters enjoyed a lofty 784 OPS, built on a .287 batting average. His career strikeout rate against right-handed hitters was just over 23 percent, but that rate fell to just 14 percent against left-handed hitters. This season, Masterson has changed his ways and has seen a change in results through his first 10 starts.
Masterson has offered some insight into what he is doing differently to beat writers this season. He disclosed the following to Stephanie Storm of the Akron Beacon Journal last month while discussing sub-par outings in 2012:
“During those starts, I noticed everything was going good and then I remembered thinking, ‘Now I’m going to try to get a little more on this [pitch], do a little more,’ ” he said. “And all of a sudden, the ball flattened out. Instead of me just being happy with [throwing] 90, 91 [mph] and just pitching, I tried to ramp it up.”
Masterson is only three starts into this season, but at 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA and riding a 19 consecutive scoreless innings streak, he’s proving he’s mastered the tough lesson of trying to do too much last year.
“A lot of what led to my troubles last year is when I’d get a little excited, I’d overthrow and get under a lot of pitches,” he said. “So my goal coming into this season was just to kind of slow down a little bit and keep the effort level down.
“I’ve learned that I don’t have to look up and throw 96, 97 mph. Maybe every once in a while. But for the most part, I can live with a little bit less and then find [the added velocity] when I need it. That way I’m pitching and not trying to just blow it by hitters.”
Masterson’s delivery does not look much different, but it is also a delivery that Doug Thorburn gave a C+ to in the Starting Pitching Guide he co-authored with Paul Sporer. Masterson’s poorest grade came on his momentum and consistency, both of which were scored as 40s on a 20-80 scale. The final comment on the pitcher in the guide said, “Masterson's struggles with repeating his stride and his timing resulted in a plethora of missed targets throughout the season, as the right-hander's near-sidearm slot produces pitches that tend to miss off the edges when his timing goes astray.”
In reviewing some game footage from this season and comparing it to last season, Masterson’s delivery does seem to have better pace and timing, which is allowing him to repeat his delivery more consistently. Manager Terry Francona told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Masterson’s success in 2013 comes from a few things. Francona credited Masterson’s ability to throw two different fastballs and mix in a changeup, but also noted the pitcher’s slider, which has improved both in terms of quality and location.
The changes in pitch outcomes from 2012 to 2013 for Masterson, to date, are rather extreme. First, his overall numbers side by side:
Now, those same outcomes separated into platoon splits:
Masterson has taken his already-strong results against right-handed hitters to a different level, striking them out at an incredible pace while throwing more strikes and creating more swings and misses. Against left-handed hitters, he has found more success striking them out than last season while walking fewer hitters and getting more empty swings.
Here, the slider that Francona was talking about comes into play:
The pitch has always been good for him, but it has been downright lethal this season in terms of outcomes. He has thrown 167 of his 290 sliders to left-handed hitters this season, and has allowed just three hits in 42 plate appearances. In terms of location, Masterson is knocking on both the front and back door with his slider with regularity this season to left-handed hitters; last season, he mainly tended to back-foot the pitch to lefties. Francona mentioned this in his interview with Hoynes:
"He can back door a left-hander with it or wrap it around his ankle. Or he can freeze a right-hander. It gives him a lot of options."
Masterson has allowed two or fewer runs in six of his 10 starts this season, only running into bad outings against Boston and Kansas City. A mixture of delivery tweaks, sequencing, and location have led to the best results of Masterson’s career through to this point. While it is unreasonable to expect the league to continue to have a sub-250 OPS against his slider the rest of the season, the early returns on a cheap hurler on draft day are pretty awesome, bro.