Groundball Masters


Go Bold Or Go Home: Justin Masterson, Top-15 Pitcher

Among all qualified starters in baseball last season, only five pitchers threw 193 or more innings, struck out at least one batter per inning and had a SIERA of 3.32 or better.  Four were Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer; the fifth was Justin Masterson.  So by that metric, Masterson is actually a top-FIVE pitcher in the big leagues, so I not only proved my "top fifteen" point, I went above and beyond!  That was easy!  See you next week, folks!

.....okay, fine, it'll take more than some statistical cherry-picking to get the job done.  Fair enough.  There seems to be some inherent resistence to acknowledging Masterson as a top-tier fantasy pitcher, given his modest 218.80 average draft position (hat tip to Mock Draft Central) that ranks him as the only 56th-highest pitcher taken in this year's drafts.  Even if you don't agree with me that Masterson is on the verge of a major breakout, I think it's safe to say that there aren't 55 guys better than the Indians ace.

In fact, forget being 'on the verge,' it's possible Masterson took his big step forward last year.  Masterson has always been known as an elite groundball pitcher --- he led the league with a 58% ground ball rate in 2013 and he has the sixth-highest GBR of any pitcher in baseball over the last four seasons.  What changed Masterson's game last year, however, was his ability to miss bats.  Masterson had a career 7.1 K/9 over his first five seasons but he bumped that up to a career-best 9.1 K/9 in 2013.  In the Roto Authority starting pitcher rankings, Alex Steers McCrum even lumped Masterson into his group of "strikeout pitchers with too many walks." a designation that would've seemed unlikely a year ago.

There's a terrible pun coming in a few paragraphs, just so you know.  Be ready.

It seems like Masterson was able to goose his strikeout numbers by cutting back on the use of his sinker.  Masterson used his sinker a whopping 58.3% of the time in 2012, well above his career 44.5% mark, and it's perhaps no surprise that Masterson changed things up given how he struggled that season.  In 2013, however, the righty cut his sinker rate down to 49.4% and increased the use of his slider to 26.9%, by far the most Masterson has thrown the pitch in any of his four full Major League seasons.  If Masterson keeps the sinker in check, there's no reason he couldn't have another season of averaging at least one strikeout per inning. 

So that's the strikeouts accounted for, and Masterson should still get his fair share of wins given that the Tribe projects to be a pretty good team this season.  My only concern is that his ERA and WHIP could be slightly above what you'd want from the ace of a fantasy rotation.  Ideally you'd like a pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP, but with Masterson it could be more likely that he'll post something in the neighborhood of a 3.30 ERA and a WHIP in the 1.20-1.30 range.  This comes with the territory of having an ace groundball pitcher and an infield defense that includes UZR/150 nightmares Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, not to mention the possibly-comic stylings of Carlos Santana as a regular third baseman.  Still, while grounders are still Masterson's bread and butter, his increased strikeout prowess will help him overcome his infield's miscues.

Seriously, it's one of the more obvious, no-creativity puns you could imagine when discussing Justin Masterson, so of course Mark can't help but make it.  Brace yourself.

Between the flaws of a poor infield defense and a too-high walk rate (his 3.54 BB/9 ranked a mediocre 73rd amongst all qualified starters), Masterson definitely has a few warts, but I have a couple more reasons why I think he'll end the year as a top-drawer fantasy starter.  Injury concerns aren't really a factor given how Masterson is averaging 199 innings over the last four years, plus there's the ever-popular "contract year" narrative.  The Tribe had been talking to Masterson about an extension but talks have fallen through, so it's very likely that the right-hander will test free agency next winter.  Not that Masterson isn't a motivated guy anyway, but he'll have all the more incentive to perform well, as he'll have a $100MM+ contract waiting for him if he duplicates last season's numbers in 2014.

As noted, Masterson is way off the radar of many fantasy owners, so even if you missed him in your draft, there's still a chance to acquire him in a trade before Opening Day.  If you have a promising but unproven arm like Zach Wheeler or Tony Cingriani (to name a couple of pitchers ahead of Masterson on the ADP list), I'd certainly see about unloading either for Masterson.  Your rival manager may think he's getting a steal in picking a hot young arm while you can sit back and take comfort in a more reliable option.

Are you ready?  Here it comes.

All things considered, owning Masterson could end up being a masterpiece of fantasy roster move.

...wow, could that have been shoehorned in any more?  Brutal.



Groundball Leaders

It's important to follow the game's groundball masters.  Sometimes when we look at pitching peripherals we look at various basic stats but forget the groundball rate.  Here are the current leaders:

  1. Fausto Carmona - 68.0%.
  2. Brandon Webb - 65.4%.
  3. Aaron Cook - 60.1%.
  4. Roy Halladay - 59.5%.
  5. Tim Hudson - 59.4%.
  6. Daniel Cabrera - 57.5%.
  7. John Lannan - 57.1%.
  8. Derek Lowe - 56.5%.
  9. Chien-Ming Wang - 56.2%.
  10. Ubaldo Jimenez - 55.9%.
  11. Jose Contreras - 55.7%.
  12. Ryan Dempster - 55.1%.
  13. Edinson Volquez - 53.9%.
  14. Mark Buehrle - 53.6%.
  15. Andy Pettitte - 53.3%.

Out of the top 15, 11 have an ERA below 4.00.  The groundballs help explain why pitchers with questionable strikeout rates can still be effective.  Then you have a guy like Volquez, with a K/9 above 10 and a groundball rate near 54%.  That combo is not going to result in many hits or homeruns.  Felix Hernandez and Chad Billingsley are two other young hurlers with a similar if less pronounced profile.





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