Fantasy Baseball Breakout Candidate: Justin Masterson
Justin Masterson had the best year of his career in 2013 when he posted a 3.45 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and recorded 195 strikeouts in 193 innings. Masterson finished 2013 27th among starting pitchers on ESPN’s player rater, but it’s clear that heading into 2014, many people remain skeptical. What should we expect from the Cleveland Indians pitcher in 2014?
The most noticeable difference between pre-2013 Masterson and 2013 Masterson was that 2013 Masterson was a dominant strikeout pitcher. Between 2010 and 2012, he had never posted a strikeout-per-nine (K/9) rate higher than 7.00; in 2013, his K/9 rose all the way to 9.09. When there is such a drastic increase in a peripheral statistic such as K/9, it’s generally the result of one of two things: it could be a fluke, which means the player is likely to regress to their career averages, or it could indicate a change a pitcher has made and if that’s the case, the more recent rate could be more telling of future performance than the player’s historical averages. In the case of Masterson’s increased strikeout rate, I believe we’re dealing with the latter, and the change he made is a rather obvious one.
From 2010-12, Masterson threw 9,888 pitches. Of those 9,888 pitches, 1,769 (17.9 percent) of them were sliders and during that time, he averaged a 6.83 K/9. In 2013, Masterson threw 3,008 pitches. Of those 3,008 pitches, 808 (26.9 percent) of them were sliders and during that time, he posted a 9.09 K/9. See the correlation? Prior to last season, 2009 was the only year in his career in which Masterson pitched at least 100 innings and threw his slider for at least 20 percent of his pitches (he threw it 24.2 percent of the time) and guess what? Masterson posted an 8.28 K/9 that year, the second highest total of his career.
It’s not like Masterson is throwing a league average slider either. According to the statistics, Masterson boasts one of the filthiest sliders in baseball: opposing batters hit .108 against it (he allowed just 22 hits off of his slider all season), he struck out 115 batters with it and according to PITCHf/x’s pitch value, he had the fourth most valuable slider among starters. It’s taken Masterson a few years to figure out what his repertoire should be, but last year he finally settled down and worked almost exclusively with a sinker and the slider, and as a result, he became just one of eight starters with at least a 9.0 K/9 and 50 percent ground ball rate since the turn of the century. I don’t see any reason as to why the success Masterson experienced a year ago can’t carry over to 2014, and I believe that he is currently way undervalued in most circles.
I have Masterson projected to record 13 wins, a 3.57 ERA, 178 strikeouts and a 1.33 WHIP. I have the Indians ace ranked as my No. 33 starter entering 2014 (ahead of Jon Lester, Gerrit Cole and Michael Wacha), and if you can grab him any later then that in your draft — I believe there is a very strong chance you’ll have that opportunity — you’ll be getting a guy who can provide you with a tremendous amount of value.