Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez: Can They Rebound?

Jim Rogash

A look at other pitchers in recent years who'd had awful seasons like the Tribe's two "aces" had in 2012, and what kind of success they've ever been able to find later.

In 2012, both Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez had what I am calling a "train wreck" season: they pitched enough innings to be considered a "qualified" starter (162+), but had a park-adjusted ERA at least 20% worse than the league average (ERA+ of 80 or worse). It was the first time in history the Indians had two pitchers perform like that in the same season.

Since the year 2000, there have been 51 different pitchers to throw 162+ innings with an ERA+ of 80 or worse, leading to a total of 58 such seasons (because five of those pitchers "accomplished" it more than once). I took a look at each of those pitchers, to see what (if any) success they’d had before and/or after their train wreck season(s).

Masterson and Jimenez both had earlier seasons in which they were very good. Masterson had an ERA+ of 122 in 2011 and Jimenez had an ERA+ of 161 in 2010 (and was quite good in 2008 and 2009 too). Here’s a breakdown of each of the 51 pitchers’ BEST (qualified) season BEFORE* their train wreck year (by ERA+):

NA**

< 100

100-109

110-119

120-129

130-139

140-149

150+

8

4

4

10

8

5

8

4

*five pitchers have had more than one train wreck in the 2000s (Jeremy Bonderman, Livan Hernandez, Jose Lima, Joel Pineiro, and Ramon Ortiz). In these cases, their best season before their last one is counted

**these pitchers’ train wreck season came in their first qualified season

A season like Masterson’s 2011 isn’t quite as rare among this group as you might think. 25 of the 51 had at least one season with an ERA+ of at least 120 before falling to 80 or worse. Plummeting from Jimenez’s peak is rarer, of course. Derek Lowe and Tim Lincecum are the only other pitchers in the 2000s with a season like Jimenez’s 2010 to later drop below 80. At first it may be surprising that so many of the pitchers with a season so poor were actually very good pitchers earlier in their career, but I suspect few pitchers are allowed to keep throwing so many innings despite such poor results unless their track record includes some real success.

I suspect that most Tribe fans are less interested in what pitchers accomplished before turning in a train wreck season, and curious about what they were able to do afterwards. Here’s a breakdown of each of the 51 pitchers’ BEST (qualified) season AFTER* their train wreck (by ERA+):

NA**

< 100

100-109

110-119

120-129

130-139

140-149

150+

32

3

7

5

0

1

1

2

*for the five pitchers with multiple train wreck seasons, the best season after their first one is counted

**these pitchers never had another qualified season after their train wreck season

That’s grim. Over 60% of the pitchers with a train wreck season in the 2000s have never even had another qualified season. Fewer than 20% were ever again what I would call good (for the purposes of this study that’s a qualified season with an ERA+ of 110 or better).Now, 21 of the 51 pitchers were still active in 2012 and six of these guys had their wreck in 2012 (Masterson and Jimenez, plus Luke Hochevar, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Romero, and Ervin Santana), so they haven’t had a chance to rebound yet. That means, some of those in the "NA" column will eventually have qualifying seasons, and there will be a few more good seasons from pitchers on the list. It’s still an ugly picture though, with only nine pitchers who’ve bounced back to even one good year:

Player

Wreck(s)

Age(s)

Good Seasons Later (ERA+)

Arroyo

2011

34

2012(113)

Bonderman

2003, 2010

20,27

2006(111)

Dempster

2002

25

2008(154)

2009(122)

2010(110)

2012(124)

Greinke

2005

21

2008(125)

2009(205)

2012(114)

Hampton

2002

29

2003(112)

Hernandez

2001, 2008, 2009

26,33,34

2003(141)

2004(126)

2010(110)

Marquis

2006

27

2009(116)

Pineiro

2005, 2006

26,27

2009(117)

Shields

2010

28

2011(134)

Most of what little success there has been for the 51 pitchers on the train wreck list has come from those who were relatively young at the time of their crash:

Of the twenty-eight pitchers ages 29 and older with a train wreck between 2000 and 2011, three of them have gone on to post at least one solid season, that’s 11%. Of the nineteen pitchers ages 28 and younger with a train wreck between 2000 and 2011, seven of them have gone on to post at least one solid season, that’s 37%. That’s not great, but it’s better than the older group. Masterson was 27 last season, Jimenez was 28, so at least they’re on the right side of the age-break.

Another reason for optimism is that seven of the nine pitchers who ever went on to a qualified ERA+ of 110 or better after their wreck also had at least one qualified season with an ERA+ of 110 or better before their wreck, just as Masterson and Jimenez have. Zack Greinke is the only pitcher in the 2000s to have a train wreck season without first having had a good year (ERA+ of 110 or better in a qualified season) to go on to even a single good season later. On the other hand, thirty pitchers had a good season at some point, then a train wreck season between 2000 and 2011. Eight of them later had another good year (27%).

Summary and Conclusions:

Among pitchers with a train wreck season from 2000-2011: 20% are later successful.

29 or older at time of wreck: 11% are later successful.

28 or younger at time of wreck: 37% are later successful.

Zero good seasons before wreck: Only Zack Greinke was later successful.

At least one good season before wreck: 27% are successful.

Combining the two positive factors (28 or younger AND at least one good previous season), there are fourteen players. Seven of them later had another good year. Looking at it that way, the subgroup that holds Masterson and Jimenez (and Lincecum and Romero) would seem to have a 50/50 shot at ever recovering for another strong season.

There are plenty of caveats to this, of course: This is a small sample of players, too small to be considered scientific. ERA+ is far from the most complete way of assessing players’ seasons. ERA+ cut-offs of 80 for selecting poor seasons and 110 for good seasons are somewhat arbitrary. Age and prior success are also not the only ways to create subgroups within the sample.

That said, I think this study gives us some sense of what might be expected of Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez going forward. I think most Tribe fans would be happy to have just one of the two put together another strong season.

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