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Will Justin Masterson Continue His Strong Start?

After watching the Indians--most notably their starting pitchers--flounder against the Yankees the last two days, I wanted to look into something a little more positive. By "positive" I mean the first two outings from Justin Masterson, including the seven shutout innings on Sunday at Tropicana Field.

In becoming the first pitcher ever to defeat the reigning Cy Young winners in his first two starts of the year, Masterson continued a trend during his four years as a Tribe starter: he is dominant in his first two starts of the season.

2013: 2-0, 0.69 ERA, 13 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 7 BB, 13 K, 0 HR

2012: 0-1, 2.77 ERA, 13 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 12 K, 1 HR

2011: 2-0, 1.35 ERA, 13.1 IP, 11 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 0 HR

2010: 1-1, 2.45 ERA, 11 IP, 13 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 14 K, 1 HR

TOTAL: 5-2, 1.79 ERA, 50.1 IP, 39 H, 14 R, 10 ER, 14 BB, 48 K, 2 HR

That is pretty good stuff from The Big Masty in his first two starts of each season, even in his down year in 2012.

The scary part that will hopefully be avoided, especially with the struggles from the rest of the rotation, is that in two of the last three years, things turned ugly in his next two starts

2012: 0-1, 12.46 ERA, 8.2 IP, 13 H, 12 R, 12 ER, 10 BB, 3 K, 2 HR

2011: 2-0, 2.08 ERA, 13 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 6 K, 0 HR

2010: 0-1, 10.13 ERA, 8 IP, 13 H, 12 R, 9 ER, 9 BB, 10 K, 1 HR

TOTAL: 2-2, 7.28 ERA, 29.2 IP, 36 H, 27 R, 24 ER, 25 BB, 19 K, 3 HR

Now clearly, I am cherry-picking numbers, but this is interesting to keep in mind because in 2011, he kept up his strong start going, winning his first five starts on his way to the best season of his career. Meanwhile, in 2010 and 2012, his performance fell off during his third and fourth starts and beyond.

What has been the key for Masterson so far? Well, holding opponents to a .179 BABIP doesn't hurt. You might remember that in his first start of the season, he struggled through the first three frames, throwing 70 pitches. Masterson was helped out by plays like this:

Asdrubal Turns Two

In that example, a hard-hit ball goes right at Asdrubal, who saves at least one run and the potential for more. There were several other hard hit balls where there was some luck involved for Masterson in that first start until he settled down.

So far, Masterson's best weapon has been his slider. He is throwing it more--26 percent of the time this season compared to 20 percent throughout his career according to Pitch F/X. He is throwing it when ahead of hitters about 40 percent of the time compared to 32 percent for his career. Masterson is also getting 44 percent whiffs per swing on the slider, above his career average of 37 percent. He also has been using the slider more the later in the game it gets:

475416

via www.brooksbaseball.net

These numbers very well may regress as he is only two starts into the season, but they are interesting to look at nonetheless.

In case you were wondering (I was), the slider rates and whiff rates are actually a lot closer to Masterson's percentages in 2012 (his bad season) than 2011 (his very good season). In 2011 he threw the slider 14 percent of the time compared to 19.5 percent last year. The whiff/swing on sliders was 32 percent in 2011 and 40 percent last season.

One area Masterson will need to improve if he wants to keep pitching well is his 14% walk rate, which is well above his career average of 9%. Those walks will catch up with him eventually. His strikeout rate of 26.5% is also soaring above his career average of 18%, so expect that to fall as well.

While there are question marks throughout the rotation, let's hope that Masterson can hold up as the ace and have a year that looks more like 2011 than 2012. The Tribe will be counting on it for any chance at contending in 2013.

Data from Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball were used for this post

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