Justin Masterson's velocity is way down in 2014

Tom Szczerbowski

Masterson has a need... a need for speed.

Justin Masterson had another rocky outing Tuesday night, giving up 5 runs (all earned) on 6 hits (including a home run) and 3 walks. He lasted only 5.1 innings. It's already his third start of the season in which failed to finish at least 6 innings. Not counting the September game he left with an injury, he only had three starts all of last season in which he didn't go at least 6 innings.

The most notable difference in Masterson this season is the loss in velocity he's shown. It's normal for pitchers to have less velocity on their pitches early in the season, which makes using last season's full-season data somewhat problematic. However, Baseball Savant (a great site for anyone keen on digging into statistical data) allows us to look at PITCHf/x data for whatever portion of whatever season(s) we want. I went back and looked at Masterson's first nine starts from last season (because that's how many he's now made this year), and looked at the three pitches he throws with any frequency: his four-seam fastball, his sinker, and his slider, and looked to see how the velocity compared.

Four-seam fastball

Masterson threw 936 pitches in his first nine games in 2013. 373 of those pitches were four-seam fastballs, which works out to 39.9%. So far in 2014, Masterson has thrown 869 pitches. 168 of them have been four-seam fastballs, which works out to 19.3%. Immediately we see that Masterson is throwing his four-seamer far less frequently than he was early on last season.

Here is a chart showing what percentage of Masterson's early-season four-seam fastballs were at or above various velocity benchmarks:

Season 86 MPH 88 MPH 90 MPH 92 MPH 94 MPH 96 MPH
2013 100% 99.5% 97.3% 77.5% 33.5% 3.2%
2014 100% 95.6% 61.3% 20.8% 1.8% 0.0%

As you can see, Masterson's peak velocity is down; he's been unable to hit 94 MPH as often as he was hitting 96 MPH early last year. He's hitting 92 MPH barely a quarter as frequently as he was last season, and is often failing to reach even 90 MPH with his fastball this year.

Sinker

Masterson threw 296 sinkers in his first nine games in 2013, which works out to 31.6% of all pitches. In 2014 he's already thrown 445 sinkers, which is 51.2% of all pitches he's thrown, a huge increase.

Here are the velocity measurements for his sinker this year and last:

Season 84 MPH 86 MPH 88 MPH 90 MPH 92 MPH 94 MPH
2013 100% 100% 94.6% 72.0% 29.7% 3.0%
2014 100% 96.2% 68.1% 26.1% 1.6% 0.0%

He's maintained the velocity of his sinker a bit better than with his four-seamer, but not much. He's throwing it far more often (which has led to an increased ground-ball rate, but also an increased BABIP), but it's not the same pitch it was a year ago.

Slider

Masterson threw 262 sliders in his first nine games in 2013, which works out to 28.0% of all pitches. He's thrown 203 sliders so far in 2014, which works out to 23.4%. He's throwing his slider less frequently, but the difference is far less dramatic than with the other two pitches.

Here are the velocity measurements for his slider for the last two years:

Season 76 MPH 78 MPH  80 MPH 82 MPH 84 MPH 86 MPH
2013 100% 99.6% 93.5% 74.4% 40.1% 5.3%
2014 100% 94.1% 71.4% 32.0% 4.4% 1.5%

Again, significant declines from last year to this. He's barely ever getting his slider above 84 MPH this season, after routinely doing it a year ago, and he's now often failing to reach even 80 MPH with the pitch.

Velocity is not the only thing that goes into making an effective pitch; it's probably not even the most importan thing. To see such starting decline from one spring to the next is concerning though. Right now, with a 4.31 ERA and 3.69 FIP, Masterson is pitching something like a #4 starter. A decline like this could be  a sign that Masterson is nursing an injury, perhaps one he's not even aware of yet.

I was among those who thought the front office foolish for declining the 2-year, ~$35 million extension (for 2015-16) Masterson supposedly offered to sign for, but right now it certainly appears the Indians made the right call on that. Masterson might be inclined to accept a 1-year qualifying offer if he doesn't see a rebound in his velocity.

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