Trust in Justin: Cleveland Indians' Justin Masterson Is Ace in Disguise

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Trust in Justin: Cleveland Indians' Justin Masterson Is Ace in Disguise
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A casual Cleveland Indians fan flipping through the sports section would let his face fall if he noticed Justin Masterson's numbers so far this year.

At 0-3 with a 5.68 ERA, his basic stats are bad enough to make Joe Six-Pack put down his coffee, stare into space, and mumble something about the good old days.

After surrendering seven runs in four innings Sunday against Oakland, even diehard Tribe fan Samantha Bunten was compelled to ask, "What on earth is wrong with Justin Masterson?"

While I can understand why those numbers could induce minor spells of depression, I resent this sentiment, and not just because I have a man-crush on the 25-year-old fireballer.

With sharp in-game instincts and a seemingly innate ability to miss bats, I predicted before Opening Day that Masterson would emerge as the Indians' ace by season's end; I believe I have already been proven correct. You see, Masterson has actually pitched much better than his superficial statistics would suggest.

Let's start with the 0-3 record. This is a perfect illustration of why wins and losses are ridiculous ways to measure pitching performance.

Masterson has held the opposition to two earned runs or fewer in three out of his four starts. Unfortunately, the Indians have given him anemic run support; they've averaged just two runs a game when Masterson pitches.

You don't blame Masterson for Jhonny Peralta's daily errors, so why would you hold him accountable for the ineffectiveness of our offense?

As for the ERA, that's the problem with small sample sizes—one bad game can screw the whole thing up. Masterson had a near-pristine 3.00 ERA before his implosion on Sunday. Even the best pitchers have bad days.

In addition, Masterson's ERA has been tainted by a ridiculous amount of bad luck. He's on the unfortunate end of a 61% strand rate, and his BABIP (.448) is the unluckiest in the AL. The difference between that ugly 5.68 number and his xFIP (3.27) is the fifth-largest discrepancy in the league.

Mitch Talbot (2.25 ERA), Fausto Carmona (2.96), and David Huff (3.00) have all offered Indians fans hope that the rotation will finally have some stability. But looking at their xFIPs—4.65, 5.10, and 5.47, respectively—and their collective .197 BABIP, we Clevelanders are in for yet another major disappointment.

With Jake Westbrook pitching poorly any way you slice it, Masterson may be the only man standing after the inevitable reversals of fortune.

The only piece of Masterson's peripheral stats that makes him look worse than last year is his 5.2 BB/9 rate, up from 4.2 a year ago. But even that isn't cause for alarm.

He's hitting the strike zone at a level virtually identical to what he did last year and since opposing batters are actually swinging at more of his bad pitches (30%, up from 27%), the walks should start becoming fewer and farther between. And anyway, he can walk as many guys as he wants when he's sporting a 11.4 K/9 ratio (by far the best in the league).

What's truly remarkable is that he has achieved this success while disusing his best pitch. Masterson has thrown his slider—by far his most effective offering over the course of his short career—just 14% of the time in 2010, down from 24% in 2009.

Masterson does have one potentially serious problem: inefficiency. He's averaged 21 pitches an inning so far. That's not gonna fly long-term.

Despite his solid performances in three out of four starts, he's gone past five innings just once and has yet to see the seventh. Unless Manny Acta decides to emulate Dusty Baker, he'll make protecting his young arm a priority; if Masterson can't learn to be more conservative with his pitch count, it will mean more early exits for him and more innings eaten by the bullpen (cue ominous music).

That being said, if Regis Phillbin offered me seven innings of Carmona or five frames of Masterson, I wouldn't need the full 30 seconds to come up with my final answer.

Masterson's tremendous talent has already been established. It's just a matter of time before the superficial statistics match the underlying skill sets.

Jump on the bandwagon while there's still room. You're gonna want to say "I told you so."

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