Buy-Low Candidate: Justin Masterson

By Tommy Rancel //

Under most circumstances, a pitcher who is 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA would be close to a benching – if not dropped – in most fantasy leagues. However, Justin Masterson is a player you should be actively seeking on the waiver wire or via trade.

Masterson has been a portrait of inconsistency in his five starts this season. He pitched 7.2 innings in his last start, following two starts in which he went eight innings total. Despite the winless record and the high ERA, there is a lot to like about Masterson.

First, we have a terrific strikeout rate. With 31 strikeouts in 26.2 innings, the young righty boasts a strikeout per nine (K/9) rate of 10.46. Only Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander were in that territory last season. Of course the small sample size rules apply, but if he regresses toward his career K/9 of 8.03, that would still translate into 150 strikeouts should he pitch 170 innings.

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In addition to the favorable strikeout rates, Masterson is a noted groundball machine. He has induced 54.2% groundballs in his career, and is currently getting grounders 57% of the time so far in 2010. His career numbers suggest that is perfectly sustainable. Again, we love groundballs because they limit the damage that can be done on a ball hit in play. In fact, more than two-thirds (66.9%) of at-bats against Masterson end in a strikeout, a groundout, or a single.

With all that said, Masterson does have flaws. His career walks per nine (BB/9) rate is a bit high at 4.13. This season his BB/9 is 4.05. On the other hand, when a pitcher is getting more than a strikeout per inning, as well as almost 60% groundballs, you can accept a few walks.

The biggest cause of Masterson’s inflated ERA thus far has been bad luck. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) thus far is an astronomical .420. A normal BABIP for a pitcher is near .300 and Masterson’s career number is .304. Expect regression to come soon, and with it a big improvement in his fantasy numbers.

Here’s another example of Masterson’s terrible luck: Less than one-fifth of the balls (18.5%) hit off Masterson are flyballs. Yet, almost one-third of those flyballs are leaving the yard. Masterson’s current home run-to-flyball rate (HR/FB) of 26.7% is the highest in the league. That number is more than double his career number of 13.2% and much higher than last year’s “leader”, Braden Looper, who had a 15.8% HR/FB for the Brewers.

When his BABIP and home run rates regress, Masterson should see a significant drop in ERA. Presently, his fielding independent pitching (FIP), which measures strikeouts, walks and home runs, is 4.30 – a full run less than his ERA. Going even further, his expected FIP  or xFIP, which normalizes his home run rates to further remove “luck” from the equation, and give a more accurate look at true talent level, is an excellent 3.12 – the fourth-best mark in the majors.

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Masterson, 25, is still learning how to pitch at the major league level. In general, a starting pitcher needs at least three pitches in order to survive lineups turning over three or four times a night. Right now, Masterson is living dangerously with just his fastball and slider. There are two versions of the fastball: four-seam and sinker; however, batters are seeing some form of the hard stuff nearly 85% of the time. He has been throwing his slider nearly 14% and barely using his change-up, which has a usage of less than 2%.

The sinker/slider combo, as well as Masterson’s three-quarters delivery, have been effective against righties, who are hitting just .226/.288/.302 vs. Masterson. Meanwhile, the heavy heater diet has been a feast for lefties who are smashing him to the tune of .414/.493/.655. If Masterson could spend some time with new teammate Mitch Talbot, the owner of a plus change-up, he could use that pitch as a great equalizer against his left-handers. 

All things considered – the strikeouts, the expected regression, and the groundballs – Masterson has the tools to be a solid starter in the American League. Currently, he is available in nearly 60% of leagues.

If you are in a mixed-league, pick him up. If you are in a deeper league or an AL-only league, in which he is owned, it shouldn’t take much to pry him away from an owner who is concerned with ERA. There will be some growing pains, but the potential for reward outweighs the relatively low risk.

For more on Justin Masterson and other buy low candidates, check Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Kits.

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