Justin Masterson: True ace of the Indians’ rotation

Before Ubaldo Jimenez arrived in Cleveland, the Indians already had a pitcher who was performing like an ace.

It’s no secret that Justin Masterson has had a spectacular year, anchoring an Indians starting rotation that has been the main reason why the team sits within striking distance of first place in the AL Central.

Just how Masterson has been so dominant this season is even more spectacular.

Feeding opposing hitters an almost exclusive diet of sinking fastballs, Masterson has benefited immensely from the increased use of the pitch, challenging hitters more than ever. He’s hurling his fastball 84 percent of the time — more than any other starter in baseball and ever before in his career — and even managed a start last month of nearly eight shutout innings where all but one of his 104 pitches were sinking fastballs.

The combination of Masterson’s low, unorthodox arm slot and large 6’6″, 250-pound frame varies the velocity of his fastball, with some pitches clocked at less than 90 MPH while others come close to 98, but that’s never concerned the Kingston, Jamaica native.

“It’s kind of always been the same for me, mixing and matching here and there,” Masterson told The Good Point. “In the minor leagues I’d range from 86 to 96 on the sinker, you know, on the fastball, [so] that’s kind of the way it is.”

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“You see one game where it’s consistently up there and you’re like ‘oh I need to be there every day’, but I think it’s something about this big lanky body that just doesn’t always do it.”

Aside from fastball data, Masterson’s numbers this season speak for themselves. After entering this season with a career 4.30 ERA and 1.423 WHIP in 397 innings split between the starting rotation and the bullpen, the former second-round pick has managed a career-best 2.69 ERA and 1.168 WHIP in 167 innings so far with the Tribe in 2011.

In addition to conceding just five home runs in 25 starts, Masterson is giving up fewer hits, issuing less walks, and finding the strike zone more than he ever has since being converted to a full-time starter when the Indians acquired him in 2009.

To fans, it appears that the right-hander is drastically improving as he enters his prime years, and is reaching his potential. To Masterson, it appears that he’s finally putting everything together and, more importantly, finding consistency.

“It comes down to being consistent; [I’ve] been working the heater well and having good control,” he said. “Barring the one start in Tampa [on May 29] and the one inning when Tampa was here, I feel really consistent about what [I’ve] been able to do.”

Another thing that Masterson has been able to do this season different from years past is put complete faith in the defense behind him. It’s not that he wasn’t confident in his defense last year, but this season he’s mentally at peace with the idea of pitching to contact. While his ground ball rate this season is actually a tad lower than it was in 2010, the increased use of his fastball is forcing hitters to swing at his offerings, usually resulting in poor contact on the ball and easy outs.

The work of the Indians’ position players this season has certainly not gone unnoticed by Masterson.

“The guys are playing great defense for me,” Masterson replied when asked about the biggest difference he has noticed this year. “I get a lot of balls put in play and the guys are playing terrific defense. Not necessarily going out of their shoes or anything, but overall making the routine plays and [the] great plays.”

“That does give you a little added confidence where you can be like ‘hey make him put it on the ground’ or ‘alright I’m going to pound this guy knowing that someone is going to catch the ball somewhere.”

At the end of the day, though, it’s been Masterson’s efforts alone that have made him the Indians’ best pitcher this season.

He’s revamped his approach to right-handed hitters considerably, holding them to a .263 average and .681 OPS last season but a .191 average and .505 OPS this season. He’s keyed in on retiring the leadoff batter of a frame and drastically improved on getting the first two outs of an inning as well, which has helped him work quickly and go deeper into games.

With Masterson taking the ball every fifth day, the Indians are not hoping to win; they’re expecting to. It’s a philosophy that has rubbed off on the team’s goals for the season as well. Having been in first place for the majority of the season and close behind the Detroit Tigers for the division crown right now, the Indians are feeling like the postseason is more than just a possibility.

It’s a mindset that Masterson says was present at times in Spring Training, but only intensified as the season went on.

“We were solid, laid back, and we worked on the fundamentals,” he said of the clubhouse atmosphere during Spring Training. “[Then] we came into the season starting hot, and we just rode it.”

Now, the Indians and their fans are hoping to ride that atmosphere all the way to the postseason.

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