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Right on or way off: Is Masterson the Ace?

Right on or way off: Is Masterson the Ace?
June 23, 2012
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Justin Masterson has emerged as a legitimate ace...

For: As the summer heat has surfaced, so has Masterson’s dominance over opposing hitters. In four starts during the month of June, the Tribe starter has amassed a miniscule 1.24 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over 29 innings pitched, while holding the opposition to an impressive .186 batting average. The 27:6 strikeout to walk ration underscores his recent effectiveness at missing bats, while attacking the zone.

Masterson tossed one of the best games of his career during the righty’s most recent start, going the distance to cap off a sweep of Cincinnati. One unearned run and three hits was all the oft-powerful Reds lineup could muster, as Masterson struckout the side in the 9th, which hammered home the emphasis of a meaningful win for the team and himself. The Tribe’s ace recorded nine punchouts in the game, none of which were more impressive than his last, where he buckled the knees of the National League’s best hitter, Joey Votto, on a caught-looking strikeout.

The encouraging thing about Masterson’s authoritative resurgence is the way he’s balancing consistent mid-90s velocity with some devastating movement, especially on his trademark sinker and slider. There are very few pitchers who possesses that type of velocity and movement capable of making big league hitters look foolish. This is the same pitcher who notched a 3.21 ERA in 2011, which by no means appears to be his ceiling. He walks his share of hitters, but most of it is due to a vivid amount of vertical and lateral movement that Masterson regularly demonstrates. It may lead to some walks, but the way he can keep hitters off-balance is nothing short of ace-like.

Against: Masterson’s inconsistency dictates that he has yet to arrive as a legitimate ace. He may be the ace of this staff, but he hardly strikes fear into opposing hitters, compared to the likes of Verlander, Sabathia, Hernandez, Price, Weaver, and Wilson. Sure, June has been stellar for Masterson, but don’t forget about April and May, where he posted ERA marks of 5.40 and 4.93, respectively. Aces don’t go into those kinds of multiple month slumps.

He heavily relies on his sinker to succeed against opposing hitters. When he doesn’t have control over the pitch (either leaving it up in the zone or bouncing it to the catcher) or if it’s flat, then the base-runners and runs start quickly piling up. His streaky control leads to a high walk total, and even with his June success, he’s still tied for 5th in the league with 40 free passes. The high number of walks only lead to more high-stress innings, and thus, a greater opportunity for the opposing team to score. Usually aces heavily limit the number of run-scoring opportunities for the other team, as opposed to frequently dinking and dunking through trouble.

Furthermore, his lack of wins (four this year, only 12 in 2011) and high number of strikeouts indicate that he isn’t in the top-half of #1 starting pitchers in the American League, especially considering that this is his fifth year in the big leagues.

Verdict: Right on, Masterson is blooming into a legitimate ace of a major league starting staff. True, he has his valleys, and even though he may never be in the truly elite circle of starters, he is still a very capable ace. With his combination of velocity and movement, the ability to go the distance, and a sufficient amount of experience as a starter, this is the year Masterson stakes his claim as an ace.

Santana needs dropped from the cleanup spot…

For: Since Hafner hit the shelf, the necessity to produce power and score runs has been amplified for Tribe hitters. Unfortunately, Carlos Santana has not stepped up in the cleanup role. He has a mere five home runs on the year, while racking up the second-most strikeouts on the team (53). This season in the cleanup spot, Santana is hitting an anemic .189. Clearly, Santana has wilted under the pressure to fill the hole in the lineup.

In a recent start in the 6th spot in the lineup, the Tribe catcher went 2-for-4. Acta should give him regular at-bats in this lower-stress spot in the order. Last season he only hit .239, and if the team wants him to improve upon this year’s batting average of .230, then a change is definitely in order. The Tribe would be better off with Asdrubal Cabrera assuming the 4th spot in the lineup, as he has a .327 batting average with runners in scoring position, compared to Santana’s mediocre .255. The power arrow definitely points to Cabrera, as well, since the shortstop has a .483 slugging percentage, against Santana’s .354 mark.

The consistent lack of power from Santana is troubling, but it could potentially be rekindled by dropping him to the sixth spot, which still requires some pop. A drop in the lineup isn’t a condemnation; it just means he can regularly practice on implementing a short enough swing to be effective. Right now, though, Cabrera needs to regularly man the cleanup role until Hafner returns.

Against: It’s unquestioned that Santana has struggled with consistent success at the plate this season, but dropping him the lineup doesn’t make much sense. For one, shifting Cabrera to the cleanup spot would create a serious void in the two-hole. Michael Brantley would likely have to shift to the second spot in the lineup, which would take the team-leader in runs batted in out of regular at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Also, regardless of where he hits in the lineup, it’s not going to help him with his plate approach, with respect to strike zone discipline and a shorter swing. Hafner is the everyday answer, but until he returns, Santana is the best option that causes the least amount of disruption to an offense that finally has its best hitters locked into consistent roles.

His .394 on-base percentage with RISP and 29 RBI aren’t exactly woeful. Plus, with 2 outs and RISP he’s hitting .273, with a .500 on-base percentage. Last year in his first full season in the big leagues, Santana clubbed 27 homeruns. He has the potential to build upon that and should be given the opportunity hit cleanup, for he is likely the long term answer in that role, assuming Hafner isn’t retained for 2013.

Verdict: Way off, give Santana another 100 at-bats before deeming him incapable of hitting cleanup. He’s got the power potential and is the best answer while Hafner is out, so I say let him stay.

It’s time for a change to the starting rotation…

For: The rotation is finally starting to sort itself out, as starters are pitching more consistently with their roles. For Jeanmar Gomez, it means he’s looking like the low man in the pecking order. Gomez has tallied a 4.95 ERA, a .264 opponents’ batting average, 1.40 WHIP and is tied for 2nd on the team with most homeruns allowed, eight. He’s demonstrated continued issues with control, and for a guy with non-overpowering stuff, it’s been a battle. With at least one walk in eleven straight starts, Gomez has particularly fallen off over his last five starts:

                         vs. Pitt – 4.1 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 2 HR

                         @ Cin – 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 0 HR

                         @ Det – 5 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 HR

                         vs. KC – 5 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1  BB, 0 HR

                         @ CWS – 5.2 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 2 HR

Those numbers definitely do not suggest that Gomez is starting to round into midseason form. The time is now for Cleveland to fortify its starting staff by making a change to the fifth starter spot, before Detroit and Chicago make a move in the division standings. Zack McAllister has already demonstrated in four starts this season that he can trust his stuff and attack the zone, as it’s yielded him a 3.96 ERA.

Gomez had eleven starts in 2010 and ten in 2011; both seasons he had an ERA right around 4.50. His regression in 2012 doesn’t show that he’s making strides with his craft. More starts will only affirm an underwhelming track record. With an option still remaining, there is no risk in shipping the Tribe’s fifth starter to Columbus, in favor of McAllister. If Zack-Mac falters over the course of ten or so starts, then the team can simply bring Gomez back, knowing what to expect.

Against: Making a change to the starting rotation could throw off team chemistry and damage the confidence of Gomez, who is still only 24 years old. He doesn’t stand to gain anything by pitching against triple-A level hitters; instead, he needs more starts to continue to develop at the big league level. He’s barely had a full season’s worth of starts scattered over three years, so demoting him will only stymie his progression.

Lest we forget, earlier in the season when the top of the rotation, Gomez and the bottom half of the rotation helped stabilize the starting staff. From late-April into May, he recorded four quality starts in five chances. His three best starts:

                         @ Min – 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO, 0 HR

                         vs Mia – 6.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 4 SO, 0 HR

                         vs Ana – 6 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO, 1 HR

A fifth starter with the ability to pitch six-seven innings is a commodity. Sure, his ERA will likely never be below three and-a-half, but that isn’t necessarily what you ask out of your fifth starter. Gomez has been victimized by a higher than usual number of unearned runs (6), the most on the staff, which leads to more opportunities for big innings from the opposition.

Finally, McAllister also made four starts in 2011, while getting battered for an ERA north of six, so he is hardly an obvious upgrade over Gomez.

Verdict: Right on, it’s time to make a low-stakes change to the rotation. Gomez is looking worse each time he takes the hill, so why not take the chance to tweak a weak spot on the team, especially with a potentially superior option at triple-A.

User Comments

Tony
June 25, 2012 - 12:27 PM EDT
I really like Wright, but he is not yet an option. The knuckleball is certainly interesting, but he is still in the learning process with throwing it and becoming better getting it in the zone. His next step is AAA, which should come soon. He has become a big league option for sure, but likely not until next year.

As for trades, I agree, the Indians need to do something. Problem is with so many buyers and so few sellers, almost every team is demanding way too much in return and are fine with waiting until the deadline. Youkilis was an exception as that was a situation which had come to a head and the Red Sox wanted him gone.....
Rob
June 23, 2012 - 11:51 PM EDT
Outside of about 3-4 guys, not much else but middling prospects in the system. My main point is only a few teams are far enough out of races and would be willing to deal right now. Have to jump on something quick, may not be ideal but next 3-4 weeks determine their season. Heavy, heavy dose of AL east and they will not be playing nice little 3-2 games...need something of substance in 4 hole to stretch lineup a little more...and it must be from right side.
Jim
June 23, 2012 - 11:03 PM EDT
The only way I'd even touch Carlos Lee is if they took garbage in return. I agree we need a right handed hitter, but for Lee, they shouldn't give up anything but a middling prospect
Rob
June 23, 2012 - 8:44 PM EDT
Also, if you look at next 30 games on the schedule, if management sits on their hands until trade deadline it will be too late. Could easily be 6-8 games back by then. Strike soon andbe bold, give the fans a reason early to know what the goal is throw Carlos Lee on the flight to new york..have to have that rh bat in middle of lineup. Pettite, Chen,Matusz, cj wilson, price, moore, romero, sabathia, and whoever else might need a lefty from aaa to make a spot start. Could easily have half of next 28 games against lefties.
Rob
June 23, 2012 - 8:25 PM EDT
I like the way you think Roger. Love to see Wright in the rotation to give it another look, since we're all righty, just a new wrinkle to look at. Also, I wouldn't mind seeing Gomez fill the long role and send out Accardo. I'm a huge Santana fan, but his ab's are getting rough to watch. Just so sad our only other option for cleanup is Lopez. Acta is really hamstrung with limited options, wish Carrera was performing better at AAA. Just an obp/speed/defense guy would benefit lower half of lineup. This Duncan and Cunningham thing is an embarrasment for the organization, unreal that it has lasted for 70 games.
Roger
June 23, 2012 - 7:40 PM EDT
i agree with adam to send gomez to c-bus but i would get creative joe and carlos wont like it however they will have to learn the nuances of catching steve wrights knuckleball starting thursday night 6/28. 1.99era ' and throwing knucklebALL strikes says a lot and iit has happened many time with knuckle ball pitchers to skip AAA.

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