I supposed I could use this space to tackle all the trade rumors out there, or to discuss Grady Sizemore’s latest setback or the promotion of Jason Kipnis, but I’m going to go in a different direction.
You see, I’m still hung up (see: fascinated) by what took place at Target Field on Tuesday night. That was when Justin Masterson — with the exception of one fourth-inning slider — only featured fastballs.
He came one pitch — one stinkin’ pitch — from using only heaters for an entire start. And he did so in a showing of total dominance. Masterson logged 7 2/3 shutout innings, scattered four singles, struck out six and created 15 outs via grounders. Only once did a Twins baserunner reach second, and that was helped by an error by Asdrubal Cabrera.
In all, Masterson threw 104 pitches and 103 were fastballs. Now, this is not simply a case where catcher Lou Marson threw down an index finger as he called each pitch. There was variation in Masterson’s approach. He threw 54 four-seam fastballs and 49 two-seamers (sinkers) and mixed up his pitch velocity throughout the evening.
That last part is what Masterson believes made the approach so strong.
“I was able to mix and match,” Masterson explained. “Even within the fastballs, there was a mix, a range of velocities that also helped kind of keep them off-balance. And being able to control the inner and outer half, that’s what kind of made it effective. It was almost like having two or three different pitches just within a fastball.”
According to fangraphs.com, Masterson’s pitches sat between 89.9-97.7 mph on the night. There was the one exception: a 78.6-mph slider. That lone offspeed offering came on his 47th pitch of his outing on a 1-0 count to Minnesota’s Michael Cuddyer. It was a called strike. Then, it was back to the sinker for a groundout.
So, Justin, um, why fire that ONE offspeed?
Masterson laughed at the question.
“Well, you know, we thought we’d probably use it more,” he said with a chuckle. “We were probably trying to get ready to throw some more sliders. But it just turned out…”
Masterson paused and shrugged.
“I’m sure there were opportunities where we probably could have,” he then continued. “Instead, we went to the sinker to get a groundball. We were getting a lot of ground balls. It was kind of like don’t change what’s working. We just wanted to keep pounding.
“That one would hopefully kind of put it in the back of the head like, ‘Oh, later on in the innings, is he going to throw one here? Is he not?’ It kind of worked out well.”
Masterson’s 54 four-seam fastballs averaged 94.09 mph (topping out at 97.2), while his sinker clocked in at 93.26 mph on average (97.7 at its peak). The right-hander got three swinging strikes with the four-seamer and seven with the sinker.
Here’s a look at his velocity chart (via brooksbaseball.net) for the outing:
That drastic valley in the middle is that one pesky slider.
As you can see, Masterson’s heaters were around 92-98 for his first 50 pitches and around 90-96 the rest of the way. Only once did he drop below 90 mph with the fastball. Masterson said his pitch speed obviously decreased some as the extremely hot night wore on, but he noted that there were time he intentionally took some speed off for added effect.
Within all of that, Masterson also mixed up his pitch sequences with the two fastballs to keep Twins hitters guessing. For the most part, he went with four-seamers early in counts to try to get ahead and then he’d begin working in the sinkers in an effort to induce weak contact, creating all those grounders in the process.
Here’s a look at how Masterson approached three of Minnesota’s hitters. The “4” indicates a four-seamer and a “2” refers to the pitcher’s sinker.
Leadoff man Ben Revere
First at-bat: 4-4-4-4-2-2 (groundout 1-3)
Second at-bat: 2-4-4 (flyout to left)
Third at-bat: 4-4 (groundout 4-3)
Catcher Joe Mauer
First at-bat: 4-4-4-4-4 (single to right)
Second at-bat: 4-2-2 (groudout 1-3)
Third at-bat: 4-4 (error shortstop)
Designated hitter Jim Thome
First at-bat: 4-2 (groundout 6-3)
Second at-bat: 2 (groundout 1-3)
Third at-bat: 2-2-2-2-2-2 (Strikeout)
Now, going with a fastball-heavy approach is not out of the ordinary for Masterson. On the season, he has averaged 82.6-percent fastballs per outing, which ranks second behind only Bartolo Colon (84.3) in baseball. But going with heaters 99-percent of the time is an extreme that is very rare to witness.
Sticking with primarily heaters has worked well for Big Nasty this season, though. As of this writing, Masterson had a 2.64 ERA (7th in the American League), a 3.4 WAR (6th among AL pitchers) and a 144 ERA + (7th) in 21 games for the Indians this season. With a bit more run support, he’d surely have a greater record than the 8-6 ledger he’s sporting.
Masterson’s reliance on fastballs has increased in each of the past three seasons, and his percentage of sliders has decreased accordingly over the same span. Dating back to 2008, Masterson has upped his heater percentage as follows: 66.7, 72.8, 78.1 to 82.6 this year. His slider percentage has gone: 30.2, 24.2, 18.5 to 16.5 this year. His changeup is a rare sight these days, too.
If it ain’t broke…