Indians’ Masterson: Limiting Disastrous Starts Key to Success

This is a 2013 photo of Cleveland Indians pitcher Justin Masterson. This image reflects the Cleveland Indians baseball team active roster when this image was taken in Goodyear, Ariz., Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

This is a 2013 photo of Cleveland Indians pitcher Justin Masterson. This image reflects the Cleveland Indians baseball team active roster when this image was taken in Goodyear, Ariz., Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Goodyear, Ariz. — To Justin Masterson, his disappointing 2012 season was a consequence of a few too many super bad starts.

“For myself, there were seven or eight games that spiraled into me giving up seven or eight runs,” he said. “If I could just minimize that, if I kept those games to five runs, it would produce a whole different outlook on things.”

Of Masterson’s 34 outings last year, nine ended with him allowing at least six earned runs and as many as eight. His ERA in those starts was 12.72. In his other 25 starts, he compiled an ERA of 2.69.

Masterson knows that he can’t throw out the lousy starts and count only the effective ones. Moreover, the real question is why 26 percent of his starts ended in disaster and accounted for eight — more than half — of his 15 defeats.

“Each game had a little different flavor,” Masterson said. “In some of them, I tried to up my effort level, trying to throw a little harder on days I didn’t feel as good.

“And there were times when I felt good and tried to make things happen, and they ended up being worse. Other times, not being in the strike zone had an effect on me.”

In virtually all of these instances, Masterson began to overthrow to escape from a jam or to minimize damage, which forced him out of his comfort level.

Masterson’s live right arm produces more ball movement than that of most starters. He doesn’t need to throw 96 miles per hour when 94 will do. When he muscles up on his sinker, it tends to flatten out rather than dive down and in to right-handed batters.

His struggles have not turned off manager Terry Francona, who named Masterson the opening day starter for the second year in a row.

“Whether or not I’m the opening day starter, I like to think I’m one of the leaders on the staff,” Masterson said. “There’s not any more pressure. For me, when something needs to happen, you need to make it happen.

“But you’re only pitching once every five days, so you can only lead so much. Each starter has to go out there and do his thing. If he does, it rubs off on the other guys. And sometimes the other guys have to pick you up.”

Francona was the manager when Masterson made his major-league debut with the Red Sox. Masterson made 36 appearances, nine as a starter. The speculation was that the Sox weren’t certain whether Masterson should be a career starter or a career reliever. Francona said that was not true.

“To the best of my recollection, he was called up and shoved in the bullpen,” Francona said. “We had so much trust in him that he pitched in some high-leverage situations. The guy was coming quick. He was a starter, but you could use him in the bullpen and for multiple innings.

“There was no debate. Justin was always a starter, but when he came up, he was a tremendous fit for us as a reliever.”

Masterson’s sub-par season of 2012 was all the more disappointing because he seemed to have figured out what he needed to do as a starter in 2011, when he was 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA and often dominated hitters.

Last year, expectations for the Indians were somewhat higher than in 2011, partly because of the way Masterson performed. Masterson thought about the team’s failures during the winter.

“You see how it happened,” he said. “There were pitching lapses at times, hitting lapses at times, and the defense would go at times. It was very frustrating because it all came at once.

“I don’t care who you are when that happens, it’s not easy to get through. We just didn’t have the firepower to shoot ourselves out of it.”

After a winter in which the Tribe signed or traded for several notable players, fans and the media anticipate that the team will at the very least abandon its recent practice of losing 90-plus games.

“My expectations haven’t changed,” Masterson said, speaking of his own role. “For me, I want to go out and have a chance to win every single game I pitch and go deep in the game. If I don’t meet that expectation, I’ll be upset.”

This could be a pivotal year in Masterson’s career, following one promising season followed by a substandard year.

“I’m betting on Justin as a person,” Francona said. “I think he understands the responsibility we want him to have on this staff.”