CLEVELAND: By the time Justin Masterson met his new pitching coach during the offseason, he already had a handle on what had caused him such a roller-coaster 2012 season.
“This is my assessment,” Masterson told new Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway, “So, what do you think?”
After enjoying a breakout season in 2011 in which Masterson led Tribe pitchers in ERA (3.21), strikeouts (158) and starts (34) and tied for a team-high 12 wins in a career-high 216 innings, the 2012 season was a major letdown.
Not only did Masterson fail to match the previous season’s statistics, he regressed in many areas. He lost 15 games, his ERA ballooned to 4.93 and his walk total increased by 23.
“In my year-end assessment of myself, I just went through my mind and just thought about it,” he said. “I had seven bad starts, and in each start it was one inning. So I started thinking, ‘What was I sensing? What did I do different?’ ”
Each time things began to unravel, Masterson recalled the same thought process.
“During those starts, I noticed everything was going good and then I remembered thinking, ‘Now I’m going to try to get a little more on this [pitch], do a little more,’ ” he said. “And all of a sudden, the ball flattened out. Instead of me just being happy with [throwing] 90, 91 [mph] and just pitching, I tried to ramp it up.”
Masterson is only three starts into this season, but at 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA and riding a 19 consecutive scoreless innings streak, he’s proving he’s mastered the tough lesson of trying to do too much last year.
“A lot of what led to my troubles last year is when I’d get a little excited, I’d overthrow and get under a lot of pitches,” he said. “So my goal coming into this season was just to kind of slow down a little bit and keep the effort level down.
“I’ve learned that I don’t have to look up and throw 96, 97 mph. Maybe every once in a while. But for the most part, I can live with a little bit less and then find [the added velocity] when I need it. That way I’m pitching and not trying to just blow it by hitters.”
By the time Callaway first talked to Masterson, he’d noticed the same thing.
“I got to see him pitch a lot last year just by watching games and stuff like that,” said Callaway, who served as the Tribe’s minor-league pitching coordinator last season. “And I looked at a lot of film on the guys this winter.
“The thing with him is his stuff was always there. It was just like he told me from the start — the big innings just kind of got out of control last year. He was almost being too competitive instead of relaxing and letting his stuff work. He was trying to fight through it, reach back and throw harder.”
Masterson realized his fatal mistake from last season without the aid of video. Now he’s learned that there’s nothing wrong with ramping up a bit on his fastball occasionally, but he needs to stay in control.
That’s what allowed him to pitch one of the best games of his career Friday when he shut out the visiting Chicago White Sox to earn his third consecutive win.
“So far this season, he’s done a great job of just controlling his effort level,” Callaway said. “He’s just keeping it nice and relaxed and that’s why it looks like’s he’s throwing so effortlessly right now. There’s a focused ease to it.”
In 21 innings, Masterson has limited opponents to one run on 10 hits with eight walks and 20 strikeouts. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the only other Indians pitcher to win his first three starts while allowing no more than one run was Luis Tiant in 1966.
“I know what happened last year, but whenever I’ve seen Masty in a Cleveland uniform, whenever we faced him, [he was throwing] 95 mph with some ride,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Right now though, he’s just on everything and it’s for strikes. He’s able to elevate [pitches] and his pitches down have tremendous depth to them. And his breaking ball? He’s in a really good zone with it right now.”
Following Monday’s off day, the Tribe gets back to work tonight against Masterson’s former team when the Indians start a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Progressive Field.
Masterson, who was part of the 2009 trade that sent Indians veteran catcher Victor Martinez to the Red Sox, will put his streak on the line Wednesday when he goes against right-hander Alfredo Aceves.
Whatever happens, Masterson knows professional hitters are too good for the streak to last forever.
“It’s going to end sometime,” he said. “You just have to go out there and finish off each inning. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Focus on each and every batter, every inning and stay within myself.”
Sounds a bit boring, but in simplifying the task, Masterson has been able to not only revert to his 2011 form, but also perhaps even surpass it.
“The key will be what happens once he starts to struggle,” Callaway said. “That’s what pitching is about for anybody — what do they do when things aren’t going great.”
Masterson has been down that road before and believes it’s a lesson well learned.
“The mental and the physical go hand-in-hand,” he said. “It’s not going to make me perfect. I may be in a good run right now early, but there’s going to be tough times. The key for me will be being able to minimize the damage. Instead of giving up five or six runs in a bad inning, I need to keep it to two or three runs. That way we’re still in the ballgame.”