Whatsamatta U: Nick Masset

This is the second convening of Whatsamatta U and I still have not received a cease and desist from whoever owns the copyright to Rocky and Bullwinkle. The topic today: Reds reliever Nick Masset. Street name: Masset Hound. Masset has been a pillar of the bullpen for the past two seasons, routinely called on to pitch the eight inning and ratcheting up his K/9 to a nice, round, chronologically-appropriate 10.0 in 2010. He's capable of running his fastball a notch above 95 mph. According to pitch f/x, he's been mixing in a split-finger fastball and throwing his two-seamer and slider in equal measure this season.

Unfortunately, the first month of 2011 has been unkind to the Masset Hound. WU takes no pleasure whatsoever in reporting this. Nor does it think the Reds should regret their re-up with Masset after the '09 season, which pays him a little over $1.5M in '11, depending on appearances.

At the risk of reprising Slyde's analysis of Masset's early struggles last season, there does not appear to be a velocity problem here. Rather, Masset is experiencing difficulty with placement, movement and the ability to pitch in batter-friendly counts. If Pitch f/x is to be believed, Masset has relied less this season on a straight fastball, while that fastball has shown less movement on both axes. Perhaps for diminished confidence in his heater, Masset has leaned more on his secondary stuff - notably his slider. This is not necessarily cause for alarm, especially as the slider can be a very effective out pitch. But there appears generally to be less movement on the secondary fastballs too. And when pitches aren't moving, they sometimes hang right in the hot zone, which might explain why Masset has been tagged for 10 hits/9 and 3 HRs in 15.1 innings. Coupling that with a possible overcompensation through nibbling or "over-pitching" leads to his current rate of nearly 6 walks per 9.

This potential crisis in confidence snowballs after Masset gets behind in the count, as Slyde also observed early last season. On top of being hit well on his first offering, Masset is suffering a 1.091 OPS-against in 1-0 counts and a 1.226 OPS-against in all situations after being down 1-0  (35 PAs). As always, these are small samples. But it's conceivable that Masset is coming out less confident in his material and, as a consequence, digging himself a hole that he hasn't been able to climb out of often enough. If Masset's game-face has receded at all, it's also evident in his sub-par performance in high-leverage situation and with runners in scoring position.

Masset may be somewhat prone to early-season trouble. In 2006, his first season with the Rangers, he posted a 6.35 ERA through his first five starts. In 2008, with the White Sox, he had a 5-run meltdown in early April similar to his opening appearance on April 5, 2010. Through the first month of the 2010 season, his ERA stood at 11.32. April is historically close to the best month to face Masset.

Masset currently has a BABIP of .304, exactly in line with his career mark. He's stranding runners at a lower rate than he has since 2007, but that may well be poor pitching, rather than any significant amount of bad luck. His Fielding Independent pitching gives him some grace (5.65) and his xFIP gets him down to a fairly tolerable 4.41, based on an inflated HR-rate.

Diagnosis

It's still very early for Masset, which is not to say that his struggles aren't real. Based on his history, I wouldn't expect him to keep getting hit as hard - given a higher-than-usual LD% - or as far as he has been. But his hittability could easily have little to do with small sample size noise or poor luck. He'll need to regain a measure of faith in his stuff and ride that wave to both first-pitch strikes and effective pitching in the hole. I don't presume to know anything at all about his inner life, so I hesitate to speculate about confidence issues. The root of the problem - and any effect it has on his psyche - could be simply regaining the advantage he previously had with good movement and adequate location.

There's no way Masset keeps walking 6 batters per 9 innings. He may be experience problems hitting targets, but as someone once said who probably turned out to be right - I don't remember -  "the fundamentals are sound." There's no apparent sign of injury or problems throwing gas. M.H. took over a month to stabilize last season. Let's hope that's all he's in for this year.


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