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Nick Masset and the Importance of the First Pitch Strike

Nick Masset was a dominant reliever in 2009. In 74 games, he posted a 2.37 ERA, striking 24% of the batters he faced while walking just 8%. Hitters hit just .203 off him for the season and he dominated lefties and righties equally. He looked like he was set up to be a dominant bullpen force for years to come.

Then the calendar changed and so did Masset's results. 2010 has not been kind to Masset. His walk rate is up nearly 50% and it seems like the hitters that aren't walking are hitting the ball hard all over the field. The opposition is hitting a cool .345 off of Masset this season, some of which is due to an "unlucky" BABIP of .468. I think we can expect some regression on that BABIP, but we may not see a lot if Masset doesn't get back to doing what he did last year - throwing strikes.

In 2009, Masset started out an at-bat with an 0-1 count 47% of the time. That number is down to 36% in 2010. This isn't because hitters are putting that first pitch into play more often either. In fact, the ball is put in play on his first pitch just 11.5% of the time in 2010, compared to 12.7% in 2009. The real problem is that Masset isn't throwing strikes on that first pitch. He's seen a 1-0 count 53% of the time this year, compared to just 41% last year. And that makes a huge difference:

Count Masset 2009 Masset 2010 MLB Avg 2010
After 1-0 .231/.314/.404 .410/.507/.607 .274/.391/.437
After 0-1 .168/.235/.208 .227/.300/.273 .228/.271/.348

As you can see, Masset was killing it in 2009. We probably should have expected a bit of regression anyway, but he's damn near fallen off a cliff. It doesn't help that he's putting himself into positions where he has to throw strikes more often either. He's finding himself behind in the count much more frequently, and he's doing it to himself. Last year he put the ball in the strike zone on the first pitch 48% of the time. This year that number is just 41%, according to pitch fx.

The positive news in all of this is that based on the data collected in pitch fx, there is no reason to be concerned about his stuff. His velocities and breaks look basically the same (though I have a feeling that pitch fx has his sliders and curveballs mixed up a bit). He appears to simply need to work on his location. I'm not a pitching coach and have never been a pitcher, so I have no idea how easy that is to fix, but to me, it's better to have one thing to fix than a handful of things.

Honestly, I'm hoping it's just a confidence issue. Maybe Masset, since he has been getting hit so hard, doesn't feel comfortable challenging hitters over the plate as much anymore. I say that I hope that is the issue because all it will hopefully take at this point is for Masset to have a couple of good outings to remind himself what it's like to be a successful pitcher. And I hope that happens soon, because right now he's reminding me a lot of Todd Coffey, who was good one year and then never could find that success again in Cincinnati.