Last July, the Cleveland Indians swapped long-time catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for three young talents. Nick Hagadone, a lefty with a wicked fastball/slider combo coming back from Tommy John surgery, was the premium prospect in the deal. Righty reliever Bryan Price, a 2008 supplemental first-rounder out of Rice, was a sweetener. But the guy expected to pay immediate dividends was Justin Masterson.
A 6-6, 250 pound specimen, Masterson was selected out of San Diego State in the second round of the 2006 draft. In its ’06 draft coverage, Baseball America noted Masterson’s peculiar path to pro ball. The Jamaican born-right-hander sprouted eight inches in high school and spent his first two college seasons at NAIA Bethel, in Indiana. BA liked his big frame and heavy low-90’s sinker, but believed that lagging secondary stuff (a slider and a changeup) might necessitate a move to the bullpen.
After punishing hitters out of the ‘pen at short-season Lowell during the summer of 2006 (31.2 IP, 33/2 K/BB, 4 R), Masterson made his full-season debut as a starter at High-A Lancaster in 2007.
Though the home of the JetHawks is notorious for gale-force winds and offensive explosions, Masterson didn’t flinch. In 95.2 innings in the California League, he posted rates of 5.27 K/9 and 2.07 BB/9, with a 3.45 FIP. He used that bowling ball sinker to get grounders at a 53.6 percent clip. Masterson earned a call-up to Double-A Portland during the summer, thoroughly dominating the competition: a 3.10 FIP in 58 innings, with 9.16 K/9, 2.79 BB/9 and a 68.3 percent groundball rate.
Following that huge campaign, Masterson moved up the prospect charts. Baseball America named him the fourth-best talent in a fertile Boston system, praising his “special sinker” that resigned righty batters to weakly chopping the ball into the dirt. However, BA thought that Masterson’s low-three-quarters arm slot led to an inconsistent slider, and that his changeup was rudimentary. A future in the bullpen again was predicted.
In 2008, Masterson split the year between the upper levels of the minors and the major leagues. He put the beat down on batters in 47.2 combined Double-A and Triple-A innings (spent mostly at Double-A), with a 2.91 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.21 BB/9 and 65.1% groundball rate.
With Boston, he tossed 88.1 frames, making 27 relief appearances and nine starts. He was a beast of out the bullpen, but had some problems controlling the zone when asked to navigate opposing lineups multiple times.
Masterson was 40 percent better than the league average against same-handed batters (60 sOPS+ vs. RHB). But lefties, getting a long look at the ball because of Masterson’s low arm slot, performed three percent better than average (103 sOPS+).
Overall, Masterson whiffed 6.93 batters per nine innings, with 4.08 BB/9 and a 4.26 xFIP. He continued to burn worms (54.2 GB%), but his 3.16 ERA was boosted by a very low batting average on balls in play (.243) and a high rate of stranding runners on base (83.3 percent). While Masterson’s run values were inflated somewhat because of that good fortune, his 90 MPH sinker (+0.79 runs per 100 pitches) and 81 MPH slider (+2.64) were strong offerings.
Between Boston and Cleveland this past year, Masterson again divided his time between starting and relieving (26 ‘pen appearances, 16 starts). He was excellent in short stints, with 9.76 K/9, 2.95 BB/9 and a 3.23 xFIP in 39.2 relief innings. Starting, he compiled marks of 7.63 K/9, 4.72 BB/9 and a 4.41 xFIP in 89.2 innings. Masterson’s overall line? 129.1 IP, 8.28 K/9, 4.18 BB/9, and a 53.6 percent groundball rate, with a 4.05 xFIP.
Masterson pitched similarly in relief and as a starter, chucking a 92 MPH sinker in excess of 70 percent of the time, while using a harder slider (84 MPH) nearly a quarter of the time. His changeup remained an afterthought, thrown just three percent. The sinker was about average (-0.05 runs per 100 pitches), with the slider a plus pitch (+1.12). That sinker/slider mix again led to a sizeable platoon split: righties had a feeble 65 sOPS+, but lefties teed off for a 127 sOPS+.
Twenty-five in March, Masterson enters 2010 with a couple of questions left unanswered: can he hone his control as a starter, and can he avoid being eaten alive by left-handed batters? The two questions are obviously interrelated, as you can see through Masterson’s career platoon splits:
vs. RHB: 114.2 IP, 8.48 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, 3.48 xFIP
vs. LHB: 103 IP, 6.9 K/9, 5.42 BB/9, 4.86 xFIP
In terms of handling lefties, Masterson has a couple factors working against him. The same arm slot that makes him death on righty batters gives opposite-handed hitters ample opportunity to pick up the ball. Also, the same sinker/slider combo that eviscerates those right-handers isn’t near as effective against left-handers. Two-seam fastballs show a very large platoon split, as do sliders.
To Cleveland’s credit, the club appears to be giving Masterson every opportunity to prove that he can cut it as a starter in the majors. The soon-to-be 25 year-old is projected by CHONE to post a 4.27 FIP in 159 IP next year, with 7.47 K/9 and 4.02 BB/9. That performance would be worth around 2.1-2.2 Wins Above Replacement. Even if you think that Masterson will be a shut-down reliever, used often and in high-leverage situations (say, a 3.20 FIP in 80 innings, with a 1.5 Leverage Index), Masterson’s WAR would be around 1.7-1.8.
Right now, Masterson looks like a modestly above-average starter. It probably wouldn’t him hurt to try and add something to his arsenal that dips and fades away from lefties, though.