Despite signing a multi-million dollar, one-year contract before the season began, ground-baller Justin Masterson has been designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox. Masterson's last good season was 2013, when he threw 193 innings of 3.45 ERA / 3.35 FIP / 3.33 xFIP. That season was worth 3.5 fWAR. There was a fair amount of extension talk around that time, but it seems the Indians were prudent not to offer more than they did. Masterson got $19.3 million over two years instead of maybe $42 million over three years or more. Now, Masterson is left to pick up the pieces of what once was, and he's in search of a new team.
Masterson's decline was swift and brutal
That 2013 season was pretty great. The 2014 and 2015 seasons have been downright mean to Masterson. His overall line of a 5.79 ERA / 4.61 FIP / 4.25 xFIP in 2014-2015 combined is a steep decline from his 2013 niceties. His strikeout rate is down, his walk rate is up, his home run rate is up, and his BABIP is up. Perhaps most importantly, Masterson's ground ball rate has fallen to 51.9 percent. While that's high for most pitchers, Masterson's ground ball rate has never been lower.
There are plenty of reasons why this decline occurred, the most important of which is a decrease in velocity. Back in 2013, Masterson threw his four-seam fastball 94 mph on average. His sinker averaged 91.1 mph. Those numbers have fallen to 89.1 mph and 88 mph, respectively (Brooks Baseball). Being an extreme ground ball pitcher, Masterson needs his sinker; it is the pitch he uses the most.
In addition to the decline in velocity, Masterson is putting his sinker in a different place. Below are two graphs: the first shows Masterson's sinker location in 2013, the second shows his sinker location in 2014-2015.
Interestingly, Masterson has tried to bury the pitch below the zone more recently, and his ground-ball percentage has decreased as a result. That decrease is all in 2015, but the zone map for 2015 looks very similar to the overall 2014-2015 one.
One would think that Masterson's ground-ball rate would increase if the pitch were located lower, but Masterson is not your regular sinker-baller. His arm slot is very low for a right-handed pitcher; it is almost sidearm. Masterson's sinker, by the combination of vertical and horizontal movement and release point, is a unique sinker. That's where the Pirates come into play.
The Pirates have experience rehabbing pitchers
Below is a chart of average horizontal movement and average vertical movement by player on two-seam fastballs and sinkers. I grabbed the data from Baseball Savant for 2015. Unfortunately, it's a stupid graph because it is limited to the 50,000 rows that a .csv file in Excel can hold, which means that any players whose first name alphabetically come after "Mike Leake" is omitted from the data. I think the point gets across, though.
Two of the closer comparisons by average horizontal and vertical movement come in the forms of Charlie Morton and Jared Hughes, both of whom pitch for the Pirates. The other points near-ish Masterson are Carson Smith (below and slightly right), Joe Smith (below and left), Darren O'Day (above and left), and Brad Ziegler (above and more left). In that group of players, Masterson and Morton are the only starters.
Morton throws his sinker almost 65 percent of the time. He has a curveball and split-finger changeup as well. Hughes throws his sinker 77 percent of the time; in addition, he throws a slider too. Masterson is a little different in this regard. He throws his sinker about 38 percent of the time and fills in the rest with his four-seam fastball and slider. Perhaps the Pirates could help him optimize his sinker usage. I'm not saying that Masterson should throw more sinkers. I am suggesting that the Pirates can figure out what percentage of sinkers is the right percentage.
The Pirates (Ray Searage appears to be some sort of pitching wizard) also have experience with reclaiming troubled pitchers. Francisco Liriano had two straight seasons of below average performance in part due to a lack of control. Then the Pirates grabbed him, turned him into a more consistent ground-ball pitcher, and he's been pretty good ever since.
A.J. Burnett also had two straight seasons of sub-par performance before being picked up by the Pirates for the 2012 season. The Pirates turned him into a more consistent ground-ball pitcher, and Burnett was excellent for the Pirates in 2012-2013. He went away to the Phillies last year and had less success before the Pirates brought him back for this year. Burnett was performing very well until he was struck by the injury bug a few weeks ago.
The Pirates already have Masterson-like pitchers
The Burnett injury would make it seem like the Pirates need another good pitcher. Losing him was a big blow given his 3.06 ERA / 3.09 FIP / 3.47 xFIP line up until the injury but Masterson is unlikely to fill the hole.
In addition to Charlie Morton, who is already similar to Masterson, the Pirates have Jeff Locke and J.A. Happ for the rotation spots behind Gerrit Cole and Liriano. Locke is a lower strikeout, higher walk, high ground ball pitcher, which is essentially what Masterson is now. Happ, interestingly, is not a ground-ball pitcher, but the Pirates traded for him at the deadline. Presumably, Masterson would replace Happ in the rotation, but Happ's status as a recent trade acquisition makes that unlikely. I'm not sure there's any performance gain to be had.
With a little improvement, Masterson is projected for 0.2 fWAR for the rest of the season. Happ, quizzically, is projected for about 0.6 fWAR for the rest of the season. That's a rosy projection. Despite the projection, Happ already fits the description of a player whose past performance does not inspire, a description that Masterson appears to fit now as well. Happ is the Pirates' "reclamation project" for the fifth starter spot.
What do the Pirates gain by acquiring Masterson now? Depth? Another project? A relief option? Masterson's contract is for only this year, so the Pirates would not retain any control. Masterson would almost certainly take a qualifying offer, so there is no draft pick benefit. Masterson might take over the sixth starter spot from Casey Sadler. However, if Ray Searage really is the guy that Masterson needs, stashing him in AAA won't help.
The cost of getting Masterson is really just a roster spot. He fits the description of the kind of player that the Pirates like to claim and rehab, and he fits the requirement of being cheap since he was DFA'd. The question is if the Pirates gain anything from having him on the roster. A rehabbed Masterson would be a great asset for the stretch run and potentially beyond, but it is unclear if the Pirates can fix Masterson's primary issue, velocity. Ray Searage can't be that magical, can he?
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