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How Justin Masterson went from good pitcher to released pitcher

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The Justin Masterson saga.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox part of Justin Masterson's saga has come to a close. He was released by the team just after Dave Dombrowski was brought on as the president of team operations or whatever teams are calling the person above the GM and below the owners these days. I wrote about Masterson not very long ago after he was designated for assignment; now that he is released, he is free to seek employment elsewhere.

The basic premise of my article was that Masterson needed a team with experience dealing with his situation (like the Pirates) - an inconsistent ground ball pitcher with a unique sinker. However, I did not mention what brought Masterson's career to a halt other than velocity. His velocity decline is clear, but Masterson is still young-ish at 30 years old and never threw that hard to begin with. Masterson is a pitcher, so a velocity decline is always on the horizon, but Masterson's was rather swift even for being a pitcher.

I'm going to delve into conjecture at this point. Take what I say with a grain of salt - I'm not a doctor.

First, note Masterson's mechanics. Doug Thorburn at Baseball Prospectus does a fantastic job of analyzing mechanics, and you can read about Masterson's mechanics in a few articles I will cite. At a basic level, Masterson is an almost-sidearm pitcher. Despite his height, he releases the ball very low due both to his arm slot and his leg bend at release point. His legs are an extremely important part of his mechanics. From Thorburn:

Masterson stands 6’6", and yet he has the lowest release point of any starting pitcher in baseball. Such a feat requires a multi-pronged approach, beginning with an arm slot that epitomizes the sidearm delivery. He has near-perfect posture to avoid any artificial rise, and his shoulder abduction is such that it nearly forms a right angle with his torso. However, what truly separates Masterson from the pack is his extremely low center of gravity, which is fueled by excessive bend in the knees that lowers his entire foundation.

Masterson derived much of his power from his legs. If you just look at him pitch, you can see his legs are very stout. Any problems with his legs would lead to problems with velocity. Unfortunately, it appears leg problems are exactly what happened.

This article published on June 26th last year revealed (to me at least) that Masterson had been feeling nagging right knee pain since after his second start of 2014, which was April 6th. Masterson's right knee is integral to his mechanics; he has a little "hitch" where he uses his back knee, his right knee, to drive forward before rotating his upper half. If you look at the gif in a different Thorburn article, you can see a little awkward bend in Masterson's right knee as he pushes forward. This is just part of his mechanics, and he's done fine with it for years.

However, something went awry on April 6th. Facing the Twins on a cold day, Masterson started the game quite well. He seemed to command his fastball for strikes at will and at good velocity; he mowed down the Twins in the first inning by throwing 64.7 percent strikes and reaching nearly 94 MPH on the radar gun. He would not do that well later in the game.

After the first inning, Masterson's velocity decreased considerably, and he just could not command his pitches. His best strike rate after the first inning was 56.3 percent in the fourth inning, from which he did not escape. From Brooks Baseball:

masterson velocity plot

My thought is that Masterson noticed the knee issue during the game, probably in the second inning. He tried to pitch through it, but he found he could not command his pitches effectively while maintaining velocity. In an attempt to command his pitches better, he decreased his velocity. Unfortunately, his pitches are quite hittable at decreased velocity, as we've discovered over the past year and a half or so.

It is relatively easy to accept that a knee issue during a game would affect Masterson's command. That doesn't go very deep, though. We prefer to go deeper here.

If my hypothesis that Masterson's right knee was affected is correct, he would have difficulty pushing off the mound effectively. Masterson's lower body would essentially be sped up without a greater drive toward the plate, which wasn't much to begin with. If his lower body sped up, his upper body would be dragging behind in terms of his normal mechanical timing. This would cause Masterson to miss the plate arm-side and up.

Watching the game, the announcers frequently noted his lack of command and inability to keep the ball down. He also hit two right-handed hitters on pitches that ran way too far arm-side. Against righties, he more or less was able to keep his sinker down, but certainly did leave a few up and arm side. He did not do well against lefties trying to keep the ball down.

Masterson continued to pitch through 2014 until finally he went on the DL July 8th last year with right knee inflammation, which seems kind of like it is not a big deal. Take your time off, rehab, come back, and be fine, except it might have been a big deal. Thorburn wrote an article in May last year that included Masterson. From the article:

Masterson’s diminished velocity, lower release point, and alterations in slider usage create a maelstrom of red flags, yet his positive mechanical indicators and relative success compared to the other pitchers on this list help to quell the concern. His situation has not yet hit worrisome levels, and he might just take some time to get his groove back, but the warning signs leave me wary about his likelihood of rediscovering the success of last season.

Masterson's decreased velocity and increased slider usage indicate he did not want to use the hard stuff as much as he used to. Thorburn did not note any mechanical problems, but he was suspicious that something might have been wrong.

In order to explain more what went wrong, I'm venturing further into conjecture. In addition to Masterson's bent lower half, the Indians seem to have an organizational philosophy with their pitchers regarding hip-shoulder separation, which is how a pitcher generates torque and is related to velocity. From a Thorburn article before the 2014 season:

The team’s starting pitchers excelled in generating torque, particularly with the strategy of utilizing upper-body load to create hip-shoulder separation." "The emphasis on twisting the upper-half prior to foot strike might be most evident with Justin Masterson, though Corey Kluber's combination of upper-body load and delayed trunk rotation produced the highest-grade torque on the club.

Masterson utilizes a large amount of hip-shoulder separation to generate torque. With a weaker lower half due to the knee issue, it was all on his upper body to generate velocity. Well, Masterson is a big dude who extends his albatross-like arms before twisting his trunk to get to his release point. What if Masterson tried to load his shoulders more to compensate for his weaker lower half? I would think this would lead to shoulder problems. Indeed, Masterson went on the DL in May of this year for right shoulder tendinitis. There were reports of arm fatigue in the linked article - the increased shoulder load could have just worn him down.

In short, Masterson could have altered his mechanics in response to an injury (or nagging pain) in an attempt to continue pitching and avoid the DL. He eventually wound up on the DL for the original issue anyway, and the altered mechanics could have led to the second issue, for which he also ended up on the DL. From a Thorburn article before the 2015 season started:

...his stable baselines raise the concern that there was something structurally impaired with the right-hander last season. The torque was down as well, leaving questions of functional strength and flexibility in addition to the structural concerns, and the volatile right-hander has a tough hill to climb before he gets back on top of his game.

Thorburn flat-out stated that Masterson's torque was down in 2014, which somewhat clashes with my hypothesis of Masterson trying to increase his shoulder load to compensate for the lost lower-half strength. However, I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive. Generating torque is a two-part thing in which the legs and shoulders must work together. If his legs were decreased enough in strength, loading the shoulders more would not have helped.

To summarize, Masterson felt a knee problem early in 2014. The lost velocity is in part due to that, and he tried to pitch through it. In an attempt to compensate, he could have increased his upper body load to try to generate more torque, but this led to further problems with his shoulder.

Masterson's poor performance and subsequent release do not inspire confidence that he is healthy. I've provided a possible explanation for his decreased velocity that jives with Masterson's DL stints and a few quotes from articles, but this doesn't really mean I'm right. Masterson could be healthy, but maybe his mechanics haven't recovered. Maybe his diminished velocity is here to stay regardless of health or mechanics. That happens with pitchers, and again I'm not a doctor. Maybe he just tried to throw harder without any extra shoulder load but couldn't do it. There are a lot of possible things going on.

Regardless of the reason, Masterson finds himself looking for a new employer. If his knee is still barking and his shoulder is still less than healthy, Masterson will need a lot of help to get back on track.

. . .

Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.