Earlier this week, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Tigers were one team interested in former Indians starter Justin Masterson. Coming off a poor 2014 season, Masterson is a buy-low candidate who is reportedly looking for a one year deal to rebuild value before seeking a big payday. We passed along the rumor yesterday, but would it make sense for the Tigers?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Masterson is a 29 year old right hander who was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the second round of the 2006 draft and made his MLB debut for the Sox two years later. He totaled 160 1/3 innings across two seasons for the Red Sox before he was traded to the Indians for Victor Martinez.
Masterson has spent the bulk of his career in Cleveland, where he allowed a 4.23 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 950 2/3 innings. He made the American League All-Star team in 2013, when he went 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA and led the league with three shutouts. He took a step back in 2014, allowing a 5.88 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in 128 2/3 innings for the Indians and St. Louis Cardinals.
Why should we care?
When he is on, Masterson is a solid mid-to-front rotation starter. He was excellent in 2013, allowing a 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 193 innings. His 2.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best of his career, and the second time he has been at 2.4 or better. He was worth 3.5 WAR in 2013, the fourth time he has eclipsed the two win plateau. Those four seasons coincided with a streak of seasons with 180 innings pitched or more, which was snapped in 2014.
Armed with a heavy sinker and biting slider, Masterson is a ground ball machine. He has generated grounders at a 56.6 percent clip in his career and has been above the 58 percent mark over the past two seasons. Unlike some ground ball artists, Masterson also has the ability to pick up strikeouts in key spots. He has fanned opposing batters at just under a 20 percent clip for his career, and struck out over a batter per inning in 2013. Masterson also does a good job limiting the home run ball. He has never allowed 20 homers in a season, and has allowed more than 14 on just one occasion.
There were some major concerns over Masterson's fastball velocity (or lack thereof) in 2014, but Masterson was dealing with a number of nagging injuries throughout the season. He missed over a month with a knee injury, and recently revealed that he was pitching with shoulder and rib injuries during the second half of the year. Were the injuries the cause for his dip in velocity? If so, a healthy Masterson would be a good bet to rebound in 2015.
Why should we stay away?
That said, a drop in velocity for a 29 year old pitcher is concerning. Masterson averaged just 89-90 miles per hour with his fastball in 2014, down from the 91-93 miles per hour that his fastball averaged in 2013. Mark Anderson wrote up a scouting report on Masterson late in the 2014 season and noted that his velocity was still down in the 80s. The velocity drop didn't change his batted ball rates, but it likely played a role in the success that opponents had. Opposing batters hit .259 off Masterson's sinker in 2013, but that figure rose to a .310 average in 2014.
Even if his 2014 issues were temporary, Masterson has always had one big Achilles heel: left-handed hitters. Lefties have hit .287/.367/.427 off him in his career, and that slashline rose to a whopping .320/.408/.502 in 2014. The troubles are two-fold. First, Masterson's changeup isn't very good, essentially making him into a two-pitch pitcher. The sinker-slider combo is devastating against right-handers, who have a .607 OPS against him in his career. However, the slider isn't as good of a breaking pitch against lefties, allowing them to sit on the fastball.
The second issue Masterson has had against lefties is his command. He has walked over 10 percent of the left-handed batters he has faced in his career, a figure that rose to 11.6 percent in 2014. The aforementioned arsenal limits Masterson in this regard, but he has also had trouble repeating his delivery. Masterson's command against righties also took a nosedive in 2014, resulting in a career high 4.83 walks per nine innings.
Will he end up in Detroit?
This could be a match made in heaven for the Tigers and Masterson, provided Masterson's velocity issues in 2014 were health related. He has had mechanical issues in the past, but Jeff Jones has been able to work wonders with other Tigers' starters. Jones' emphasis on using the changeup may also help Masterson's numbers against lefties. It's easy to get excited about what the rotation could look like if he gets right, but even a subpar Masterson will eat enough innings to be worth a one year contract.