Breaking Down Justin Masterson


Yesterday the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in their latest reclamation project in the form of right-handed pitcher Justin Masterson. Masterson fits the Pirate mold of being a groundball pitcher, but he has hit one heck of a rough patch in recent years.

From 2010 through 2013 Masterson pitched 795 1/3 innings for the Cleveland Indians. In those 795 1/3 innings Masterson posted a 3.67 FIP, 3.75 xFIP, 7.4 K/9, 0.6 HR/9, and a 57% groundball rate. Masterson also accumulated a WAR of 12.4 during this four year stretch.

The last two years however have been a real struggle for Masterson. In 188 innings pitched for Indians, Cardinals, and Red Sox Masterson posted a 5.79 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 4.28 xFIP, and 4.6 BB/9 while his WAR dipped to 0.4 in 2014 and -0.2 last season. However, he maintained his gorundball prowess posting a 57.1% groundball rate the past two seasons.

One of Masterson’s biggest problems the last two seasons has been a dip in velocity. After averaging 92.9mph on his fastball from 2010-2013, his velocity dipped to 90.3mph in 2014 and then all the way down to 88mph last season. Now, Masterson did need shoulder surgery last September so it is very possible that this shoulder injury played a large role in his drop in velocity.

Masterson’s go to pitch for his groundballs, as you would expect, is his sinker. The past two seasons his sinker has had a BABIP of .348 (2014) and .329 (2015) which indicates a lot of bad luck and poor defense behind Masterson. On a team that is as shift savvy and strong fielding as the Pirates, poor defense should not be an issue.

However, Masterson also saw a dip in velocity in his sinker in the past two seasons. After averaging 91.2mph from 2010-2013, it dipped to 88.5mph in 2014 and then down to 86.8mph in 2015. As was the case with his fastball, there’s a good chance to dip in velocity last season was due to his shoulder injury but that does not explain 2014.

If Masterson is healthy, the Pirates could have stumbled across another hidden gem. Even if they can not get Masterson all the back to his former self, they could probably still turn Masterson into a reliable reliever. And that would not be the worst thing in the world as, right now, the Pirate bullpen needs all the help it can get.

It’s not a coincidence either that as Masterson’s velocity has dipped, his pitches have been hit harder. In 2014 the opposing wRC+ off his sinker and fast ball were 158 and 187. In 2015 they were 151 off his sinker, and an unbelievable 225 off his fastball.

The Pirates will also need to fix Masterson’s control, which is something the Pirates have a very good track record of doing with pitchers. The last two seasons 40% of the sinkers Masterson has thrown have been for balls, while 36% of his fastballs have been out of the strike zone. That is up from 35% on his sinker from 2010-2013, and 28% on his fastball.

The key for the Pirates to reviving Masterson’s career will be finding out what plagued his velocity in recent years, as well as fixing his control. If Masterson can regain his fastball and sinker and velocity and control of 2010-2013 then the Pirates and Masterson both will take a huge step toward reviving his career.  Make no mistake about it, Justin Masterson needs the Pirates even if the Pirates do not necessarily need Justin Masterson.

I would expect Masterson to join the rotation at AAA Indianapolis in the coming days, and I will be very curious to see how he does. Justin Masterson seems to fit the Pirate reclamation project tab to a tee. And if the Bucs can get him back to anything close to his old form, they will have another strong starting pitching depth option waiting in the wings at AAA.