Tonight Justin Masterson takes the mound with the Indians coming off an exciting walk-off victory and three game sweep of the Colorado Rockies. A year ago, it would be the kind of momentum the team could use—Masterson on the mound headed into a series with a playoff contender. Masterson would compete with any starter—much like tonight’s John Lackey—and give the Indians a chance to win.
This isn’t last year.
Masterson enters tonight’s game just 2-4, with a 5.21 ERA in 12 starts this season. He’s lost his last three decisions and except for a rain-shortened start on May 27 in Chicago, Masterson has allowed four runs or more in each start dating back to May 3. Corey Kluber is the best pitcher in the rotation, Josh Tomlin is the most steady and Trevor Bauer has the most potential. At this point, Masterson is rivaling Zach McAllister or Danny Salazar for the biggest disappointment.
The Indians declined two and three year contract offers made by Masterson and his agent during spring training. It’s believed the team countered with a two-year deal, valued at $14 million per season. Talks broke down before the team broke camp and the Indians’ ace has entered the season in the final year of his contract. Free agency is just 105 games away and the easy answer could be Masterson is feeling the pressure of having to put up a good season to compete for dollars with Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and Josh Beckett this winter.
While he may be feeling the pressure of his impending free agency, the most likely reason behind Masterson’s decline is in his dropping velocity and control.
According to FanGraphs, Masterson has predominantly been a two-pitch pitcher throughout his career. He’s never used his change-up more than 3.5% of the time. This season, they have no log of his change-up. Masterson has always relied on his fastball and slider. However, his fastball has lost considerable zip over the last three seasons.
In 2011, when Masterson was 12-10, with a 3.45 ERA and appearing to become a top-level pitcher, he had a fastball that averaged 92.7 mph and he threw it an astounding 84.4% of the time. Since 2011, Masterson’s fastball velocity has dropped each season. In 2012, when he was 11-15, with a 4.93 ERA, his fastball dropped to just 91.9 mph. Last season, he maintained his velocity, averaging a fastball of 91.6 mph. New pitching coach Mickey Callaway righted mechanical issues and Masterson was back to “slicing and dicing.”
But in 2014, Masterson is throwing his fastball at an average of just 89.0 mph and just 77.9%. That’s a 3.7 mph decline in the prime of his career over the last three seasons. Something is not right.
To make matters worse, while Masterson doesn’t have the same velocity, he also does not have the same control he used to. Masterson leads the American League in hit batsmen and already has seven wild pitches. In 2012, Masterson was second in the AL in wild pitches, with 14, behind Ubaldo Jimenez. He’s ahead of his previous pace, and Jimenez’s 17 from 2012.
But it isn’t just hit batsmen and wild pitches. Masterson leads the AL in walks with 33. Last season he issued 76 free passes, but this year he is ahead of that pace and the 88 he gave in 2012. He’s averaging 4.4 walks per nine innings and has a WHIP of 1.545. Both are career worsts for Masterson.
Something is wrong with Justin Masterson.
It’s easy to say it’s mechanical, Masterson is a large body, with swinging arms and legs. If something gets out of place, it can affect everything else. But mechanics don’t explain continued dropping velocity. There’s a big difference between a 92 mph fastball and an 89 mph fastball in Major League Baseball, especially from a pitcher struggling with location.
It may be the pressure of free agency, but again, that doesn’t explain a continued loss in velocity and sudden loss of control. If free agency is this big of a burden on Masterson, he’s probably not a pitcher the Indians should invest $30-40 million in over the next two to three years. If he can’t take the pressure of a contract year, how will he handle the pressure of a playoff series?
Most importantly, whatever is Masterson’s problem, he and the Indians need to solve it quickly. The Tribe has had a myriad of things go wrong in the first 57 games, including Masterson’s struggles, but sit just three games back of the Wild Card and just six games back of the Detroit Tigers. No one is running away in the Central Division or the American League.
Cleveland can play their way back into contention, but they need their ace to show up. With possibly just four months remaining in his Indians’ career, time is running out. If both are going to get themselves back to the top, they need to keep the positive momentum going.
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