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Swinging for the Fences: Is Justin Masterson an ace?

Tribe must decide to commit to Masterson as their ace long-term

Swinging for the Fences: Is Justin Masterson an ace?
November 12, 2013
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Okay, let’s just look at the facts that support either side of the argument about Justin Masterson being the ace of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff. On one hand, the right-hander pitched three complete-game shutouts last season. On the other, he’s also the same guy who imploded against the Orioles to move the Tribe from the drivers’ seat into a hole they couldn’t dig out of.

So, the question many have asked over the course of the last couple seasons has been is Masterson an ace? After his breakout season in 2011, the Indians thought he could be, but 2012 saw him regress significantly as he finished the year with an ERA around five. Now after the 2013 season, Masterson has reestablished his effectiveness as a top-of-the-rotation starter, but is he a legitimate number one starter?

Well, part of how an ace is identified depends on how the league defines what an “ace”  is. Sure, you look at Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer and can easily say they are aces. However, they are also two of the best pitchers in the game and not every team is going to have a Superman starter at the top of their rotation.

The Indians were hoping to get a potential ace in Masterson when they traded All-Star catcher Victor Martinez to the Red Sox for the sinkerball right-hander along with relievers Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price in 2009. Up to that point, Masterson had pitched mostly out of the bullpen in the major leagues for Boston. After being traded to Cleveland, the Indians made him a starter right away as he went 1-7 with a 4.55 ERA in 10 starts.

Things weren’t much better for Masterson in 2010 as he compiled a 4.70 ERA in 34 games (19 starts). Control appeared to be an issue for the right-hander as he walked 73 and threw 12 wild pitches. However, he showed signs of becoming a workhorse for his new team as he racked up 180 innings in his first full MLB season as a starter.

During this time, the Indians were in the process of building a core of young talent that they had developed in their farm system. Rookies (and future stars) Michael BrantleyCarlos Santana and Jason Kipnis were getting their first taste of major league ball as the Tribe was trying to establish a new identity and hopefully build a playoff contender.

Masterson as a young newcomer was just as instrumental to this process as anyone as veterans such as former ace Fausto Carmona (aka Roberto Hernandez) were on their way out and needed successors to step up. Well, Masterson was up for the challenge in a big way as he had a breakout year in 2011 going 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts. Such progress warranted the Indians giving him a shot as the ace of the staff.

Unfortunately, 2012 wasn’t nearly as kind to Masterson. While he did rack up 34 starts and 206 innings, his ERA skyrocketed to 4.93 as he seemed to lose a significant amount of control on his pitches. His 88 walks and 14 wild pitches were both career highs for the right-hander. So while his progress in 2011 put expectations through the roof, his regression in 2012 called his status as an ace into question.

Then came 2013… 

After an offseason that had completely changed the culture and outlook for the Tribe, the team and fan base were heading into the season with high hopes. Masterson was no different as he and the team were hoping to see him bounce back from a rough 2012 and boy did he ever. Before being injured in early September, the right-hander appeared to be on his way to 15+ wins, 200+ innings and 200+ strikeouts. In the end, though, he still finished with a solid 14-10 mark and 3.45 ERA.

Those certainly appear to be ace-type numbers on the surface, but looking deeper, do those numbers still fit the ace mold?

Of course it’s clear that Masterson hasn’t put up anywhere near the numbers that Cy Young contenders have. No flashy ERA or win-loss ratio, but by looking in-depth at some of the more advanced stats and splits, he’s closer to the big-time aces than you might think.

Let’s take a look at how Masterson compares to two of the Cy Young award finalists (and possible winners) in Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer beyond win-loss totals and ERA.

In 2013, Masterson had a lower extra-base-hit percentage (4.5%) than both Clayton Kershaw (4.9%) and Max Scherzer (7.1%). Of course being a groundball pitcher, Masterson gets a lot more balls hit in or through the infield for outs or singles. Masterson also has a lower home-run percentage (1.6%) than Scherzer (2.2%).

One of the biggest issues Masterson has had over the years has been righty-lefty splits, as in how well he fared against right-handed and left-handed hitters. Those of the southpaw variety have hit nearly .300 against the right-hander at times in the past. This season, though, Masterson showed significant improvement when facing left-handed hitters as they only managed to hit .248 off him while right-handed hitters, who’ve never been a problem for Masterson only hit a mere .182 against him.

The one big problem that continues to plague the right-hander is walks. While his walk total in 2013 was down from the 88 he allowed in 2012, 76 is still a lot of free passes for an ace and is definitely more than the aforementioned Cy Young contenders. However, the question we probably should be asking other than can he cut down on the walks is can he find a way to work around them?

When it comes down to it, the fact of the matter is that Justin Masterson is a sinkerball pitcher who relies on the movement on his pitches, some may call it being “effectively wild”, to be successful. His main pitches are his sinker and slider with an occasional changeup, according to Fangraphs. Those pitches require a lot of movement and deception and will result in walks, but they’ll also result in strikeouts and putouts.

Up until this season, however, we weren’t sure if Masterson could pitch for strikeouts since he had been mostly a contact pitcher. In 2013, his 195 strikeouts confirmed that in addition to eating innings and pitching to contact, he can also miss bats, which only adds to the argument in favor of him being an ace.

So to answer the question, yes I think Justin Masterson is and can be an ace if he can maintain his dominance from this season. He has also proven to be an ace off the field in the way he’s stepped up and become a leader for the younger pitchers on the staff. Is he a non-traditional ace? You can say that in the fact that he doesn’t use the same weapons or gameplan as others, but the results are still there.

Jake’s Takes

Terry Francona finalist for Manager of the Year… No offense to Bob Melvin, but this is pretty much a two-man race between Tito and Red Sox manager John Farrell.

On one hand, you have a manager in Francona with a championship pedigree, but also on the rebound due to the ugly situation in Boston he was forced to leave. When he was hired by the Tribe last offseason, he made an immediate impact with the team, the fan-base and the city in general. Still not much was expected of him since he had a squad of mostly untested talent, yet he still took them from 90+ losses to 90+ wins and a playoff appearance in one season.

With Farrell, he was thrown into morale mayhem in Boston and had a lot of work to do to get the clubhouse back in order. His efforts were most successful as he took them all the way to a World Series championship. The difference between him and Tito, however, was the fact that the talent level on the Red Sox was much more capable and proven than that of Cleveland.

So the vote basically comes down to choosing the skipper who took his team from worst to first or the one who did more with less.

Braves announce plans to build new ballpark… I found this perplexing. I’ve never been to Atlanta or Turner Field and don’t know first-hand what the issues are and whether they would warrant building a new ballpark in a different location. But I still have to ask why. Turner Field is only 16 years old. The reasoning behind the move had to do with the parking issues around the ballpark and infrastructure problems with the ballpark itself.

However, the bigger issue I have with this is the fact the Major League Baseball approved these plans while the A’s and Rays are still in limbo with their ballpark/location situations. Both teams currently play in ballparks that are clearly outdated and are in the midst of business and legal negotiations that have carried on for a while now. I don’t know all the details or rationale behind this, but it still seems odd.

Joe Mauer to move to first base… This could be big news if your name is Carlos Santana. The Twins announced earlier this week that All-Star catcher Joe Mauer will permanently move to first base effective immediately. After dealing with injuries year in and year out, both Mauer and the Twins decided a change of positions was in order. Mauer suffered a concussion toward the end of the 2013 season, which he says played a big factor in the decision. With Justin Morneau no longer on the team, first base was open, so it makes sense.

So what does this mean for Santana? Obviously injuries aren’t as big an issue for him as they’ve been for Mauer, but he has taken a beating behind the plate on many occasions. Additionally, the emergence of Yan Gomes this season may force the Tribe’s hand in order to get him regular playing time. While it was possible beforehand, this decision with Mauer may play into moving Santana into a more permanent role at first base or DH.

In Conclusion…

As offseason speculation continues, one of the things that could be on the Indians’ to-do list is signing their ace…yes I said ace…Justin Masterson to a multi-year extension. How much is he worth, though? ESPN’s Buster Olney reports Masterson could be signed to a five-year extension worth $75 million. If that’s the case, I’d do that in a heartbeat.

Calling Masterson the ace of the staff all depends on how you define “ace”. If it’s being a leader of a rotation who goes out and gives his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound, ‘Nasty Masty’ is that guy.

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

User Comments

November 13, 2013 - 8:49 AM EST
I concur with Willie....whether or not Masterson is a true ace or not doesn't matter to me....he's a darn good pitcher. That's enough for me to believe he would be very hard to replace and why the Indians need to explore a long term deal of 4-5 years and give him $65-85 million.
November 13, 2013 - 8:23 AM EST
The simple answer is Masterson is the Tribes ace. He's not an ace in the classic sense of dominance and consistency, but he's the Tribes rotational leader with tendency to log innings and shutdown other teams. IMO, Masterson established himself as a number 1 starter last yr. I would suggest he still has some upside (minimal) remaining, but I would be hard pressed to say he will pitch much better next yr. All of this said, the Tribe has to get Masterson locked up for the next 4/5 yrs.
November 12, 2013 - 8:25 PM EST
Is Justin Masterson an Ace...IMO no. But damn good #2 with the ability to be the ace of a staff. Worth $100M? No, but worth a good deal and years. Probably will find it elsewhere as I don't think the Tribe will go 5 years (unless 1 of those years is 2014) and someone next winter will give him 5 years probably. Shown he's durable.
November 12, 2013 - 7:47 PM EST
Our Manager of the year would never signed on for a anomaly. Gut feeling Francona is bringing winning attitude. Need to remember Dolan son is know running the show not Larry Dolan. I believe our current GM has taken more risk than the previous 2 GMs.
matt underwood
November 12, 2013 - 7:40 PM EST
Walter - I totally agree, but I am leaning more towards the past season being an anomaly as opposed to the norm. Im from Cleveland ya know - braced for disappointment
November 12, 2013 - 7:09 PM EST
I meant to say there are not that on 11/12.
November 12, 2013 - 7:07 PM EST
Did we say the same thing about the rotation last winter? Was good enough to get to 92 wins. I though people were giving Calloway credit for turning Jimenez and Kazmir around. You don't believe that he could be the key that could get the 3 best potential pitchers to become potential top of rotation guys in Salazar, Bauer and Carrasco. I know they are that on 11/12, but the potential is there. Time will tell.
Matt Underwood
November 12, 2013 - 4:20 PM EST
This team really scares me in terms of their rotation for the foreseeable future. I know we are early in the off season, but losing Kazmir and Jiminez and Masterson entering his walk year - this could be bad news. They say there is depth, but I am skeptical at best.

Until this team figures out how to put together a decent draft by removing the blindfolded monkey and dart board from the war room, they are forever going to be chasing lightning in a bottle while treading in mediocrity.
November 12, 2013 - 2:22 PM EST
I agree that the ace term gets thrown around too much.....sort of like "five tool" player too. Bottom line, there are only a dozen or so true aces in all of baseball. Masterson is the ace of the Indians staff no doubt and is a frontline starting pitcher for sure. But is he in the class of a Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and so one who were true aces? No. A true ace is not only very good but amazingly consistent. Looking at Masterson's performance the past few years, even in 2013, the consistency factor is something he is still kind of missing.
November 12, 2013 - 1:24 PM EST
Ace is the most overused term in sports after the word "consistent"

Is Masterson an Ace? I don't care, he's a damn good starting pitching option the Indians need to keep in house.
November 12, 2013 - 1:03 PM EST
meat loaf made the song 2 out 3 aint bad on his "bat out of hell" album.
with regards to masty 2out of 3 aint bad either 2011 ND 2013 tells me that he looks like an ace. if it looks like a duck walks like a Duck and quacks like a duck must be a duck. so masty must fill the bill. and what we say in 11 and 13 leads me to believe in masterson.
November 12, 2013 - 12:25 PM EST
Salazar still has a ways to go before he is ace material. He first has to prove he can consistently log quality starts and haul innings every time out. If he proves he can be a 200 inning pitcher and his slider comes around, he certainly has the dominating fastball/changeup combo to be an ace. The key though is the abiltiy to throw three very good pitches and in any count and of course durability. I would also maybe mention throwing his 2-seamer more so he gets more movement on his fastball and changes looks.
November 12, 2013 - 12:09 PM EST
I think the question about an ace should be when/if Salazar will be an ace or just a guy with good stuff. Any number of guys come to mind

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