In signing pitcher Justin Masterson to a minor-league deal late Thursday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates consummated a long-running flirtation.
Masterson was rumored to be a target of the team at various points in the off-season. In relying mainly on a sinker/slider combination to go along with a four-seam fastball, he easily fits the bill of what the Pirates look for in starting pitching.
The right-hander’s resume is a mixed bag of unrealized potential and occasional bright spots. In his best three-year stretch (2011-2013), Masterson won 10 or more games each season, including a career high 14 in 2013. That season represented his lone All-Star appearance, and it was one of just three seasons in his career with an ERA below 4.50.
With career marks of a 4.31 ERA, 1.4 WHIP and 3.7 walks per nine innings, it’s fair to question what gave the Pirates such impetus to sign him, a question that looms much larger after considering Masterson had reconstructive surgery on his shoulder in the offseason and had a serious knee surgery earlier in his career.
If we do a deep dive into Masterson’s offerings, the answer becomes clearer.
First, Masterson has a very stout ground ball rate of 56.1 percent for his career. While obviously advantageous for any pitcher, it’s especially true for Masterson, who does not fool anyone. Fangraphs lists his O-Swing percentage (percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone that opposing batters offer at) at 28.9 percent, below the MLB average of 30.
If we dig a bit deeper into what makes up that lack of deception, there is a bright spot to be found. Masterson exclusively threw three pitches last year: A four-seam fastball (30.4 percent of the time), a sinking fastball (37.92 percent) and a slider (31.19 percent.) Mixing in a very occasional change, Masterson preferred the moving stuff to the straight heat.
He’s right to have done so. Not only was his fastball clocking at the lowest velocity of his career last year – 89.06 mph – it also produced a low ground ball rate of 48.3 percent. The shoulder issues that forced his off-season surgery were likely at play here, but the result was a line drive rate of 20.6 percent, by far the worst of his three pitches.
Here’s the bright spot I mentioned: His sinking fastball and slider have enough deception to label them as ‘plus’ pitches. While the sinker carried a groundball rate of 65.5 percent last year, Masterson’s slider steals the show. The filthy stuff carried a 31.7 percent O-Swing percentage, and it had a solid 15.3 percent swinging-strike percentage (the percentage of strikes the pitch garnered that were of the swinging variety).
With his dramatically reduced velocity from his peak days, Masterson now profiles as a classic pitch-to-contact hurler. He also figures to regain at least some of his lost velocity, which could help his four-seam fastball regain a bit of effectiveness. A rising tide lifts all boats, and improved heat could be the tide that elevates his already-effective moving stuff to more effective marks.
Having signed him to a minor-league deal, general manager Neal Huntington has a legitimate depth option should injury or ineffectiveness force his hand. He also gains flexibility in regard to Juan Nicasio, who may need to go back to the bullpen due to no fault of his own. Rather, the arms in the bullpen not named Mark Melancon, Tony Watson or Neftali Feliz might need Nicasio’s arm more than the starting rotation does.
No matter the scenario, Masterson’s signing should be seen as the very definition of a buy-low acquisition.
Image credit: Keith Allison