Blue Jays free agent targets: Justin Masterson, Mr. Risk


With the Blue Jays offseason yet to reach a boil, Justin Masterson represents one of the market’s riskier arms

Free agency came a year too late for Justin Masterson. After an All Star performance in 2013 that saw the towering Masterson put up a WAR of 3.5 after marks of 2.3 and 4.2 in the two seasons prior, his 2014 season would enter a full tailspin as he posted a 5.88 ERA between the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals. Last winter he became one of several Red Sox mistakes with a one-year, $9.5 million contract.

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Masterson didn’t last the season in Boston, being DFAd in early August and later released. His ERA lived north of 5.00 once again as he was forced from the starting rotation and into the bullpen. More worrying than anything, his velocity continued to freefall. After posting an average fastball velocity of 93.1 MPH in his strong 2013, that number dropped to 90.3 MPH in 2014 before bottoming out at 88.0 MPH in Boston. Wait, you’re not sold already?

The tag of “buy-low candidate” followed Masterson around last offseason, but with the current state of his shoulder, it’s looking more like “buy-lowest”. Masterson underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right throwing shoulder in late September, and is expected to be 100% in time for Spring Training. We’ve fielded the odd “Where are they now?” question on Masterson over the past month, and his buzz registered a small blip on the radar earlier today following his tweet from Jon Heyman.

The terms “buy-low” and “finally 100%” are classic foreshadowers of a free agent signing that doesn’t pan out, but the idea is worth entertaining on some level. Perhaps I’m only open to that due to the Mark Shapiro tie, as Shapiro’s Indians traded for Masterson in 2009 as part of the Victor Martinez deal with Boston.

Masterson’s mechanics are extremely unusual for a starting pitcher, especially one of his size (6’6″, 250lbs). As you’ll see in the admittedly generous video selection below, the low drive and sidewinding action of Masterson produces a tremendous amount of torque. When his shoulder issues have arisen over the past two seasons, the strain of this delivery has hindered him greatly. Fare thee well, velocity. This has been especially hard on his slider, which played a starring role in that 2013 run.

Control and walks have never been Masterson’s strength (3.5 BB/9 in 2013), but the past two seasons have been especially ugly. He’s walked 4.6 batters per nine innings over his past 188.0 MLB innings. None of this points towards Masterson being a viable option for the Blue Jays, but this depends on how strongly you buy in to the notion he is “finally” at 100%. Was he not fully healthy when the Red Sox signed him to a lucrative 1-year deal? That’s difficult to believe.

When Masterson is at his best, or even at his average, he’s an excellent arm that would profile fairly well in the Rogers Centre. The right-hander has managed to keep the home run balls down and has been a consistent producer of ground ball rates in the 55-60% range, which is absolutely excellent for a starter. Given Toronto’s defense, the Masterson of old would be a dream match.

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The inconsistency of his pitches is worrying though, even when looking at his stronger seasons. His PITCHf/x values from 2010 through 2013 show a steady improvement in his sinker, but his slider effectiveness varies and his fastball value is all over the place (-5.5, +7.1, -8.4, -0.6 over the four seasons). Even if Masterson were to return to his old form, how consistent would that be over a one-season snapshot?

Teams won’t be tripping over one another to sign Masterson, and it’s possible that he’s an arm that lasts well into the offseason as teams wait to see the 100% instead of taking his word for it. Is there a team out there willing to give him a few million on an MLB deal? Perhaps. Stranger things have happened.

As much as it pains me to say, as Masterson has long been one of my favorite MLB arms, he doesn’t seem to fit Toronto outside of an unlikely minor league or incentive-laden deal. Mark Shapiro does not seem to be a passionate risk-taker, but then again, will his level of familiarity with Masterson tilt the tables somewhat?

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Masterson is one of the market’s most intriguing arms, but with intrigue comes a level of risk that’s simply unnecessary at this point. If the offseason drags on and Toronto finds themselves in a needier position than they currently do, and Masterson has begun throwing with increased velocity, let’s revisit this thing. Until then, there are equal arms that come with far less risk.