It was easy to like Justin Masterson back in 2008 when he was on the Boston Red Sox. The then 23 year-old posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, with 68 strikeouts in 88.3 innings out of the bullpen and rotation for the Sox. In a short period of time, the righty gained the trust of his manager by making key spot starts, and even throwing a scoreless ninth inning in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series.
Major League heroics aside, the former second round pick also owned a promising career 3.79 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 3.27 K/BB between three seasons in the minors, and was named the #64 prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2008 season. It seemed as though Masterson, an instant fan favorite, would enjoy a long career with the Boston Red Sox. However, the following season, he was gone.
Looking to upgrade their catching corps, the Red Sox dealt the promising Masterson with Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone to the Cleveland Indians for heavy-hitting catcher, Victor Martinez. The deal was just, as Martinez swatted to the tune of a .336/.405/.507 line as the Red Sox pushed themselves into the playoffs (and lost 3-0 to the Los Angeles Angels). Masterson posted a combined 4.52 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 1.98 K/BB between the Red Sox and Indians, but struggled once he became a member of the Tribe (4.55 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 1.92 K/BB).
His struggles continued with the Indians during 2010 too, hurling a 4.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and 1.92 K/BB in his first full-season (180 innings). Masterson’s awesome 8.3 K/9 in 2010 dropped to a very pedestrian 7.0 K/9. His 3.87 xFIP and slightly elevated .324 BABIP suggested greener pastures were ahead for the young righty, but in the moment, nothing seemed further from the case.
But in 2011, and at age 26, something clicked for Masterson. To-date, the right-handed pitcher has posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 2.67 K/BB. Masterson’s 6.7 K/9 is his career-lowest, but then again, his 2.5 BB/9 is by far his best, and he’s also leading league in least amount of homeruns surrendered per nine innings (0.2 HR/9). In addition, Masterson has finally honed his pitching repertoire. The pitcher’s fastball has averaged a tick higher than year’s past (92.8 MPH), and is worth 15.9 runs above average–placing him ninth in the American League (and twelfth in the MLB). Masterson’s slider, which has been worth 6.6 runs above average, places him eighth in the AL. The two dominant pitches have helped his overall value, as Fan Graphs has calculated him at 4.1 WAR (tied for eighth in the MLB among pitchers), thus making him worth a whopping $18.6 million so far.
Furthermore, Masterson’s sustainable .292 BABIP and impressive 2.83 FIP/3.41 xFIP indicate that his repeating success is at least in the realm of possibility. After a few seasons toiling in the American League Central, it appears as though Justin Masterson has finally joined the elite class of starting pitchers.