The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about Dion Waiters’ present and future. This week, I’m talking about Justin Masterson’s upcoming contract situation.
The ace of the Cleveland Indians is under team control for only one more season. Justin Masterson, the 29-year-old acquired from Boston four years ago, could be the biggest key for the team’s long-term salary issues. In this ever important offseason with the team expected to add another starter to the fold, their attention also is likely on Masterson’s future. Is he worthy of a long-term extension already? What is the expected dollar amount? Let’s dive into the numbers.
For starters, Masterson is expected to receive $9.7 million in his final arbitration-eligible season of 2014, per the estimates at MLB Trade Rumors. He earned just shy of $5.7 million in 2013 but is expected to receive a large increase after his impressive past year. In reference to a possible long-term extension, Masterson’s camp has shared that they’re open to discussion.
“I have not heard from the Indians, but we will be responsive to what their thoughts are,” said Randy Rowley, Masterson’s agent, to The Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes. “They have a lot of decisions to make regarding their own free agents and who they want to bring back.
Rawley shared similar comments with ESPN Insider’s Buster Olney earlier in November. But now, with free agency only 12 months away, it’s possible that Masterson might not be long for Cleveland. ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted last week that the Indians were listening on offers for Masterson, but clubs felt that a deal was unlikely. He said the Indians were not “actively” looking to make a trade.
In order to properly deal with the thought of that deal, let’s look at Masterson’s career statistics and then what other starters have been receiving lately in free agency.
I’ve been saying for a long while that Masterson is more of a high-end No. 2 starter than an ace. These numbers show that. What stands out to me at first: Justin Masterson, presumed ace, has been an exactly average MLB pitcher in his career, per ERA+. That’s absolutely fascinating to me. And, absent of just 2013, his strikeout numbers were never anything to brag about. Again, fascinating.
Yet there are a couple of ways in which that chart can be deceiving. Of course, Masterson was converted to full-time starter duty with the Indians upon the 2009 Victor Martinez trade. He had his brief stint in relief this past year, but that’s not a long-term option. So it’s plausible to ignore those older numbers of a different type of Masterson pitcher.
Also, ERA and ERA+ tell the product of what actually happened on the field with Masterson’s actual defense. FIP and xFIP are fielding independent pitching statistics that neutralize that effect. With a 3.75 xFIP since 2010, Masterson ranks as the 52nd-best qualified starter. Not amazing, but better than league average. That’s because of his 57.0% groundball rate, which ranks sixth-highest. If the Indians had an average or better defense, his value would be maximized, a point that Beyond The Box Score’s Lewie Pollis made last month.
Masterson also had some nasty platoon splits throughout his career, a topic that our very own Jon wrote about way back in April 2010. That has followed Masterson around during the last three years as well.
His overall numbers swung in very positive ways in 2013 compared to 2012. But the trend continues about him being a completely different – and fairly mediocre – pitcher against left-handed batters. Against righties, he’s dominant, one of the best of the game, and was nearly unstoppable this past year. Yet how valuable can Masterson truly be when 57% of his opponents have a better than league average OPS over his career?
Now, let’s take a look at some of the traditional1 long-term contracts doled out to starting pitchers over the last few years to build a decent background for possible Masterson deals.
Ricky Nolasco, 4 years, $49 million, Minnesota Twins – Signed last week. About to turn 30. A consistent innings-eater, has averaged 2.4 jWAR in 192 IP over last six seasons.
Edwin Jackson, 4 years, $52 million, Chicago Cubs – Signed in Jan. 2013. Had just turned 29. After bumpy start to career, averaged 3 jWAR in 203 IP over previous four seasons.
Zack Greinke, 6 years, $147 million, Los Angeles Dodgers – Signed in Dec. 2012. Had just turned 29. Posted MVP-worthy 9.8 jWAR in 2009, surrounded by an average of solid 3.5-4 jWAR seasons.
Anibal Sanchez, 5 years, $80 million, Detroit Tigers – Signed in Dec. 2012. Was entering age-29 season. Finally healthy, he averaged 3.5 jWAR in 196 IP in previous three seasons.
Mark Buehrle, 4 years, $58 million, Miami Marlins – Signed in Dec. 2011. Was entering age-32 season. One of must durable pitchers ever, he averaged 4 jWAR in 220 IP over the last 11 seasons.
C.J. Wilson, 5 years, $77.5 million, Los Angeles Angels – Signed in Dec. 2011. Had just turned 31. A converted reliever, he averaged 4.8 jWAR in 213 IP during breakout 2010-11 before signing deal.
Compared to the above players, Masterson has been far more inconsistent. He has averaged just 2.4 jWAR in 199 IP over the last four years as an everyday starter. That’s pretty similar to Ricky Nolasco’s past. Masterson has shown the ability – in both 2011 and 2013 – to be better than that, but the risk is on the table in terms of his past shakiness.
Again, Let’s Go Tribe estimated that Masterson would be in line for a five-year $75 million extension prior to 2014. That’s very close to C.J. Wilson money. Wilson had only been a full-time starter for two seasons in Texas before the Angels handed him that mega deal. He has now averaged 2.4 jWAR and 207 IP in the two years since. Does it seem like a great contract? Not so much for the Angels anymore.
One difference, of course, is that we’re also talking about the possibility of a Masterson extension, thus buying out that 2014 season estimated to be about $9.7 million. St. Louis signed Adam Wanwright to such a deal prior to 2013 worth a total of five years and $97.5 million. That final arbitration season factors into play, thus making the deal a four-year $65 million contract in free agent value. That’s a heftier price point than Nolasco, Jackson and Buehrle.
In the end, the usual expectation is that a win above replacement is worth between $5-7 million on the open market. Is Justin Masterson worth over $16 million a year? Likely, he’ll get paid as such by some team. To be worth that money, you’d hope he could consistently be a 3 WAR player. He was that way in both 2011 and 2013. Would you be willing to pay him that money up until his age-33 season in 2018? Some team will again say absolutely yes, considering the money paid out way past that age for the players listed above.
As you can likely tell by my use of “some team”, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for the Cleveland Indians to be the team that gives Justin Masterson that next large contract. Yes, Masterson is certainly valuable and is the most dependable2 starter in the Indians rotation. But I’m also the person that was against giving $14.1 million to Scott Kazmir and is in favor of trading Michael Bourn’s remaining four years and $53 million. I don’t think it’s a wise use of the team’s limited resources to invest such money long term.
Of course, three situations could force the team’s hand in different directions. One, the team could be waiting out 2014 to see if Masterson truly is a consistent 3 WAR player before engaging in long-term contract discussions. Second, if the team is out of the race by mid-July, a mid-season trade certainly would seem appealing to capitalize on Masterson’s value. And most importantly, the Indians would need to see “Danny Salazar, future ace” as a likely occurrence to feel comfortable without Masterson in 2015 and beyond.
There certainly will be interesting negotiations eventually surrounding Jason Kipnis’ long-term future. But for the next 12 months, keep an eye on Masterson and his future in Wahoo Red and Blue.
excluding Japanese deals in order to look at MLB-only data [↩]
is it not scary that a player with just two career seasons above 1.5 jWAR is by far the most dependable on a playoff contender? This is again why I think the Indians desperately need another veteran starter. Bartolo Colon on a one-year deal would look great in Cleveland. [↩]
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.