April 18, 2014

The Diff: What’s up with Justin Masterson’s Indians future?

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 Diff

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.

So what’s up with this future extension? A deal could be reached this offseason or the Indians could wait it out. Let’s Go Tribe’s Jason Lukehart estimated that a five-year $75 million extension would make sense. Two other great Indians sites – Did The Tribe Win Last Night and Wahoos on First – both have dedicated many words to the topic of Masterson’s future.

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.

masterson career stats

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.

masterson platoon splits

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.

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Footnotes:

  1. excluding Japanese deals in order to look at MLB-only data []
  2. 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. []

  • Kristin Johnson

    The reason IMO Masterson is not a true #1 ace is his inability to get lefties out. He uses a sidearm delivery that lefties see the ball better. Why has Masterson not adjust his delivery to overcome this or develop a pitch to get the lefties out like a changeup or a cut fastball?

  • Matthew Halko

    I think “Is Justin Masterson worth over $16 million a year?” isn’t a purely baseball question.
    After the debacle of trading CC and Cliff Lee and getting essentially nothing in return (Brantley is not a corner outfielder in the AL), trading away or not re-signing him will be a PR problem. Their theme of rebuilding the fanbase’s trust and trying to capitalize on whatever momentum the playoff push provided will be shot if they trade him before the season starts. Unfairly or not, they would be viewed as the ‘same old Tribe,’ dumping 3/5 of a playoff-caliber rotation when it came time to “spend when we contend”. If they look at Swisher and Bourn as being below-market contracts given the new TV money inflation, they could justify paying the de-facto ace a market-value contract.
    Why not try to build-in a big-money buyout (say, his $9.5M projected salary for this year) into the contract for 3 years out? Maybe the extra $7M today plus the possible buyout is worth it to him to give up the potential security of the 4th and 5th years of the contract. Given his see-saw stats and the risk of injury, he might consider it, and the Tribe would have the option to save about 1.5 years of the contract if it turns out he is just mediocre or worse.

  • Steve

    Can you guarantee the fans will start showing up (they still really didn’t for this 92 win team) if they extend Masterson? The answer, obviously, is no, which is why the Indians can’t make decisions simply to placate the fans. The Indians will offer Masterson $16M (or whatever they value him at) if they think he’s worth $16M per year. And of course, it takes two to tango. Masterson may recognize that the open market values him at more than that $16M per year, making the Indians offer all but moot.

  • nj0

    If history is any indicator, he would not consider it.

    Players get (relatively speaking) peanuts while they’re under team control. Because of this, they LIVE for free agency. There’s a reason no player has accepted a qualifying offer. Even with the attached penalty of the draft pick loss, players would prefer getting to the market to sell themselves amongst multiple bidders. It seems to me that the only way to convince a player to avoid free agency is to overpay (see Lincecum). Maybe big payroll teams can make this type of commitment, but the Indians cannot.

    As for placating the fanbase, screw that. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but the Indians have had a PR problem for the past 20 some years and it has never changed how they operate. They know that fans are generally fickle and ill-informed. Trying to placate them does not put butts in the seats. History again has shown this to be the case. They do not respond to big signings or even winning. Thankfully, the Indians know their market and won’t jump through hopes for them. Once you start making personnel decisions to please your fans, you’re making moves counter to winning.

  • Harv 21

    I’ve been saying since last season it’s very possible he’s pitched his way out of town, that we’ve seen him in a Tribe uni for the last time. He finished the season healthy and effective, and his trade value is at it’s peak since a team could have him under the old contract for a full season. Don’t see the tribe paying him market rate and don’t see them watching him walk for nada.

    Wouldn’t be totally shocked to see him on the opening day roster, but would be to see him after the trade deadline.

  • mgbode

    I think the Tigers gave away Fister just to mess up the comparables on trades for Masterson!

  • Matthew Halko

    I completely agree that fans are fickle and ill-informed. I also understand that you’re not going to turn the fickle fans into less fickle or (hopefully) die-hard fans by constantly looking like you’re running an organization on the cheap, spinning tales of “contention windows” and “market realities”, while being historically bad at developing low-cost talent through the draft. If this front office would have actually won anything during their tenure, I’d be more than happy to say let Masty walk, I’m sure whomever they replace him with will get the job done. But that’s not the case.

    Maybe my buyout idea would never fly in reality and every player is out for the last dollar. However, if the market says that Masterson is a $16M pitcher, and Jacob’s analysis shows that he is exactly a league-average pitcher, then you can assume that someone of his talent and experience (whether it is Masty or some FA) is going to cost you the $16M. We saw that only $7M gets you a Brett Myers, so if you aren’t willing to pay market value for an average talent, you’ve got to pin your hopes on reclamation projects and untested prospects. Maybe, like last year, it works out for you, and that only got them as far as the play-in game. Most years it won’t get them that far.

  • Steve

    The fickle fans aren’t noticing the “cheap, spinning tales” (rolls eyes) and then abandoning the franchise. They’re abandoning the franchise, and then clinging to any excuse that someone will listen to. When one excuse’s flaws get pointed out, they move on to another, and so on and so forth.

  • nj0

    So you don’t believe the Indians face market realities?

  • WFNYJacob

    Masterson is a league average pitcher … for his entire career.

    He certainly wasn’t just league average in 2011 or 2013. And you better bet that his camp will use those two seasons in their negotiations. Teams will be paying for a 3-WAR Masterson. Thus, with the $5-7 million/win in free agency expectation, it’s not that unreasonable to say $16 million/year.

  • nj0

    Now with the compensation pick awarded with FA who get qualifying offers, I think Masterson (or any other player) walking will be much more likely. Not saying he couldn’t get moved if the season hits the skids, but a club would have to make an offer that’s better than that sandwich pick. This came up a lot in discussions this past trade deadline (I remember mgbode pointing it out quite frequently).

    Add in the fact that the 2nd wild card keeps the vast majority of teams in the race and I don’t see Masterson getting moved in-season. Just my opinion, obviously.

    Regardless, I agree that he has pitched himself out of town. Chances are slim Masterson is here in 2015.

  • nj0

    Yeah, I have to imagine Jose Bautista’s career numbers make him look like a pretty pedestrian player too.

  • mgbode

    his OPS+ is still 125 for his career. that would have been 3rd best on ’13 Tribe (behind Kipnis and Santana).

  • WFNYJacob

    Not a bad comparison on the surface. Masterson just hasn’t strung together back-to-back good years yet though. Bautista’s career turned a corner and he’s never looked back.

    Bautista avg season from 2006-2009: 125 G, 478 PA, 95 OPS+, 0.4 jWAR

    Bautista avg season from 2010-2013: 130 G, 556 PA, 157 OPS+, 5.5 jWAR

    If Masterson’s camp could show a clean break like that, then they’d have an even better case. I still think he gets paid handsomely in the open market though. He’ll get more if he can showcase a third career 3-WAR season in 2014 though.

  • mgbode

    yes, I beat that point to death :)

    and, it also helps us in our negotiations with Masterson now. if he goes to FA with the compensatory pick tag on him, then it will depress his market some. that may give us some wiggle room to get a deal done if he is wants to stay.

  • nj0

    And it was 108 after 2010 when he signed for 60+ million.

    Just saying that looking at career averages in a vacuum is a bad idea.

  • nj0

    Most players seem to prefer hitting the open market. Even with the scarlet qualifying letter. Anything is possible, but realistically I don’t see it happening. We know how players tend to operate. And we know how the Indians tend to operate. Very unlikely.

  • WFNYJacob

    And if Bautista had another bad season in 2011, then a good season in 2012? Then we’d be looking at a closer Masterson comp.

    The point just is that we don’t know which Masterson we’ll see any which year. Perhaps he turned a corner with the strikeouts and never looks back. But those platoon splits still are daunting.

  • mgbode

    gotcha and fair point.

  • mgbode

    agreed. just noting if there’s hope to cling to, then that’s it.

  • Harv 21

    I’d love this to play out in the reality. I’m just not so confident, we’ll see. If I’m the tribe I have more faith in my evaluation of other teams’ prospects who have already faced professional competition than one sandwich pick amateur who hasn’t. If the tribe is competing for something in July I agree, the comp pick should give them some reason to swallow hard and hang on to a major contributor.

  • nj0

    (Preface: I’m prejudice towards fWAR over bWAR since I buy DIPs theory. So I’m going with fWAR here. I think a lot of front offices look at the peripheral stuff for pitchers that fWAR tries to measure too.)

    It’s a stretch (and a completely different position) but I think a somewhat similar comp would be Jhonny Peralta. Peralta has more of a track record, but he has been wildly inconsistent over the years, producing 1-4 WAR from year to year. And he, thanks to a market demand, got paid very handsomely. Since there’s ALWAYS a demand for pitching, I think Masterson gets paid very well. Even if he has a down year.

  • Matthew Halko

    Yes, the amount of revenue that a given market can produce is unequal among the MLB clubs, and the lack of a salary cap or significant revenue sharing is ruining the sport for the diehard fans of the clubs that are at an economic disadvantage, since most owners will not deficit spend out of their personal funds to make up for the inequity. That’s a discussion for another day.

  • WFNYJacob

    Not a bad comparison. These are the stats of a player that just got paid 4 years and $53 mil.

  • WFNYJacob

    Not a bad comparison. These are the stats of a player that just got paid 4 years and $53 mil.

  • Steve

    While trying not to go too far down this rabbit hole, bWAR does make adjustments for the defense behind the pitcher, and also the opponent faced and park factor that I’m not seeing in the FIP version, and I feel that bWAR picks up the difference in replacement level between AL and NL better than fWAR.

  • nj0

    I’m trying to find a better comp for pitchers, but there’s just too many moving parts. Age, k/bb rates, AL/NL, etc. Brain hurts….

    But I’m not going to over think it. I see the sad truth as either…
    1.) Masterson pitches well in 2014 so we will want him back and cannot afford him.
    2.) Masterson pitches poorly in 2014 so we will not want him back even though we can afford him.

    I’d add a third option, though unlikely…
    3.) We sign Masterson soon to a two-year deal where we overpay in his arbitration year to get one more year out of him.

    And of course, the fourth….
    4.) Something completely unexpected and other….

  • nj0

    Fair enough.

    I’m just really surprised at the dramatic difference between the two for Masterson’s 2012.

    Not to rag on both WARs too much, but I sometimes think both are viewed as gospel a little too much. Considering the disparity that can exist, I think you really have to look at peripherals, player history, all the other jazz, etc. to come to any serious conclusions.

  • nj0

    I think it’s debatable that it’s ruining the sport. A lot of fans agree with you, but the massive amount of money being injected through TV dollars suggests a larger portion of fans do not.

    I realize the current situation isn’t for everyone, but the current economics of the league are a lot of fun if you embrace them.

    And heck, I look at the mediocrity… excuse me…. parity in the NFL and the way 4-5 teams have dominated the NBA for the last handful of decades and it makes me love the MLB system even more. Heck, I’ll take the last week or so of hot stove over the last month of NFL football. Just crazy fun if you embrace it. So it means the Indians lose Masterson. Big deal. It’s a constant, unrelenting battle to adapt to the situation.

    The glass is half full.

  • nj0

    If we’re talking hope, I’d also grasp onto that Masterson seems to be a different breed of cat. Maybe he’ll be one of the few who feels some loyalty and gives his team a hometown discount?

  • nj0

    Oh, and not to sound combative, but if you understand the market realities that the Tribe face, why characterize them as “cheap, spinning tales”. It’s not a lie or a story or a tale. Nothing cheap about it. It’s the truth.

    I do agree though that we have to draft better. We’ll see in the next few years if thing have improved under Grant’s tenure.

  • Steve

    A lot of the difference is the strand rate. LOB% is an estimate, so I’m not certain, but think I’m pretty close when getting that if you replaced Masterson’s 2012 strand rate with his 2013 mark, you save 14 more runs (knocking about half a point of Masterson’s 2012 ERA), which would make up almost the entire difference between the bWAR and fWAR.

    And that would be exactly what you’re hitting on in your last paragraph. Understanding the discrepancies by looking at the peripherals helps you understand where each version would be more useful.

  • Matthew Halko

    I don’t think you’re combative; I enjoy having an intelligent debate.

    I would agree that the sport, as a whole, is doing OK. With ESPN, the internet, etc., you can be a fan of any team regardless of your place of residence, and that is boosting overall revenue for MLB. But as a born-and-bred Northeast Ohioan, I am only going to root for the Indians because that’s what my dad did, and his dad, and so on. But will my boys want to root for a team with the deck stacked against them when there are so many alternatives? If they are baseball fans at all, will they be more fans of the individual players instead of a specific team?

    Since their books are private, nobody other than the high-ups in the organization really know what their reality is. If you take Shapiro, Grant, and Bobby D at their word, they have said sometimes they lose a couple million, sometimes they profit a few million, but over the long run they try to break even and be competitive. That’s fine, I don’t expect Dolan to run his business into the ground.

    However, since he hasn’t sold in spite of the apparent revenue limitations of the market and the absence of the joy of victory, I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t losing money. The alternative is that the franchise is slowly dying and nobody will buy it at an acceptable price, which will ultimately lead to a move or contraction, and that is too sad of a thought for the fan in me to bear.

    So, Dolan is making a rational business decision to keep his team in the black, and the baseball moves to give the team the best opportunity to win cannot always be made because they are limited by the budget and are forced to play against teams with a much larger baseball budget. So that forces the GM and scouting department to be darn near perfect and provide a neverending stream of affordable talent at all 10 positions for the team to have a realistic chance of winning with any regularity, while teams like the Yankees can buy their way out of mistakes. Just because I understand that reality doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I don’t think there is an inherent nobility in being the underdog every single season. Rather than embrace the current silliness of the economic system, I am appalled by the inherent unfairness of it.

    And, yes, when we have to let our star players go rather than pay them market rates, it makes them look cheap, regardless of how much sense it makes on the business side of things. The casual fan isn’t going to understand or care about ‘market realities’, they just know that player X left because Dolan wouldn’t pay him. By not having any success trying to compete at what they acknowledge is a rigged game by pulling out the market reality excuses, while a team like Tampa Bay is able to get it right, just leads me to believe they have the wrong folks in place.
    As for the NBA and NFL, they are different animals entirely. They have some sort of salary cap and a NCAA-run minor league system where their draftees are ready to go on day 1. The amount of projections that the MLB folks have to do to figure out if a high school kid can be a power hitting 3B or an ace pitcher in 5 years makes their drafts essentially a crap shoot beyond the first couple of rounds. The key is getting at least MLB-level players from the first two rounds consistently, and the Indians have failed at that.

  • Ed Carroll

    Fister has likely been better than Masterson, particularly since 2011.