The highs and lows of being a major league player. Justin Masterson was dealing a year ago. He was the leader of an Indians staff that was pitching and timely-hitting their way in October. One thing that people have conveniently forgotten about that run: Masterson wasn’t pitching.
An early September oblique strain kept him out of the rotation the rest of the season. He only returned for the final week of the season as a reliever. The timing was perfect as closer Chris Perez had become unusable. Masterson opened the Indians regular season as a starter and closed out the final game in Minnesota as his team reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
There were plenty of highs in Masterson’s time here in Cleveland. He came over in 2009 for the ultra-popular Victor Martinez, a deal that angered thousands of Indians fans as Martinez had always said he wanted to be here his entire career. Nevertheless, they dealt him with a year and a half left on his contract and brought over a future rotation piece in Masterson and two young relievers, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Masterson was the centerpiece of the deal and many at the time couldn’t believe the Indians were unable to pry Clay Buckholz away from Boston, instead settling on Masterson who had been used as a reliever.
The Tribe immediately put him into the rotation, while slowly building his arm back up. Masterson’s wacky delivery was both a blessing and a curse when he was here. He made 10 starts the rest of the ’09 season before settling to the Tribe five over the next four and a half years. A trend started for Justin – every other year he was good. Take a look at the numbers:
2010: 29 starts, 180 IP, 6-13, 4.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 3.93 FIP, 84 ERA+, 1.92 SO/BB
2011: 33 starts, 216 IP, 12-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.28 FIP, 122 ERA+, 2.43 SO/BB
2012: 34 starts, 206.1 IP, 11-15, 4.93 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 4.16 FIP, 76 ERA+, 1.81 SO/BB
2013: 29 starts, 193 IP, 14-10, 3.45 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 3.35 FIP, 110 ERA+, 2.57 SO/BB
2014: 19 starts, 98 IP, 4-6, 5.51 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 4.08 FIP, 68 ERA+, 1.66 SO/BB
Unfortunately for Masterson, his walk year has been a disaster. After turning down a reported three-year, $45 million deal with the Indians, he and his agents decided to play the year out and hope for the best. They had stars and dollars signs in their eyes after the Reds gave the crazy six-year, $110 million deal to Homer Bailey, who many believe was a comparable pitcher to Masterson. However, the chances of Masty ever seeing that kind of dough evaporated quickly.
Justin’s command was a mess and his velocity was noticeably down. That is not exactly a recipe for hitting it big on the free agent market. Things got so bad that the Indians held him back a few days to rest his “ailing knee” and then gave him one more chance to right the ship. Instead, the final impression of Masterson in Wahoo Red, White, and Blue was a disastrous two-inning, five-run start at home against the New York Yankees. I actually found myself feeling sorry for him.
The thing about Masterson that I always thought was that baseball was mostly just a means to an end for him. This is strictly my opinion, but it just seemed like he knew the game was something he was good at, so this was his profession. If you have ever met Justin, you know that family and faith are most important to him. I am not saying that is a bad thing at all. It is a very noble quality in a person, especially someone who has the fame and ability to touch others lives the way Masterson can. But on the mound many times I thought that he was just “out there.” After poor starts, he would often sit in the dugout smiling and joking. Intensity was not his thing. And again, that is not always bad.
I still look back on the day in August of 2012 – one of his off years – when he was asked about a poor string of starts after a 10-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers. Masterson’s response? “On the bright side, my wife just told me that all her past and future profits from her cookie business are going to charity, so that brightens things up.”
That is Justin Masterson in a nutshell. He marched to the beat of his own drum and by all accounts, is a great guy and teammate. I am just not sure how badly he wants it. Every time I see Trevor Bauer take the mound or warming up, I see a guy so intense and so driven to succeed that nothing is going to stand in his way. Masterson seems more happy to be getting paid big money to play baseball. This is not by any means to say he doesn’t try hard, I just don’t think the game is as important to him as it is to others in the game. It certainly says a lot about his character, which by all accounts is fantastic. In my years covering the Tribe, very few players have been as affable and as easy to talk to as Justin. To a man, his teammates would probably tell you the same thing.
But with all of that said, it was time for him to go. Sadly, Masterson pitched himself out of millions and millions of dollars and with the Indians most likely unwilling to offer him the expected $15 million qualifying offer for 2015, they had little choice but to deal him. Had he pitched like an All-Star for a second consecutive year, the team would have lost him to free agency anyways, given him the QO that he would have turned down, and collected a first-round pick. So the trade for 24-year-old outfielder James Ramsey, a former first-round pick himself in 2012, is essentially just that, although they get a player farther along in his development.
I will always choose to remember Masterson more for those games that his frisbee slider danced away from right-handed hitters, frustrating opponents rather than as the guy who left-handers teed off on and had an off-year, on-year tenure in Cleveland. Heading into this season many who follow the team, myself included, would often get frustrated by Justin’s bouts of inconsistency. The issue was usually not him, but rather our view of him. Masterson was NEVER a No. 1 starter or a “ace.” At his best he was a solid No. 2 or No. 3 guy. But here in Cleveland for the past three seasons, we always expected him to be something he wasn’t.
What was he? Actually he was a great guy, a solid teammate, and an up-and-down starter who gave the Indians some really great moments during his five-plus seasons. Here’s hoping he finds himself an St. Louis and goes on to have a great rest of his career.