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  • Twins Taking A Close Look At Justin Masterson


    Parker Hageman

    By now you are aware that the Minnesota Twins have some level of interest in free agent pitcher Justin Masterson.

    The big-bodied Masterson is an ideal rebound candidate -- he is only 30 years old, he has big ground ball numbers, solid strikeout rates, averaged 199 innings per season from 2010 to 2013 while working 6.2 innings per start, big BABIP numbers are primed for regression and so on. You know, all the stuff that made Phil Hughes so amazing. On the other hand, because of his delivery and repertoire, he has never fared well against left-handed opponents and he had some shoulder ailments at the end of the 2014 season.

    The Twins front office will tell you that they are doing due diligence on all the available options, not just Masterson. Beyond the reasons above, here is a more in-depth look at what to expect from him in 2015.

    Masterson Is Just Another Nick Blackburn, Right?

    Twins fans probably think of the last few seasons of Nick Blackburn when they think of sinkerball pitchers. Or Carlos Silva. Or, more current, Kyle Gibson.

    That is not Justin Masterson.

    Masterson’s sinker is a sight to behold. When looking at the raw Pitch F/X numbers which tells you how much it moved vertically, you will find that he is in rarified company. Of all pitchers who amassed 20 starts in 2014, only Masterson’s sinker fell in the negative numbers in terms of inches dropped at -0.4. This is a number reserved for the submarining sidearmer relievers. On average, the league’s sinkerballers held a 4.3-inch vertical change.

    That seems impressive, right? For those of you who glazed over when all those meaningless numbers made an appearance: In layman’s terms, Masterson’s sinker shares similar downward movement usually reserved for curveballs only with fastball velocity. Still not convinced? Look at this example from Grantland posted earlier this year:

    http://giant.gfycat.com/AnimatedInsecureAustralianshelduck.gif

    What creates this action is both the grip and the delivery that differ from your standard sinkerball pitcher. Whereas most sinker pitchers use a two-seam fastball grip with a three-quarter arm slot delivery which generates more run than sink, Masterson’s grip is slightly different.

    “It’s nothing too extreme,” Masterson told MLB Network’s analyst and former pitcher Dan Plesac on the 30-for-30 program a few spring trainings ago. “I hold it on the ends [of my fingers] and kinda got my thumb on the side.” What it looks like is a modified version of the two-seamer only with added pressure on the sides from his thumb.

    Masterson_Grip.png

    The next factor related to the movement is the release. Compared to someone like Gibson (whose sinker has a career 5.9-inch vertical change), Masterson’s fingers are almost underneath the pitch at the release point -- not behind the ball and driving it towards the plate like Gibson:

    Masterson-Gibson-Release.png

    With this grip and release enhanced by the arm slot of a sidewinding slinger, it is easy to see why since 2009 Masterson has a 59% ground ball rate, a 7.8% swinging strike rate (compared to the league-average of 5.5% on the pitch), and a 43.6% in-play rate (the best among sinkerballers in that time).

    OK. Sure, yeah. But Masterson Was Terrible In 2014. Explain That, Nerd.

    Yes. Very much so.

    With a lower velocity and a greater amount of measurable movement in his sinker, hitters were not fooled by Masterson’s favorite pitch in 2014. “Sometimes you get a huge break [on the sinker] but it’s early and hitters can see that,” he said on MLB Network. “But sometimes it tightens up but it's that lateness and that’s what you really want to see.”

    Masterson’s sinker -- which had long been susceptible to left-handed bats -- was being splattered by right-handed ones as well. Heading into 2014, opponents had posted a line of .279/.357/.388 with a 59% ground ball rate while averaging a velocity of 91.7 but he was able to hump it up into the upper-90s over the five previous seasons. This last year his sinker was pounded to the tune of .333/.442/.525 but with an improved 64% ground ball rate as his velocity dipped to 88.7 and he was barely able to crest 94 at maximum speed.

    His command of the pitch disappeared. He was walking more with his sinker than he was striking out. In order to locate it better, Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said he tried to ease off the gas.

    "The problem," Callaway said told reporters in early April, "is what he was doing mechanically, and then trying to ease up and throw strikes with his two seamer, it kind of compounded everything and made it worse. He probably should've taken the other route, drive some four-seamers in there, something that doesn't move and work off that.”

    But later in April, following a few more starts, it became apparent that the velocity on the four-seamer that Callaway really wanted Masterson to mix in never arrived. In 2013, he threw 235 pitches 95 miles an hour or above. In 2014, he reached that plateau just once. “He can’t find that four-seam velocity that he had last year,” Callaway told the media at the end of that month. “I wouldn’t say he’s reinventing himself, he’s just playing the cards that he’s been dealt."

    As the season wore on, Masterson copped to an injury to his right knee that sidelined him for the bulk of June. Masterson later told people that the knee injury had affected his mechanics to the point of reducing his velocity and command.

    So What.

    When the Twins requested Masterson’s medical records, as sources claim, the primary focus could be on the health of his right knee.

    Following the season with the Cardinals, St. Louis’ general manager John Mozeliak said that Masterson told the team that he regretted not speaking out earlier about his ailments. Masterson’s knee injuries created issues with his mechanics, something the entire state of Missouri attempted to pinpoint on video. As Masterson told the Post-Dispatch there were various recommendations from all sources: he needed to refine his balance point, he needed to drive instead of drop, he needed to stay tall, he needed to keep his front knee closed and so on. All of these suggestions could conceivably help with his sinker command, but only one is aimed at regaining his velocity -- driving off that back leg.

    Consider these examples which are indicative of the larger collection of video on Masterson. In 2012 when facing the Detroit Tigers, Masterson demonstrates a great amount of exertion and torque off of his back leg when driving towards home plate. This helps generate the high 90s velocity:

    http://i.imgur.com/B8Fy1RT.gif

    Meanwhile while in his first start with St. Louis, Masterson merely falls forward off of his back leg. There is little drive or engagement from his back leg.

    http://i.imgur.com/ZG7A3tx.gif

    An MRI in September revealed impingement in his right shoulder, which was given a cortisone shot. This could be related to the mechanical flaw seen in the last video. Certainly this type of delivery would place added stress on his arm and shoulder. The question is, to what extent?

    Wrap This Up Please.

    We know what Masterson can be.

    He can be a quality starter who provides 200-ish innings with elite worm-burning skills and that could translate to approximately two wins above replacement (as he was in each season between 2010 and 2013). All of which is possible if he can curb the walks and regain his velocity. That appears contingent on his injuries. If it is just the knee -- and that heals this offseason -- there is no reason to think he cannot rebound to where he was prior to 2014. After all, he will be just 30 years old in 2015. On the other hand, if trying to pitch through a knee injury exacerbated his arm problems beyond what is known, there may be struggles ahead. Still, medical records should shed light on that and provide confidence one way or the other.

    After turning down a large multi-year contract from the Indians, reportedly seeking $17M per year, Masterson figures to be aiming for a make-good contract. Unless his medical records say otherwise, he should be able to make-good.

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    Good stuff Parker.  I like Masterson, largely based on the belief that he'll get a short term deal.  I love ceiling and could care less about floor as should the Twins considering there is some credible pitching depth in May, Meyer, Milone, Gilmartin, et al. 

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    For the layman who is a little baffled at the -0.4 inches dropped on a "sinker", that means that his pitches rise at the beginning after release before sinking later, yet still ends up crossing the plate a touch higher than it was released?  I imagine that's what I'm supposed to see in the gif but I'm not really adept at spotting that kind of thing.

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    Not interested unless the price really drops or several option years are included in the make good.  Not that many good seasons and will only block pitchers the Twins need to find out about this year(May, Meyer, Berrios, Milone, Plefrey).  Some of the above may not be here, but Twins already have 3 filled spots(Hughes, Nolasco, Gibson). 

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    For the layman who is a little baffled at the -0.4 inches dropped on a "sinker", that means that his pitches rise at the beginning after release before sinking later, yet still ends up crossing the plate a touch higher than it was released?

     

     

    To clarify, the vertical drop measurement isn't in inches directly -- take a look at this chart below:

     

    http://fastballs.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/typical_spin_deflection2.jpg

     

    Most sinkers don't actually "sink" (just like rising fastballs don't "rise"). They fall at a greater rate than fastballs and typically run more horizontally. This is where most sinkers (two-seamers) fall on the pitch f/x scale -- above 0. That's the horizontal line. Masterson's sinker on the other hand, falls below that line. 

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    Compaing the article here with the Brett Anderson piece, it seems more prudent for the Twins to sign Anderson.  Sounds like the price tag won't be as high.

     

    I'm just crossing my fingers that the right pitching coach is hired and he can get Nolasco right. 

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    To clarify, the vertical drop measurement isn't in inches directly -- take a look at this chart below:

     

    http://fastballs.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/typical_spin_deflection2.jpg

     

    Most sinkers don't actually "sink" (just like rising fastballs don't "rise"). They fall at a greater rate than fastballs and typically run more horizontally. This is where most sinkers (two-seamers) fall on the pitch f/x scale -- above 0. That's the horizontal line. Masterson's sinker on the other hand, falls below that line.

     

    Maybe not the most intuitive chart -- where the x and y axis cross, it looks like it's indicating the middle of the strike zone (with the bottom of the chart maybe representing the ground).
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    He has had two good years and is 30.  Career 4.24 ERA.  Mechanics issues. Injury issues. Command issues.  You can't trust him on a 3-4-5 year extension if he has a good year here, IMO.

     

    And I find it ironic that his BB rate the last two years has been worse than Alex Meyer's in AA and AAA over the same period.  But the BB rates are what have kept Meyer from even getting a shot to pitch for the Twins.

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    According to Masterson, the knee nagged him since the 2nd start of the season. However his sinker velo on the first start was 90.6, right in line with the rest of the year. Perhaps he hurt knee compensating for a third (initial) injury like an ankle or back?

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    I don't like this idea. The guy has injury issues, hasn't touched 90 in a year, and is a ground ball guy to a team with terrible defense. It just doesn't make much sense to me.

    I'm with you.  Would we want to add a guy with velocity issues to a team that had velocity issues?

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    Maybe not the most intuitive chart -- where the x and y axis cross, it looks like it's indicating the middle of the strike zone (with the bottom of the chart maybe representing the ground).

     

     

    I should also mention that the distribution is based on right-handed pitcher movement from the catcher's perspective.

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    According to Masterson, the knee nagged him since the 2nd start of the season. However his sinker velo on the first start was 90.6, right in line with the rest of the year. Perhaps he hurt knee compensating for a third (initial) injury like an ankle or back?

     

     

    After the season he said that his side was still hurting in spring training -- from the previous year's oblique injury. The knee likely hurt his shoulder, which MRIs said was impinged. 

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    After the season he said that his side was still hurting in spring training -- from the previous year's oblique injury. The knee likely hurt his shoulder, which MRIs said was impinged. 

    According to this

     

     

    Randy Rowley, Masterson's agent, said the [oblique] injury caused a change in his mechanics, which led to soreness in his right knee.

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    On the contrary, he's had minimal injury issues:

     

    attachicon.gifMasterson.png

     

    Could he be in line for some? Sure. I do believe that if there are any red flags, the Twins should be able to catch them on his medical records. 

     

    I guess then injuries did not play a role in 2009 (4.52 ERA, 1.45 WHIP).  2010 (4.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), and 2012 (4.93 ERA, 1.45 WHIP).

    Edited by tobi0040
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    Well Cleveland got a pretty good prospect for him despite his down season.  If he's looking for a make good deal, I'd love to take the chance that the Twins get an improved performance and get an even better return for him mid-season.

     

    I don't understand why this wasn't the strategy in 2011-2013 when we didn't have the young pitchers ready to break through.    We signed two guys, Pelfrey and Harden maybe with this in mind.  Pelfrey had no upside and Harden had about a .01% chance of being healthy.

     

    I think you sign a guy that is a 2-3 year answer, one that is better than what you have or you give reps to the young guys.  No in between.  This feels very in between to me.

    Edited by tobi0040
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    So I have been pretty grumpy about the prospect of Masterson coming to the Twins, but this is a pretty compelling case in his favor. The two things I found most compelling were the analysis of his sinker, and the association of his drop in velocity with a lack of back leg drive. Some of the comments have been additionally helpful in explaining that negative sinker metric, but honestly, it's still not clear for me. Maybe somebody has a link that explains it in detail? I guess what is clear about it is that it's an exceptional pitch, so I feel a little less grumpy about getting a guy with an exceptional pitch. The video comp highlighting the change in back leg drive is impressive. It's amazing that you can actually see him driving that much harder in the first clip. And that's a very straightforward and almost obvious explanation of velocity loss. And it seems reparable. 

     

    As excellent as all of the analysis in this article is, I wish it were more balanced. It's clear that you're high on Masterson and want to convince readers of his value, and that's fine, but I wish you had done more to address some of his glaring flaws. I think you do a good job explaining why he was so exceptionally bad last year, and you do acknowledge his propensity to walk. But I think you downplay the walks without exploring whether or not it's likely or possible that he can/will reduce them. Additionally, it seems like maybe you overestimate his ability to get strikeouts. Discounting last season (because he was hurt, and terrible) when I look at Masterson's K/9 and BB/9 year to year, I notice a walk rate of at least 3.5, with one outlier in 2011 of 2.7. Interesting that his career best in BB/9 is paired with his career worst in K/9, 6.6, a year that also produced his best ERA 3.21. But aside from the K/9 outlier in 2013 of 9.1, he seems to hover around 7, which is fine, but hardly of note. It would be pretty nice to buddy up that 9.1 with the 2.7, but that's wishful thinking. Sure we could poo-poo the walks, but isn't there a TD t-shirt with the slogan "walks will haunt" on it?

     

    Also, reading the comments, it seems like one injury leads to another: knee, back, shoulder, oblique. Yikes. And doesn't that blatant upside down W motion make you even more nervous? I feel like that's been flagged as the number one predictor of future arm problems.

     

    ?   Infield defense wasn't the Twins problem in 2014. 

     

    Ground balls hit to the outfield gap have been a problem however. :)

    And while this is true, aren't we expecting/hoping to see Santana and Sano on the left side this season, and possibly more of Vargas at first?

     

    Anyway, good article, and I suppose it's a good sign that Cleveland wanted him back for multiple years... 

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    I guess then injuries did not play a role in 2009 (4.52 ERA, 1.45 WHIP).  2010 (4.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), and 2012 (4.93 ERA, 1.45 WHIP).

     

     

    What's your point? In his four seasons prior to coming to Minnesota, Phil Hughes had a 4.64 ERA. 

     

    Injuries did not play a role in his 2009 when he was a reliever. 2010 he had a 3.87 xFIP, 21% K% and a 0.70 HR/9. In 2012 he had a 4.15 xFIP, 17% K% & 0.79 HR/9. All good things.

     

    He's definitely susceptible to left-handed opponents, there's no denying that but, for the most part, his peripherals have been better than his ERA indicates.

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    What's your point? In his four seasons prior to coming to Minnesota, Phil Hughes had a 4.64 ERA. 

     

    Injuries did not play a role in his 2009 when he was a reliever. 2010 he had a 3.87 xFIP, 21% K% and a 0.70 HR/9. In 2012 he had a 4.15 xFIP, 17% K% & 0.79 HR/9. All good things.

     

    He's definitely susceptible to left-handed opponents, there's no denying that but, for the most part, his peripherals have been better than his ERA indicates.

     

    Hughes career ERA in every start outside of the New Yankee stadium was 4.10 or so.  By coming to MN, you fix that problem.  Hughes was also almost three years younger. 

     

    Can we fix Masterson's issues?  That is debateable. Our track record at doing so is not great.  

     

    But that doesn't really matter to me as much as how inconsistent Masterson has been.  My fear is he pitches well for 3-4 months and then we hand him a three year $45M deal.   He has been way too inconsistent to extend him.  He also has a good shot at being the 4.50-5.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP guy again and our rotation is terrible again while taking reps from young players.

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    As excellent as all of the analysis in this article is, I wish it were more balanced. It's clear that you're high on Masterson and want to convince readers of his value, and that's fine, but I wish you had done more to address some of his glaring flaws.

     

     

    Glaring flaws? There are plenty of people in the comment section who are trying to do that for me...

    I will say that the only "glaring flaw" is his struggle against left-handed batters (which was mentioned several times in the article) but I also highlighted a bit on Twitter yesterday:

     

    Twitter.png

     

    To me, that's still a big flaw. 

     

    I know you mentioned his command but again, that circles back to his ability to retire left-handed hitters. Over his career RHB K%/BB% is 25%/8% while his LHB split is 15%/10%. He still walks a lot of both but he's able to generate more strikeouts against same-sided batters.  

     

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    17 million per year??!

     

    Offer him 13 at the highest or walk away.

     

    I will be upset if we pay anywhere close to 13 million a year for him.  In fact I'll be disgusted if we sign him at all.  I just don't see the logic of it.  Sure the starters weren't good, but the outfield is the biggest need in my humble opinion.  Address that first and foremost. 

     

    Ryan is probably under pressure this season, but they need to be patient with the starters.  We have Milone, Meyer and May ALL ready to go this season.  Berrios is a year away tops.    That's six starters not counting Berrios, Darnell or Gilmartin. 

     

    Why spend this kind of money on a 30 years old, who has only had two winning seasons and sports a career average 4 + era.  It just doesn't make any sense when you consider he's a sinker / meatball tosser (aka Silva / Blackburn type) and we have one of the sketchiest outfields in all of baseball.  

     

    To me this is a no go decision.  The Twins have a huge mess in the outfield and are about to shake the infield up too by moving Santana to short stop full time.  I don't like the thoughts of signing ANOTHER mid 4 era starter when we have tons of options within. 

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    My fear is he pitches well for 3-4 months and then we hand him a three year $45M deal.   He has been way too inconsistent to extend him.

     

     

    From 2010 to 2013, he averaged 199 innings with a 3.67 FIP. Seems pretty consistent to me. 

     

    I really don't think the Twins will make a huge commitment beyond the year for Masterson (or any free agent pitcher). They have plenty of talent behind him in the system. 

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    The problem is that the "perfect " pitchers will cost north of $20m a year for many years and TR will never do that. So in order to improve the pitching staff  you go with young unproven guys which seldom works or sign some flawed guys to go with the young guys and hope like heck you get a Hughes year out of them.

     

    Averaging 96 losses over the last 4 years should tell us we need lots of help. If you end up with excess that is a very good thing. Excess talent can help fill a hole down the road.

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    From 2010 to 2013, he averaged 199 innings with a 3.67 FIP. Seems pretty consistent to me. 

     

    True. In his poor seasons, his FIP and xFIP are much lower than his ERA, and even in 2013 when he was good, his FIP and xFIP were still lower than his ERA.

     

    Glaring flaws? There are plenty of people in the comment section who are trying to do that for me...

    I will say that the only "glaring flaw" is his struggle against left-handed batters 

    So, in your mind, is this an amendable flaw, or is it livable? And do you disagree with the upside down W motion leads to injury theory? I've found it to be pretty convincing, and thus a glaring red flag in Masterson, especially in light of his recent injury plagued season. And have you found or considered any explanation for the jump in K% (three seasons in a row of 17.5% and then in 2013 24.3%)?

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    From 2010 to 2013, he averaged 199 innings with a 3.67 FIP. Seems pretty consistent to me. 

     

    I really don't think the Twins will make a huge commitment beyond the year for Masterson (or any free agent pitcher). They have plenty of talent behind him in the system. 

     

    His career 3.7 BB per 9 rate and 1.38 WHIP are red flags for me.  As are the fact that he is 30 and we are talking about mechanics, control, consistency, can't get LHB out, etc. At what point do we suspect he will click?

     

    I don't view this as more than a one year thing and we are not making a run next year.  That is probably the bigger issue for me.

    Edited by tobi0040
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    The problem is that the "perfect " pitchers will cost north of $20m a year for many years and TR will never do that. 

    This is a serious problem. I know the team is trying to dig out of a hole right now, and most of the ideas and solutions that get discussed around here revolve around just getting the team back to or at least closer to competitive form, and that now is probably not the time to spend big in free agency. But spending big in free agency is pretty key for improving your team's competitive chances in the postseason. And if TR will never do that, then the Twins seriously handicap their competitive chances in the postseason.

     

    I think, where they are now, they make small (low-risk in terms of cost, high reward in terms of potential upside) acquisitions and/or roll with the young guys (if those kind of deals aren't out there).

     

    I don't like the middle of the road deals, as they seem to bring inconsistency and mediocrity (which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't also seem like the Twins tend to remain committed because of the significant financial investment). It seems like we get stuck with Nolasco, Pelfry because of the money. It would be fine signing guys like that if you were willing to cut ties when they stink. 

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    His career 3.7 BB per 9 rate and 1.38 WHIP are red flags for me.  As are the fact that he is 30 and we are talking about mechanics, control, consistency, can't get LHB out, etc. At what point do we suspect he will click?

     

    I don't view this as more than a one year thing and we are not making a run next year.  That is probably the bigger issue for me.

    Even if you don't count last season, his WHIP is still pretty high. Even in his strong seasons, his WHIP isn't great (1.28 in 2011 and 1.2 in 2013). It's interesting to see, in those strong seasons, the lower WHIP coupled with the higher strand rates (around 75% compared to 66% in other seasons); so he was allowing less runners on base and making sure a higher percentage of them didn't score. I guess if you're pitching better, you're pitching better. I couldn't find a stat for induced double plays. That would be interesting to see, as the high strand rates don't necessarily correspond to a higher K rate.

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