Q&A: Justin Masterson, Rhapsodic Masterpiece

Bob Dylan wasn’t thinking of Justin Masterson when he wrote “When I Paint My Masterpiece” — the Indians right-hander wasn’t even born yet — but it’s fun to imagine. Dylan sings about how someday everything is going to be smooth like a rhapsody, and isn’t that how Masterson pitches? Or how he lives his life? To Masterson, the world is a rhapsody and that’s why he is one of baseball’s most engaging personalities.


David Laurila: Is pitching fun?

Justin Masterson: Absolutely. I feel like it’s one of the most fun things, simply because, in one respect, it’s you out there by yourself. You’ve got your catcher kind of giving you a hint of what he’d like you to throw, but it’s your final decision. You’re facing this hitter — maybe it’s a clutch situation — and it’s just mano-a-mano. Once a pitch has left your hand it becomes a team game — maybe you’ll get a ground ball — but up until that point it’s just you going after that hitter. That, to me, is a lot of fun.

DL: With the game being as competitive as it is, do you ever have to step back and tell yourself that it actually is fun?

JM: Yeah, every once in a while. I’ll be getting a little juiced up out there and find myself throwing the ball as hard as I can. I’ll be like “Step back, buddy. Take it easy. Hey, we’re just having fun out here.” Maybe you make a good pitch, but a guy gets a broken-bat single — there will be a couple of tough-luck things and a run scores — and now you’re like “Aaghh!“ But do you know what? Tip your cap and go get the next guy. I mean, you’re here just having a good ol’ time.

DL: Is pitching more of an art or more of a science?

JM: I would say it is more of an art. Back in college, my buddies and I did this little thing in fine arts class. We did the art of pitching. Everyone was doing things like the art of dancing — actual fine arts stuff. I did the art of pitching. It’s just the idea that you are painting a masterpiece. You’re working a guy in and you’re working a guy out.

Sometimes you want the pitch to be down and in, and it ends up being up and away — it’s kind of a mistake — and it still works. That can be how an artist goes about it. They have this idea of what they want, but sometimes random things happen and, “Wow, that made things better.”

DL: Which artist do you pitch like?

JM: As any artist would say, I’m my own. Artists have their own way; they bring their own ideas and philosophies. But when you get right down to it, the artist I pitch like is currently on the DL, working his way back. Brandon Webb would be the guy I’ve watched and regarded as great pitcher, a heavy sinkerballer. I don’t think anyone really has the same mechanics and stuff that I do, but he was the guy I always watched.

DL: What about style? Are you a realist? An impressionist? Something else?

JM: I’d say I have more of an impressionist thought. The dots are going in. It’s just filling little things in and by the end you get this whole big picture. You didn’t really realize it at first, but then, all of a sudden, it just comes together. I’m thinking about the overall picture, what I want it to look like. With each little dot I put in there — as far as my impressionism goes — it brings everything together.

DL: What do you see when you look in from the mound? Do you see the strike zone in quadrants?

JM: I’ve thought about that. I don’t know what I see. I’ll be looking up there and yeah, you see the catcher’s glove. I think you see that in-and-out, that box within your head, the invisible box. Because you just… whether or not the catcher puts his mitt up or not, you have this area that you want to go to. It’s not physically there, but it is there in some sense of the mind.

DL: Does the area contain percentages?

JM: Mine doesn’t, really, but from the hitter’s meetings, you do see that. For me, it’s more about sticking with your strengths. Even if you have a right-handed hitter who is good at down-and-in pitches, he’s probably going to see at least one or two from me. He may crush one of them, or maybe I’ll make better pitches than he takes swings.

DL: What does the word “feel” mean to you?

JM: It means a lot. Simply because… I don’t know, I think it goes back to the idea that it’s an art and not just a science. It’s not like I need to hold it like this and like that. You get out there and the way the ball comes out of your hand is just right, or maybe it’s not just right. You try to change the grip, but that’s not really doing it, so you have to kind of slow everything down to allow the body to work together. It’s the same concept. You throw a pitch and it’s like, “You know, that just didn’t feel right”. It may have gone where it was supposed to, but it didn’t feel right. So you just kind of relax and go through it, and then “Whop! There it is!”

The way I go about it, again… it’s not just a science, As I go, it just feels right as far as the mechanics. You can go… the feel of facing the hitter could be “Okay, the first time I went sinker, sinker, sinker and I got the guy out.” Maybe this next time it will be, “Do you know what? He seems to be cheating a little bit, so let’s get that heater away.” The feel of the game allows me to not just have a single plan. As I go, I can feel out what each hitter is trying to do.

DL: You threw a game this year where all but one pitch was a fastball. Is that accurate?

JM: It was against the Twins, and it is technically accurate. However, I have a sinker — a two-seamer — and a four-seamer, so although the 104 pitches out of 105 were fast balls per se, there was a mix and match. There were four seamers, that move more straight, and two seamers, that have more movement. In essence, you can say that I was still using two different pitches, at least from my concept, but there were no off-speed pitches.

DL: Did you know when the game ended that you had only thrown one breaking ball?

JM: I hadn’t really thought about it, although there was a part of me that knew I hadn’t thrown many. I was just pitching, pitching, pitching, and all of a sudden it was Michael Cuddyer, on either a 1-0 count or 1-1 count, in his second at bat, and it was, “Slider. Yeah, let’s do a slider. Whoosh!” I put it in there for a strike, and then it was heaters, heaters, heaters.

Afterwards, someone made mention of it and I said, “You know, I don’t think I threw many off-speed pitches.” They were like, “No, we think you threw one.” I went, “You know what? I think you’re right!”

I don’t know how, or what, or why. It wasn’t my plan to throw nothing but heaters, it was just, as we were going, they weren’t taking good swings on that pitch. Why change what’s working? Each game is different, and in that game, that’s what was working. Lou Marson caught me, one of the few times he has.

DL: Do you think Marson called the game differently than other catchers would have?

JM: No, I don’t think he did. What makes Lou so great is that he understands the game really well and he understood that one so well that he was like, “Why am I going to switch it up and give a guy a chance off of a breaking ball when they’re not taking good swings off the fastball? Let’s just keep rocking the fastball until they show different.”

That was the philosophy back when I was in Lancaster, California [in the Red Sox organization]. Bob Kipper was my pitching coach out there, and he said to me, “Hey Justin, what’s your best pitch?” I was like, “My fastball,” and he said, “You throw that until someone tells you different. Watch the hitters and when they tell you that you need to mix it up, then you mix it up.” It’s a good philosophy and it seemed to hold true in that game.

DL: This was a breakthrough year for you. Why?

JM: Making good pitches. I mean, I look at 2008, when I first came into the league — things were working out pretty good. But I’ve been more consistent. If you look at [2010], even in the beginning of the season when the numbers weren’t that good, there would be two good outings and then a not-very-good outing. Then the season ended pretty well, so I think the main thing… I guess I don’t know exactly why.

DL: Is it easier to pitch when the team is winning?

JM: Absolutely. There is no doubt. It’s more fun and there is a little bit more on it. Everyone is into the game. Not that people weren’t into the game before, when we weren’t putting together good things, but every guy is in the game. It’s not like, “Oh, I hope we do well.” It’s “Hey, we want to win this!” Each guy, myself included, is doing everything they can in order to be victorious. I think that brings a good atmosphere to not only the clubhouse, but also to the game.

DL: Why were you more effective against left-handed hitters this year than in the past?

JM: I think a lot of it is the fastball, being able to not just bring it inside, but to throw it in there for a strike and kind of mix and match sinkers away. I can throw a four-seamer, which isn’t moving as much, away, and work my sinker off of that. Guys are seeing something straight and start thinking,” Okay, it’s going to be coming in straight,” but all of a sudden it starts moving and I’m getting ground balls.

Mixing and matching, going in and out, and keeping the guys off balance, has helped me against not only lefties, but also righties. It has also helped me to go deeper into games, because I’m in the zone and getting guys to swing early. I’m getting a few pop-ups here and there as well, but an out is an out.

DL: Do you and Josh Tomlin think alike on the mound?

JM: Think-wise, yes. Will we throw the same? Not necessarily. I always joke with Austin Kearns. He‘ll be like, “Hey, don’t forget you’ve got that changeup.” I don’t not throw my changeup because it’s not very good, I just don’t always feel that I need to throw it. He’ll be telling me, “Just throw it to show it,” so I’ll say, “Hey, Austin. I thought about throwing a changeup today.” He would be like: “Atta boy!” Of course, I didn’t actually throw one.

But as far as mindset goes, I know why Josh is doing what he does, and for me, I think about that. But then, sometimes, I go back to “Yes, I can get away with certain things, because my fastball is 94. I don’t have to try to be a guy with 89.” But in the overall sense, I am thinking ,“Okay, this might be a good pitch here, but I’m going to do this instead.” Sometimes I outthink myself. I’m a big thinker, no matter what, so it’s not like you will get me to not think while I’m out there. I’m out there thinking and maybe — if I’m lucky — I’m painting that masterpiece.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Great stuff as always. Super interesting!