The Cardinals Will be Good for Justin Masterson

For some time, it’s been evident that the Cardinals could use some help in the starting rotation. They matched up well for all the big names, with the only question concerning the organization’s willingness to part with a major prospect. Word is, the Cardinals might still part with a major prospect for a big name, but midday Wednesday the Cardinals zigged and dealt for a guy who was good a year ago, a guy with a 5+ ERA.

Justin Masterson, who’s still on the disabled list, is going to St. Louis, and going to Cleveland is prospect James Ramsey. The Indians aren’t giving up, but they no longer had room for Masterson, and they turned him into actual value. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have at least addressed a short-term hole, improving without dealing from the top of the farm. At best, Masterson is an impact splash. At least, even the somewhat troubled version is a better fit with the Cardinals than with the Indians.

One year ago, Masterson struck out a batter an inning and maintained excellent peripherals. As a low-angle righty with a sinker and slider, he’s always had a large platoon split, but in 2013 he was good enough against lefties to not get exploited. Things have been different in 2014 — the strikeouts are down, the walks are up, and the velocity isn’t there. Though Masterson has allowed plenty more runs than one would expect, his adjusted FIP and his adjusted xFIP have gotten worse by 21 points. Mickey Callaway has an idea of what’s been going on:

“I think the knee affected him pretty bad,” said Callaway. “It affected the way he landed and was able to throw against his front side. It probably accounted for the difference in velo (velocity) that we’ve been seeing.”

Masterson’s former pitching coach thinks the knee injury is responsible for the struggles, and Masterson should be beyond the injury now. Apparently it’s something that’s bothered him since early April, and it’s an easy explanation to believe. On the other hand, back in April, when Masterson was struggling a bit, Callaway said he was healthy and would be just fine, so you can’t just automatically put all the stock in these things. Masterson might just be worse now. It’s not like he’s ever been a command pitcher.

For the Cardinals, there’s obvious upside; maybe the injury was holding Masterson back. He’s due to be activated this week, and it’s entirely possible he’ll re-discover his 2013 velocity and pick up his game. Part of their thinking is that Masterson could be a quality starter for another three months. But there’s also something else: even if Masterson returns inconsistent, St. Louis presents for him a better situation.

Masterson’s been hurt by walks, but he’s also been devastated by damage on balls in play. We all know him to be among the most extreme groundballers in the league. So, let’s look at some 2014 team-level defensive rankings:

Indians, overall

  • last in UZR
  • last in DRS

Cardinals, overall

  • 8th in UZR
  • 1st in DRS

Indians, infield

  • last in UZR
  • last in DRS

Cardinals, infield

  • 3rd in UZR
  • 1st in DRS

Masterson is going from pitching in front of the worst defense in baseball to pitching in front of arguably the best. So he doesn’t even have to improve to generate improved results, because fewer balls are going to get through or find grass with St. Louis. There might be no more extreme defensive swing in the league, so it’s almost like Masterson is going to get to go bowling with bumpers. At least, it could feel like that. The Cardinals will give him support.

And then they’ll just see what he is. If he comes back throwing harder, he could be real good. If he comes back the same, he’s still good insurance at the back of the rotation, and he could be a reliever in October if Michael Wacha comes back healthy. A short-inning Masterson would cripple postseason righties, and he’d probably be able to hold his own against lefties. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that Masterson hasn’t exactly been all over the place, even at his wildest. Here are his year-by-year rates of pitches thrown at or below two feet off the ground:

Year Low%
2008 31%
2009 27%
2010 36%
2011 26%
2012 33%
2013 30%
2014 46%

This year has the highest rate by far, suggesting that Masterson has just been missing a bit too low too often with his sinker. Nearly half of his pitches have been at two feet or lower, and if he’s able to bring things up a bit, those low balls can quickly turn into low strikes and weak grounders. It’s a matter of inches, and better to have Masterson missing down than missing up.

There might be one more small consideration. Masterson is set to debut with the Cardinals this weekend against the Brewers. Carlos Gomez bats right-handed. Ryan Braun bats right-handed. Jonathan Lucroy, and Khris Davis, and Aramis Ramirez bat right-handed. For the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen bats right-handed, as do Russell Martin, Starling Marte, and Josh Harrison. While the Reds have the left-handed Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, they’ve both had injury problems and Bruce isn’t producing these days at all. There are important divisional games coming up down the stretch for the Cardinals, and it could be a real benefit to have a righty-killer like Masterson on the staff. It’s a little thing, but the leverage of those games could be through the roof, so little things turn into big things.

So, from the Cardinals’ perspective: maybe healthy Masterson gets better. He was real good just last summer. Even if he doesn’t get better, he could be something on the order of league-average, and he’ll have a far better defense behind him than he’s used to. He’s well-equipped to turn into a short-inning stopper in the playoffs. It’s a worthwhile addition at the cost of a non-elite prospect.

And for the Indians, that non-elite prospect is better than the compensation they probably weren’t going to get in the offseason, since they probably weren’t going to extend to Masterson a qualifying offer. Even if they did, maybe they’d get stuck with Masterson for $15 million, and if they got a draft pick, that pick likely wouldn’t end up as good as James Ramsey. Marc Hulet, before the year, ranked Ramsey seventh in the Cardinals’ deep system, and the outfielder has done nothing to drop his stock.

Though he’s a late-24-year-old in Double-A, he’s also got an average of .300, an on-base percentage near .400, and a slugging percentage over .500. Most reports say he’s capable of handling center field, and he wasn’t expected to hit for the power he’s shown. Strikeouts are a bit of an issue, and Ramsey isn’t the baserunner you’d expect him to be given that he’s a capable center fielder, but there’s good-player upside, with a high probability of making the majors. Even if Ramsey turns out to be a league-average type, those players are valuable in their controlled years, and Masterson had two more months left. It’s a good, close-to-ready get for a player who for months had been nothing but trouble.

The Indians managed to sell without selling out. The Cardinals managed to get better without touching their most-prized young possessions. The upside is obvious for both, and even if the players involved just hit their 50th-percentile projections from here on out, then the Cardinals have short-term help and the Indians have a half-decent outfield prospect who isn’t far away from his arrival. It’s not often you see deadline trades between a couple of contenders, but this one makes an awful lot of sense, and the two teams remain contenders still.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

So Jeff, how do you manage to post a FULL article so quickly after a trade is made, and the rest of Fangraphs has to settle for little blurbs on InstaGraphs?


9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Oh, I thought it was like obit writers…just write them all beforehand!