The date was July 31, 2009 and it was the last day of that season's trade deadline. The Boston Red Sox needed a boost to help that season's playoff chances. And so on that deadline day, the Red Sox pulled the trigger on a deal with the Cleveland Indians for Victor Martinez. In return, the Red Sox sent Justin Masterson, Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone. Martinez performed admirably for the Red Sox and they did indeed make the playoffs but were swept in the first round by the Angels. Martinez had another good season for the Red Sox in 2010 but the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs. The Red Sox had little to show for their year and a half rental of Martinez and perhaps have given up one of the rising stars in the American League.
Justin Masterson had a much better 2011 season as the anchor in the Indians' rotation than most people realize. He finished with a 12-10 record for his 33 starts which is yet another reason why a pitcher's win-loss record is meaningless. According to Fangraphs' valuation methods, Masterson was tied for being the sixteenth most valuable pitcher last season. The guys he was tied with? Cole Hamels, James Shields and Daniel Hudson. That's pretty good company. Just think if Masterson had been in the Red Sox rotation last September when they sank faster than a leaky rowboat!
And the good news is that Masterson is only going to be 27 in 2012. He showed all the signs that he is going to be a star for the Cleveland Indians for years to come. Perhaps getting to learn on the job with the Indians over the past three seasons has allowed Masterson to reach his full potential. Seriously out of contention in 2009 and 2010 allowed the Indians to have patience with Masterson to give him room to grow. Those first two seasons weren't pretty as Masterson went 7-20 with a WHIP over 1.5. And the patience paid off beginning with the second half of the 2010 season. Despite his final record in 2010, Masterson cut his walks down in the second half of that season and he carried that even further into the 2011 season. His 2.7 walks per nine innings in 2011 along with an improved 2.43 strikeout to walk ratio were easily the best of his career.
But the good news doesn't stop there. Statistics show that Masterson's change up became a much better pitch in 2011 and now all three of his pitches are in the plus category. He only allowed eleven homers all season for a sparkling 0.5 homers per nine innings, again, the best of his career. Batters had a total OPS against him of .667 with a slugging percentage of .349. No matter how you judge pitching, he was terrific. If you like holding on to ERA, that was 3.21. If you prefer FIP, that was 3.28. xFIP? 3.64. SIERA? 3.68. tERA? 3.53. ERA+? 128. It's all good across the board.
Going deeper into Masterson's numbers, you have to love the way he gets batters to hit ground balls. His ground ball percentage of 55.1 percent in 2011 was just below his career average and for his career, he induces two ground balls for every fly ball he allows. Showing that Masterson is hard to square up, his lifetime line drive percentage sits at only 16.7 percent for his career. And he also increased the number of infield pop ups in 2011 pretty significantly (9.1 percent compared to a career rate of 6.4). Perhaps the real key to his success was that Masterson increased the contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone. His 70.7 percent contact rate on those pitches was up almost eight percentage points of his previous best season.
After all is said and done, so far all three projections for Justin Masterson for 2012 show a regression of his 2011 numbers. That's hard to understand. Perhaps that is a reflection of a ground ball pitcher pitching in front of a notoriously bad infield. Asdrubal Cabrera rated as the worst fielding (qualifying) shortstop last season. Jason Kipnis at second, came in with a -5.6 fielding runs. If Carlos Santana continues to play first as often as he catches, that won't help either. At least Lonnie Chisenhall over at third base seemed above average with his fielding stats last season.
Even so, it's this writer's opinion that Justin Masterson will not regress and that he'll continue to improve and will be one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2012. He shows all the signs of an emerging star and if this writer is correct, then he will continue to be the pitcher that got away for the Red Sox. And now that the same Victor Martinez is lost for the season for the rival Tigers, Masterson will have a lot to say about whether the Indians can compete in the AL Central this coming season. Oh, and by the way, Nick Hagadone has great stuff as a lefty reliever and might also be a big key for the Indians. It should be fun to watch.