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Texas Rangers rumors: Justin Masterson, potential offseason acquisition

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Taking a look at Justin Masterson, a free agent who is reportedly on the Rangers' radar

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Rangers rumors:  Justin Masterson is a 29 year old righthanded starting pitcher who is a free agent this offseason.  We all know that the Rangers are looking to bring in at least one starting pitcher from outside the organization to plug into the rotation for 2015, and there has been a lot of talk that he is someone that the Rangers have an interest in.

Masterson was originally a 2nd round draft choice of Boston out of San Diego State in the 2006 draft.  He moved up quickly, making it to the big leagues in April, 2008, and spent the 2008 working in a swingman role for Boston.  In 2009, he was sent to the Cleveland Indians, along with Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price, in exchange for Victor Martinez, and finished out the year in the Indians rotation.

From 2010-14, Masterson has been a starter, and has had a pattern of bad years in even seasons, good years in the odd ones.  His yearly ERA during those five years has bounced around from 4.70 to 3.21 to 4.93 to 3.45 to 5.88.  He had a 5.51 ERA for Cleveland this year before he was shipped to St. Louis in late July.  Masterson put up a 7.04 ERA in 30.2 innings for the Cards, resulting in him getting dropped from their rotation at the end of August and pitching just 3.1 IP in September for St. Louis.

Masterson presents an interesting case...he's an extreme groundball pitcher, having the highest GB% in all of the majors in 2013, and the second-highest since 2010 for pitchers with at least 700 IP during that span.  His K rates have been consistently right around league average, while his walk rate has been above-average, a flaw that he's made up for by allowing home runs at a lower rate than average.  Interestingly, while Masterson's ERA has fluctuated significantly from year to year, there's been more consistency in his FIP and xFIP:

Year ERA FIP xFIP
2010 4.70 3.93 3.87
2011 3.21 3.28 3.64
2012 4.93 4.16 4.15
2013 3.45 3.35 3.33
2014 5.88 4.50 4.08

Masterson's bloated 5.88 ERA was a result of a confluence of several things.  First, his walk rate jumped to 4.83, in contrast to his career 3.71 rate.  His BABIP was a career-high .339, while his HR/FB% was a career-high 14.6%, and his rate of stranding runners was a career-low 64.8%.  While his walk rate is included in defense-independent numbers, the other items just cited aren't (except for HR/FB%, which is in FIP, but not xFIP).  As a result, you see a significant spread between his ERA and his FIP and xFIP, both in 2014 and in his other bad years.

There are some things that make Masterson an intriguing bounceback candidate.  His GB/FB ratio was the highest of his career last season, and his rate of eliciting infield popups was also the highest of his career.  His BABIP could be partially explained by a 9.0% infield hit rate (although he also allowed a 20.3% line drive percentage on balls in play, the highest of his career).  His defensive-independent numbers suggest that he wasn't as bad last year as his ERA suggests.  Steamer projects Masterson with a 3.89 ERA and a 3.75 FIP, and I think that, if you could get that from him while getting 200 innings (he'd averaged 199 IP per year from 2010-13), then that's a pretty solid pickup.  And if you think the Rangers infield defense will be above-average in 2015, then Masterson's ground ball tendencies should make him even more valuable.

However...as we've discussed before, I'm reluctant to just dismiss elevated BABIPs and HR/FB rates as being bad luck or bad defense.  Oftentimes, that's the result of a pitcher not having good stuff or good command, and thus throwing very hittable pitches.  The elevated walk rate in 2014 ties in with the lack of command theory.

And most troubling is that Masterson's velocity dropped precipitously in 2014...while Pitch f/x had Masterson at anywhere from 92.4 to 93.1 mph on average on his four-seam fastball from 2009-2013, in 2014, he was just at 90.3 mph.  His two-seamer dropped from a 90.6-92.0 range from 2009-13 to 88.5 in 2014.  His slider showed a similar drop, while his changeup stayed at the same velocity as it was before.  So Masterson lost about 2.5 mph on his fastballs and slider, reducing his margin of error, and because his changeup stayed the same speed as it was before, the reduced velocity delta between his fastball and his changeup reduced the effectiveness of his offspeed pitch.

The million dollar question with Masterson is, where did his velocity go?  Was he dealing with an injury last year?  Were his mechanics off?  Was it something else?  If you think that in 2015 Masterson will re-gain the mph he lost between 2013 and 2014, then he's got the potential to be a terrific signing, someone who could be a legit #2-3 starter.  But if that velocity isn't coming back, he's a borderline rotation candidate.

Masterson is likely looking at a one year deal for 2015, as he tries to rebuild value after a disastrous 2014 campaign.  MLB Trade Rumors estimated he would be looking at $12 million for one year, a raise over the $9.76 million he made in 2014, but that seems high to me.  I'd guess Masterson is going to end up with a one year deal at around $8 million, though you could possibly see him do something like one year, $6 million guaranteed, with incentives based on innings pitched that could bump it to $10-12 million.

Should the Rangers sign him, and make him their big offseason pitching acquisition?  I have no idea.  Aside from the issue of who else is out there and what the cost is, it comes down to how confident your evaluation folks are that Masterson will re-gain his velocity in 2015.  If you think he will, he's got the opportunity to be a great bargain pickup.  If he doesn't, though, there's a good chance you'd be throwing money away.