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The Justin Masterson trade: Low-hanging pie.

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Meet Justin Masterson. I think you are going to like him.

Rob Tringali
Good morning! I've been kind of terrified of this trade deadline. I came to the conclusion that the big names weren't going to be worth the cost in a general way, and specifically, like Ben, I began to question whether this squad is worth spending future bullets on anyhow. I don't see a good way to upgrade the offense, and if Matt Holliday doesn't hit for power, someone in right doesn't hit for anything, Shelby isn't fixed, Waino's fading peripherals presage doom, and Yadi and Wacha can't return to log meaningful innings, even a player like David Price won't be enough. But, if all those guys do come through, adding a star might not be necessary to get into the playoff melee. There's just too much uncertainty for a big bet.

On the other hand, seeing the legitimate prospects the Red Sox received for the desiccated husk of Jake Peavy left me leery about the Cardinals trying to make a more limited bid at bolstering the team. I thought perhaps the best move was to do nothing, and let the year play out. If they got it together, great. If not, chalk it up to some tough injuries, aging stars, and developing youth, and look for improvements in 2015.

And yet here we are. I'm thrilled with the Masterson trade.

Last summer at beautiful Busch stadium, while watching the Cardinals beat the Braves, I glanced at the MLB leaders rolling across one of the big screens across the field. It flipped to A.L. strike out leaders, and read: Darvish, Scherzer, Hernandez, Sale, Masterson. I think I nearly fell out of my seat seeing "Masterson" in that list. I'd seen him pitch a handful of times in previous seasons, and he impressed me as a decent groundball pitcher who lacked the stuff and the command to be better than a decent groundball pitcher. I turned to a friend of mine (let's call her "spants") and said "spants, what the hell is Justin Masterson doing on that list?" Spants looked at me exactly like this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Here's the answer we didn't know: Masterson was doing special things with his slider. In 2013, he got more (per fangraphs pitch value) out of his slider than anyone not named "Yu Darvish."  Look at the thing:
He threw that particular beautiful pitch in the midst of throwing a nine pitch, three K inning last year, which was part of 25 consecutive strikes. Read about it here.

Masterson rode his slider and good power sinker/fourseam combo to an all-star game, a 24.3 K%, tons of groundballs, and 3.5 fWAR. It didn't make him a great pitcher, but he was very good.

Now, Masterson hasn't been very good this season. He has dealt with an injured knee, slipping velocity, and erratic command. These are concerning things, but they're the reason the Cardinals had the opportunity to acquire him for a guy who projects as fringy major league contributor at a position in which the organization is particularly deep. What's exciting about these things is that there are possible explanations for them which can possibly be fixed. Masterson hasn't pitched in nearly four weeks, and his knee is reportedly healed. And there's this:


Assuming he's healthy, Masterson should do better in St Louis; the Cardinals offer an infield defense vastly superior to Cleveland's, which will help the extreme groundball pitcher's numbers directly. That's good, but don't confuse Justin Masterson for an innings-eater who the Cardinals acquired just to make some starts while questions plague their rotation. They also got Justin Masterson because they think he can be a really good pitcher. This is a guy who flashed excellent strikeout numbers while leading the league in groundballs over the last two years. That's a rare combination teeming with potential.

The last two pitchers the Cardinals traded for, Edward Mujica and John Axford, both saw immediate and dramatic improvements working with the Cardinals pitching coaches, and Pat Neshek has revived his career. They're relievers, but they illustrate that tinkering with mechanics and pitch selection can lead to impressive changes in a way that rarely occurs with hitters. Masterson is an excellent candidate for this treatment.

When I wrote about a potential trade for Cliff Lee (here), I noted that the Cardinals are in a good position to take on a risky major league asset at the cost of a small portion of their extensive minor league assets, which are all risky by nature. In some ways, the Masterson trade is a miniaturized version of a potential Cliff Lee deal. It's impossible to know what the Cardinals will get from Masterson. He could totally lose command or re-injure the knee, and there's a tiny chance that decades from now Cardinals fans will still weep at the memory of letting go of James Ramsey. But baseball isn't a game of certainties, and this trade is a smart bet on a guy with real upside at a reasonable cost. I didn't know if that existed in the market this year. As a small bonus, at just 29 years-old, if Masterson does perform well these next two months, he would possibly be interested in an affordable 1 year "prove it" deal before trying to sign something longer, and in this scenario it could be mutually beneficial for both parties to continue their relationship in 2015.


Finally, if you are of the opinion that bringing AJ Pierzynski aboard was bad juju, you'll be glad to hear that Justin Masterson is a righteous dude beloved by all. Plus he wears high socks.