BRADENTON, Fla. – When the Pirates signed Justin Masterson, they looked at him as a guy who might be able to help the big league team as either a starter or a reliever. At this point, they seem to be leaning towards the relieving part, even though Masterson has been built up to five innings, after his start in Bradenton today.
A few weeks ago, when Masterson got to the point where he could pitch in games, they asked him for his thoughts on moving to the bullpen. They decided to stretch him out as a starter to give him more innings and more work, with that bullpen possibility still there.
“As I’m coming back, building up innings, my thought is that the safest bet right now is as a starter, because I need to get strong,” Masterson said. “Now, as we’ve gotten to this point, we’ve built up enough innings. My arm feels good. I’m confident. Whatever gets us out of here.”
Masterson said that he doesn’t care if he’s a starter or a reliever in the big leagues. He also understands the reality of the situation in Pittsburgh, and with the top starting pitching prospects in Triple-A.
“There’s been some action going up at the top. Vogelsong getting hit, some guys moving,” Masterson said. “But we’ve got great starters in Triple-A. So they said ‘It’s not that you can’t [start], but would you be willing [to pitch in relief]?’ I said ‘Yeah, let’s go get some people out.'”
In his first official start in the Pirates’ organization today, Masterson had some issues against left-handers, but overall looked good. That does come with the disclaimer that this is a much different version of Justin Masterson than we’ve seen in the past. The sinker was sitting 86-87 MPH, but had good movement. The slider looked good, working in the upper 70s with a lot of movement. In the past, he could sit anywhere from 91-93 MPH with his sinker, touching higher. Now, he relies more on that movement.
“Movement and all of that, I feel good. I mean, velocity — I’d like to throw 98,” Masterson joked. “It’s at a good working spot [now]. It’s at a place where I feel comfortable being able to get people out, and to be effective. The slider has gotten better each time. Sinker movement kept getting better today. Those were the same things that have been nice to see, and have been nice to do. Having movement on those pitches gives me all of the confidence in the world.”
Masterson was throwing with lower velocity the last two years, and didn’t have much success. He pointed to his health as a key difference this year, which was also something we discussed right after he signed.
“The difference between last year and this year is that every time I’d throw that 87, it would hurt. This year, whenever I throw it, I get extension. That was the difference I could never get for the last two years. I have success at that speed now, and feel I’ll continue to have success, because I have the extension, and that allows my ball to move late, which allows me to still be effective.
“If you’re looking for the same [velocity], you’ll say ‘Look at this guy, he’s got nothing.’ But if you’re just looking for effectiveness, competing, going out there and doing the thing, absolutely. That’s right where I feel like I’m at, where I can compete now. Before it was like ‘Please, just maybe pop it up or something.'”
The lower velocity and the reliance on movement means that Masterson has to learn how to be a control pitcher. Part of that will involve using his slider more often, and in different situations. That’s something he’s used to, as he’s increased the slider usage the last few years.
“In 2013, one of my best years, the slider was increased,” Masterson said. “I don’t have a changeup. I never have had the changeup. I’ll take some velocity off my sinker, but being able to use that slider at changeup speed, it’s not only a breaking ball, but a changeup speed, change eyesight, stuff like that… Being able to effectively use that, and use that at the right time has also been getting back to where I’m like ‘Oh wow, I can do this again. This is great.'”
The St. Lucie lineup had five lefties today, which provided a challenge for Masterson at first. He walked left-hander Jonathan Johnson, then gave up a two-run homer to left-hander Kevin Taylor on a slider that didn’t spin and got hung down the middle. Through three innings, all of his damage came against left-handers, including a second walk to Johnson. He had been flying open too soon the entire start, but that second walk to the same batter led to a change.
“That was the at-bat that then forced me to stop flying open in the lower half,” Masterson said. “That was where I made a really good adjustment to stay closed. From that point open, it was bam, bam, bam.”
That adjustment definitely worked. He struck out the side in the fourth inning, including his first strikeout of the day against a left-hander. He only gave up one hit in the fifth, to a right-hander, while getting his eighth strikeout in five innings. Overall, he threw 81 pitches, 52 strikes, looked great against right-handers, and rebounded well against the lefties.
Masterson doesn’t look like a guy who will be a good option for the Pirates in the rotation this year, especially when you consider the alternatives in Triple-A. He could be a guy who can help out the bullpen, and the bullpen in Pittsburgh definitely needs plenty of help. The next steps for Masterson haven’t been decided, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make the switch to relief soon, and get ready to go on the fast track to helping the Pirates’ bullpen.