Justin Masterson: Ace to Closer?

Justin MastersonIt isn’t too often that an ace starting pitcher becomes a team’s closer, but the Cleveland Indians coaching staff may find themselves with a tough decision to make.

It had been quite the passage of time since an Indians pitcher ran out of the bullpen in the ninth inning and was welcomed by a standing ovation complete with raucous cheering. Such was the case on a crisp, late-September night in Cleveland when the bullpen door gave way to Justin Masterson, the 6-foot-6-inch ace hurler for the Tribe who was making his first appearance since succumbing to an oblique injury earlier in the month. High socks and all, Masterson jogged to the mound while fans, understandably enjoying the team’s multi-run lead in the midst of a playoff hunt, welcomed him back with open arms.

A perfect storm, really. One night after the team’s polarizing closer Chris Perez blew a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning only to leave the field while being pelted by a chorus of boos, Masterson—essentially the antithesis of Perez in every way but employer—came in with his team up considerably. There was an absence of pressure. The fans were exuding an energy that had long been missing from the confines of Progressive Field. It was, in fact, the team’s final home game of the regular season—who better to close it out than the man who ushered this crazy, roller coaster of a season in by throwing the team’s first pitch?

“It was kind of cool,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of the reception for Masterson.

Masterson took to the mound and wasted no time in showing that an oblique injury would not affect how live his right arm was. After fanning his first two hitters with a litany of sinkers and sliders that could only best be described as “disgusting,” the 28-year-old induced a ground out to end the game in front of 31,000 elated Clevelanders. With 17 pitches thrown, Masterson’s night ended with a high-five from catcher Yan Gomes who simply muttered “Welcome back” to the tower of a right-hander as the two men exchanged handshakes with the rest of the Wahoos. And with just 17 pitches thrown, Masterson immediately entered the discussion for who, if not Perez, could be trusted to come out of the bullpen in the event the Cleveland Indians direly needed to record outs late in a winnable contest.

Masterson, a former relief pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, had not come out of the bullpen since July of 2011. When he first arrived in Cleveland, his splits suggested that he would ultimately return to the ‘pen as left-handed batters were his kryptonite. But given the emergence of Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, the consistency of Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister, and the jaw-dropping rebirth of Ubaldo Jimenez, the team is left with a terrific problem: Given their five-deep rotation that has been one of the best in MLB since the All-Star break, Masterson can serve as a power-armed relief pitcher in a bullpen that has had its fair share of hiccups. He could, if needed, serve as the team’s closer.

“”It worked out pretty well,” said Francona. We went from our ace being hurt to all of a sudden having a weapon—and we will use him. He can be a big part of what we’re doing.”

Having a player as selfless as Masterson undoubtedly has its advantages. Couple his selflessness with his size, stature and the speed and movement of his fastball and it is that much better. The team’s plan is to keep him in a “long relief” role, particularly useful with the careful handling of the 23-year-old Salazar and his much-discussed pitch limits. Francona has stated that he does not intend on removing Perez from his ninth-inning duties, refusing to change what has worked this late into the season. But just as teams have used future starters in late-inning relief roles, and done so with great success, it will be hard to not take advantage of Masterson’s litany of pitches in a high-leverage, late-game situation if indeed said situation does arise. The Tampa Bay Rays utilized David Price late into the postseason; St. Louis has a World Series championship attached to their name large in part to Adam Wainwright’s massively effective curveball. Adding Masterson’s sinker to the mix wouldn’t be groundbreaking, but it would be very bold and could prove to be very effective into October.

If the Indians take care of business over the course of the next few days, Masterson will get his shot, potentially doing so against his former team. Oddly enough, it was a four-game series against the Red Sox where things spiraled a bit out of control for Perez and the Tribe bullpen. Masterson could not only be a part of the retribution, but may very well be the man who, once again, closes it all out in front of a packed house. The game is funny like that.

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

  • JHop

    It makes sense. The current rotation has been rolling as of late (albeit against sub-par competition, but rolling nonetheless). Why fix something that ain’t broke? Perez has been an unbelievable liability in this latest stretch. The closer situation’s obviously broke, so we have to fix it.

    Having Masterson pitch as the closer or at least late relief would also keep his arm fresh in case he was needed to begin starting again in the event of an injury or a slump by one of the Indians’ back end starters.

    It’s a win-win-win on all accounts.

  • Hamfist

    Well, the beauty of the game is the flexibility of how someone can help the team. If Masterson looked good s the closer, keep him doing it. If it means Perez maybe gets moved to another relief spot that he’ll do better at, then all is good.

  • 240

    This is simple. If he is healthy, but can’t start games then he needs to be used in high leverage bullpen situation. The second he is ready to start he should move to the rotation.

  • mgbode

    Inserting mandatory reference to eckersley

  • mgbode

    Could you imagine a team being subjected to five IP of salazar just to get four of Masterson in relief?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    This would be another example of the “Francona effect” at work. The strategy definitely makes you go, “Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!”

    If they make it to the second season it’ll be interesting to see how Francona sets up his 25 man roster.

  • CB Everett

    While it’s tempting with Perez’s “issues,” I’m not sure be a prudent use of our assets (top 3 starter). IF we get through the wild card and move on, we need a solid 4 horses. It’s got to be Ubaldo, Masty, Salazar, and Kluber in that order. Assuming he’s healthy of course, hard to justify plucking him out of the rotation.

  • Jaker

    I was going to say what I think they should do, but then I remembered, I like/respect our manager too much to say what I think is best. I roll with Terry.

    We are so close Tribe. Let’s get it!

  • Denny

    This is an absurd thought experiement, but also is fun/devestating to think about: what would happen if ‘CLEVELAND FAN’ had to choose between missing the playoffs with Masterson closing or making the playoffs with Perez closing?

  • MrCleaveland

    This isn’t such a hot idea. First, the playoffs is not the time to be running experiments (and face it, our playoffs began last week). Second, you can always dig up a closer somewhere, but stud starting pitchers are very hard to find. A good starter is worth way more than any closer.

  • Chris McLafferty

    This is a great idea….if Masterson isn’t healthy enough for 6-7 innings or you worry about his health over a full game. Otherwise a rotation of Masterson, Jiminez and any one else is nasty and should be used.

  • Garry_Owen

    If he’s healthy enough to start, would this even be an option? Would we really prefer any of those other guys starting over Masterson? Maybe only Jimenez. (Man, can’t believe I’m saying that!).

    Presuming Masterson is healthy enough to start, and we like this idea of having a stud starter moved to long relief or closing, I’d rather see Kluber make that move. Man’s got ice water in his veins.

  • nobody

    I’m just thinking Masterson starts Game 1 in Boston…no good reason why.

  • dwhit110

    Hard to imagine a playoff rotation that doesn’t have Masterson in it. If Salazar’s pitch count limits him to 5-6 IPs I wouldn’t be sad to see him take a high-leverage bullpen role.

  • maxfnmloans

    I remember in 1999 a team lost their ace due to injury before the playoffs, only to have him resurface in the bullpen for that team and ruin October for Tribe fans

  • Natedawg86

    Give Perez the ball when we are down double digits

  • Natedawg86

    Is there such thing as a four inning save?

  • woofersus

    I was thinking the same thing. Obviously we’re better off with Masterson starting if he can. It’s just a question of whether or not they can get him stretched out without the benefit of a minor league start. I’m thinking that if they can get him up to 30-40 pitches between now and Tuesday, maybe he can go for 60 or so in game 3 the following Sunday. We’ll have to see if the situation allows it.

  • Chuckr

    No way! Now is not the time for experimentation. Justin is a starter.

  • mgbode

    you don’t remember Derek Lowe?

    we dumped him, he went to the NYY and his first appearance he went the last 4IP to earn the save. it was just last year.

  • Natedawg86

    I remember now. Thanks.

    Honestly, I became less interested during their horific Aug skid

  • nj0

    As smarter men have shown, you don’t want to use your best relievers in the 9th. What’s more important are the middle innings where the reliever is usually pitching with men on, high leverage situations.

    Honestly, considering the condition of our current starting rotation (Salazar’s pitch limit, Kluber returning from injury, Ubaldo Jimenez potentially turning back into Ubaldo Jimenez at any moment, Kazmir’s arm about to fall off), I like the idea of keeping Masterson waiting in the wings for long-term relief for that eventual starter who stumbles early. Player X doesn’t have his best stuff and is getting hit hard? Don’t wait. Get Masty in there.

  • mgbode

    as did we all 🙂

  • nj0

    But he is not physically capable of throwing a full game at this time. Thus the idea of him coming out of the pen.

  • nj0

    The “if” is why we’re having this discussion.

    Also, in a static world I’d rather have Salazar or Masterson become the bullpen arm simply because their limited repertoire of pitches translate better to the bullpen. That said, if Kluber still isn’t 100% back from his injury, then why not?

  • Rick Manning


  • nj0

    all those months of costly psychological counseling wasted thanks to one careless internet comment

  • nj0

    Then five of Ubaldo and four of Kluber?

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • mgbode

    the WFNY community is my sports psychology counseling and, last I checked, it was free 🙂

  • nj0

    That should have been a ’48 ring. Bad cut and paste. And now I can’t edit away my mistake. Life is hard.

  • Dave

    It all seems pretty logical to me:
    1. Masterson is better than Perez and a lot of other pitchers in our bullpen.

    2. Masterson cannot currently pitch 6-7 innings.
    3. Masterson can currently pitch 3-5 innings.
    4. There are 4 games left. Losing any of them may well mean there aren’t any more, which means we need at least 108 outs worth of quality pitching.

    Francona would be stupid to *not* put him in and leave a valuable asset sitting on the bench, so long as the trainers say he’s up to it.

  • left out

    terrible idea. you don’t turn a number one starter that can be a potential ace into a closer just because you may need a closer. if we make the playoffs, we will need masterson to start in one of the first 2 games. after him and ubaldo, i dont think any of the other guys would match up well against the opponent’s SP

  • mgbode

    ummm, so yeah, that just happened. methinks Perez is done pitching for the Indians. period.

  • chompchomp

    As a part-time apologist for Perez, I now never want to see him pitch for the Indians again. I feel bad for the team, Tito, and for him (a little… not really), but this is one issue they unfortunately have to deal with in a rather dramatic manner. Masterson is the best choice, I think. The opportunity cost is him starting early in the post season.

  • kjylekylekyle

    We have 3 games left and possibly some playoff games. Perez doesn’t have time to fix himself and Justin is limited on pitch count. It makes sense to bring him in for at least one inning, if not two to close a game.

  • bupalos

    Totally agree with this. There is no reason to use any kind of formula at all, and particularly no reason to stick to the “closer” script when you don’t have a player that fits that role. Pretty bad idea to get Masterson up 2 or 3 games in a row to get 3 innings out of him, especially when he’s never done that before. Worse than bad.

    I do think his Ninja-focus translates well to pressure, but as you say pressure happens throughout the game. He’d be a great ground-ball guy to bring in with guys on in the 5th tied 3-3, and you can potentially let him finish the game if he’s rolling. The only formula they should be using here is to be sure and get as many innings out of him as they think he has in him, because he’s at the least the 3rd best arm on this team. Closer might be the least likely way to do that.

  • Mary Bird

    I agree.I am for one inning only for Justin wherever he is needed.We want him in good shape for the play-offs.