Should Justin Masterson start?


With the acquisitions of relievers Ramon Ramirez and Wes Littleton, the likelihood that the Red Sox utilize Justin Masterson as a starter is rather high.

To be sure, the Sox could waive David Aardsma and Littleton and sign a starter or may have other plans in mind that necessitate trading some of their other young relievers, but the possibility certainly exists that the plan all along is to have Masterson as the No. 5 starter.

Is it a good idea? Let’s take a look.

In Masterson’s first year in the bigs, he had a 6-5 record, started nine games and relieved in 27. He pitched a total of 88.1 innings while checking in at a 3.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. His xFIP, (a pitcher’s ERA that is both normalized and includes only things a pitcher is directly responsible for) however, was almost a full run higher at 4.28. As a No. 5 starter, a 4.28 xFIP would be rather impressive, but can he be counted on to maintain that?

Given that he had a total of 136 innings pitched in 2008 and 153.2 innings in 2007, he seems equipped to handle the workload of a back of the rotation starter, perhaps having his starts skipped on occasion to ensure he is healthy for the postseason. It could also be that they could go the Clay Buchholz route with him (even though Buchholz was ineffective) and demote him for a brief period of time midseason.

Working against him is his ineffectiveness against left-handers. In the bigs last season, he had a 1.51 WHIP and .238 opponent’s batting average against lefties. He allowed six homers to left-handed pitchers, two more than allowed against right-handers in 10 less innings. This may prove problematic against a left-heavy lineup that teams can throw against him, especially the New York Yankees.

In the minor leagues (Portland and Pawtucket combined) he had a 1.22 WHIP against lefties compared to 1.16 against right-handers. He did not give up a homer to a right-hander, but did give up one to a lefty. That said, he did walk less and strike out more left-handers than right-handers percentage-wise but gave up 27.1 percent of hits against lefties as compared to 13.2 against right-handers.

Long story short, the issue with Masterson looks to be that of simple elevation — left-handers see the ball more effectively and are able to naturally elevate Masterson’s sinker far more than that of right-handers.

So are his problems against left-handers enough to stop him from starting? Is he going to spend his career as a reliever who only pitches against right-handers?

Perhaps so, but for 2009, there is no reason why he can’t log innings in the back of the rotation. Despite the relative success of left-handers against Justin Masterson, he is no John Van Benschoten against them.

Masterson, in his nine starts, averaged roughly six innings per start which would work out to 192 innings pitched over a full season of starts (generally 32 starts).

Is there a reason to pour big money and big years into an A.J. Burnett (Gerry explains why that would be a bad idea) or Derek Lowe (as I have argued against)? Or should the Sox go with Ramirez and Littleton as their relievers and start Justin Masterson?

Given Masterson’s impressive debut (yes, Buchholz had an impressive one in 2007, I know) and his propensity for ground balls, the Sox should look to him as a starter. Worst case, they can always shift him back to the rotation and either dip into their pool of resources in Triple-A or acquire another Paul Byrd (or Byrd himself!).

In fact, something to ponder: Did the Red Sox make those moves to market him as a starter in the trade market? His value would undoubtedly be higher as a starter and this may be a posturing move on behalf of the Red Sox to drive his price up.

If so, it would be a smart strategy, but then again, Theo Epstein is a smart man.

And if Masterson stays with no new starter acquired, causing him to battle for the No. 5 spot against Clay Buchholz?

I won’t lose sleep over that.