Justin Masterson: Analysis and Loss of the Qualifying Offer

img24468239Like grim clockwork, fans of the Cleveland Indians await their stars’ departures; like grim clockwork, the bell tolls for Justin Masterson’s tenure in Cleveland. On Tuesday, Cleveland traded Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for outfield prospect James Ramsey. Making Masterson’s departure even more potent is the fact that he was himself acquired in a trade, the heart-rending Victor Martinez trade that allowed Martinez the ability to do what Thome never could – one that allowed Martinez to have the jersey ripped from his back, rather than see him ignominiously depart in free agency after Cleveland failed to match the highest bidder. Nevertheless, Masterson’s departure was inevitable – a union representative was never going to accept an offer that it would have been prudent for the Cleveland front office to offer. Hence, the trade was made official: Masterson for Ramsey.

Trading Masterson entails more than a player-for-player swap; on one hand, they are no longer forced to pay Masterson the approximately $3.5 million that he is owed henceforth. In terms of payroll, $3.5M is very nearly negligible; at the same time, Justin Masterson’s projected performance rest-of-season, according to FanGraphs, is .8 WAR. In terms of the going rate of free agency ($6M per WAR), that .8 WAR would cost approximately $4.8M; subtracting rest-of-season salary from value added, Masterson would provide a rest-of-season surplus value of $1.5M. In surrendering Masterson, in other words, they’ve surrendered a small but nonzero amount of surplus value. This is both the most obvious benefit surrendered and the less-interesting. Substantially more interesting is the loss of the ability to offer Masterson a qualifying offer.

At face value, this loss might seem like a mere formality; a qualifying offer, the offer of a one year, $15M contract, for a pitcher with a 5.51 ERA to date seems at face value like a baffling proposal. Nevertheless, irrespective of the overall gain-loss balance of the trade, Cleveland losing the possibility of a qualifying offer is not a negligible factor, because Masterson  had the building blocks for breakout potential before the season; these building blocks – his excellent ground ball rate, coupled with frequently decent and occasionally brilliant K and BB numbers – in spite of a disastrous season in terms of run prevention, still fundamentally exist. Moreover, to describe Masterson by his 5.51 ERA ignores that the Cleveland Indians’ defense has had all the mobility and self-discipline of a tumbleweed. Masterson is breakout candidate who would have been coming off a bad year, a player who, even if he had accepted the qualifying offer, would have been entirely worth his salary. The roots of Masterson’s potential as a breakout candidate trace back to the death of Masterson’s most recent negotiations. It must be noted immediately: what follows is not a condemnation of the move. The ability to acquire cost-controlled prospects is extremely beneficial, and on the whole, the move is decent. However, the dogmatic insistence that Masterson would not have merited a qualifying offer is one that is as prevalent as it is mistaken.

*****

It is March 2014. After irregular oscillations between optimism and pessimism, there is reason to believe Justin Masterson and the Indians Front Office can work out a contract extension. Two months prior, there had been a point when the Cleveland internet symposia were optimistic about a deal, just as there had been a point when it seemed unlikely that Homer Bailey would sign a $90M extension with the Reds, a team that, like the Indians, is branded ‘small-market.’ A $90M/5 year offer would have been a complete departure from Cleveland’s MO, much less its more cautious stance on pitchers. It comes as a godsend, then, that Justin Masterson’s camp thereafter leaked information that he didn’t want Homer Bailey’s contract; instead, Masterson only wanted a 3- or 4-year commitment without a substantially higher per-year salary. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted about Masterson’s contract:

According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Masterson has asked the Indians for a three or four year extension in the range of $40 to $60 million. I think we can safely assume that a three year deal would be closer to the $40 million figure and a four year deal would be closer to $60 million. Just to make the math easy, let’s say that his offer is $40 million for three years with a $5 million buyout on the fourth year, making it either 3/$45M or 4/$60M, depending on if the option is picked up. That’s the kind of structure that would make sense given the range of numbers being tossed around.

At the time of writing, the ‘Three Years, $45M’ very probably factored in the agreed-upon 2014 salary, $9.76M. Operating under that premise, the ‘three-year’ variant may have looked like $10M in 2014 plus a two-year, $35M extension. This rate, Cameron asserted, was merely a fair assessment of Masterson’s post-2013 market than any actual attempt on Masterson’s part to meet the Cleveland Front Office halfway. None of this slowed the torrent of criticism toward the Cleveland front office, nor was it ever possible that it would; castigation of the Dolans for failing to ink a contract occurs with the beating regularity of the seasons. Inevitable as ‘pronkville08 favorited your Tweet,’ Cleveland’s backlash against the failure to sign Masterson was swift and decisive. For instance, from the comments section of the aforementioned Plain Dealer article, that most cultured salon of Indians talk in the realm, we derive vivid insights, such as:

Sleepin’ Doug Dieken Mar 21, 2014 Well said and very correct. Dolans relay on the lap-dog chump fans and wonder why there aren’t more of them.

” The Emperors New Clothes ” fable come to mind.

stalwart06 Mar 21, 2014

Ever been to Green Bay? It is about the size of Akron and they expect world class. The moment someone says small market they either work for the Tribe’s PR department, or they’ve been reading that department’s excuse making machine for years. Cleveland supports sports: Tribe lost this town’s trust. Win it back and quit making excuses. If you cannot afford to participate, get out. Simple. Just quit making small market excuses.

S.C. Cleveland fan Mar 21, 2014

The reason there is low attendance is because the cheap a$$ Dolans won’t keep talent and when they sign anyone they get the cheapest talent there is, people at the end of their careers and guys that couldn’t make it with other teams!! WOW what a drawing card? What player is the face of this franchise, where is the Alomar, Thomey, Ramirez , even Omar at.There isn’t one, because the owners and their team of idiots won’t consistently bring in or pay for good talent!!

#democracy

Since Helios-Mithras himself could not redeem the comments section of cleveland.com, it’s fair to say that laying into these semi-literate  internet manifestos – while pleasant and enjoyable! – would be something of an exercise in strawmanning. The well-reasoned criticisms of the non-extension would have argued that Mastersonwas a player who has perenially induced well-above-average groundball rates and has showcased isolated seasons with good walk rates and excellent strikeout rates; despite posting good rates in each category in each fielding-independent category at least once, the best of each had never aligned for one super-season. The Masterson contract, this view would assert, would grant Cleveland a market-level contract in the 50th-percentile case (i.e.: as effective as he has been over the course of his career plus some Bayesian regression) and, if one viewed Masterson as a breakout candidate, as did Tony Blengino of FanGraphs, an absolute bargain deal. In sum, the hypothetical 2-year, $35M Masterson contract had a good chance to be a market-level contract and a good chance to be a bargain contract. If this were all there was to it, Antonetti and the Dolans would have doubtless inked the deal in its current form. What is left out of this equilibrium, what both critics of the deal and the educated critics of the front office’s refusal to sign recognize, is the simple fact that Masterson is a pitcher. As a pitcher, there exists for Masterson not only the risk of decreased effectiveness but also the substantial risk of injury. This fact was nothing particular to Masterson; Justin’s Masterson’s bill of health had been clear before 2014, missing a total of 22 days in his major league career to date before 2014 his risk was one of the least-pronounced in the league. A 6’6″ bear of a pitcher with a fairly clean injury history is about as close to a guarantee of future health as one gets. Masterson’s risk was solely derived from his position on the diamond.

*****

Past success is not a guarantee of future success, and past health is no guarantee of future health. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs notes that even in the cases of the most healthy, durable pitchers that the majors had to offer, the lack of past injury for a pitcher is an ominously fuzzy signal. Of the 14 ‘proven workhorse’ pitchers Sullivan examined, each of whom threw over 800 innings in their age 24-27 season, eight averaged less than 200 innings over the next two years. For pitchers, past durability is the best publicly-available indicators toward future durability, and even in spite of that fact, it remains little more than a highly-informed coin flip. Masterson, per FanGraphs’s Jeff Zimmerman was the 21st-lowest injury risk of the 128 starting pitchers for whom Zimmerman compiled data, at only a 31% chance of a DL appearance. Masterson had been durable through 2013, so he was one of the better bets to remain healthy going into 2014. A gamble it remained, however. The reason Cleveland didn’t sign Masterson was because of the very real risk that Justin Masterson’s stock would plummet for no reason beyond the risks of his position. In 2014, he has been on the 15-day DL and has averaged one full inning fewer per start (5.16) than did he in 2013 (6.53). Masterson’s knee and shifting arm slot has prompted the opening day starter of the last three years to run a 5.51 ERA through 19 2014 starts. His walk rate has spiked to a career-high level, a 12.4% walk rate which is second in the majors behind only the Warhol of Walks, Ubaldo Jimenez. His Fielding-Independent Pitching, an ERA-scale pitching stat that removes defense from the equation and that systematically favors extreme ground ball pitchers, is over 4.00. Adjusted for park and league average, Masterson’s FIP is, for the first time in his career, more than a tenth of a point worse than the AL starting pitcher average. Masterson’s sinker velocity is at its lowest point since his 2008 debut. There are no signs pointing in Masterson’s favor, nothing in his peripherals, strikeout rate, release point, or velocity that suggests that Cleveland should expect an above average ERA the rest of the way in 2014. Justin Masterson walked 6 in his last start in AAA.  Unavoidable is the signal writ large upon a radar gun reading ’88.’ It is July 30th, 2014. Justin Masterson has collapsed.

*****

The above demonstrates an extreme view, a sum total of Masterson’s demerits to date. It was not intended to be a balanced account, nor was it; instead, it was an articulation of each and every argument damning Masterson’s future effectiveness with the team. If 2014 were the sole indicator of effectiveness, the above would be a damning array of evidence.

As one might conclude from the subjunctives of the previous sentence, Masterson is in fact not a man condemned to AAAA performances in perpetuity. If he were, St. Louis would not have traded for him. In spite of all of Masterson’s shortcomings, his relative success in home run prevention and above-average strikeout aptitude has caused him to be worth .9 FanGraphs’ FIP-based WAR through 98.0 IP. In spite of Masterson’s struggles to date, FanGraphs projects Masterson to be worth 1.8 fWAR by season’s end – by definition, just below a league-average season for a starter, even in spite of a month-long injury hiatus.

It’s tempting, certainly, to criticize the FanGraphs WAR projections for focusing on FIP rather than ERA. Given that ERA, because it excludes error-related runs, makes some accounting for defense, it’s tempting to believe that the pitcher bears responsibility for the rate of hits. To a degree, this is true: strikeout rate decreases batting average, home run rate increases batting average, and the saber intelligentsia has decided that each of these factors are repeatably within a pitcher’s control. Yet the remaining factor – the batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) – is far more a matter of defense than pitcher ability. Justin Masterson’s BABIP, .350, is both .050 above league average and by far the primary driver in the 1.42 gap between FIP and ERA.

ERA, in giving the impression that it accounts for defense while ignoring BABIP – or plays not made – is one of its great flaws. The Cleveland defense has, without debate, been the worst in the league – 30th in Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and errors. While errors certainly do account for some of Cleveland’s deficiencies, their errors relative to league average – 10.1 error runs below league average, per FanGraphs – do not come close to being nearly their biggest problem; there are four other teams with an Error Runs Above Average worse than 5.1, four teams that come within five runs of Cleveland’s deficiency. It’s hollow consolation, certainly, that there are four teams nearly as bad as Cleveland in terms of errors, but it’s a placebo, a gateway to handwave some past realities. ‘If only,’ one might explain, ‘we hadn’t played Santana at third, we wouldn’t be nearly as poor as we are with errors.’ It’s a counter-factual indulgence, but it is a perquisite of fandom to recreate the past. In the particular case of errors, in fact, this line of argumentation has some reasonable merit as a projection device.

For the range of the Indians’ defense, however, there exists no such indulgence. The suggestion that the Indians were only the worst by a little is itself consolation is entirely tongue-in-cheek; for Range Runs, which both DRS and UZR calculate, fans don’t even have the luxury of this delusion. UZR’s Range Runs have the Cleveland Defense at -47.7 runs; likewise, UZR measures the second-worst team, the Pirates, at -31.3 runs, a differential of 16.4 runs between 29th and 30th. DRS is yet less forgiving, ranking the Indians at 66 runs below average in their ‘Plays Made’ runs (rPM), which merely counts errors as ‘easy plays not made.’ The 29th-worst team by DRS’s rPM were the Twins, at -44 runs, a differential of 21 runs.

DRS and UZR are not clones, and they do not measure precisely the same facets of gameplay. Their differences reflect differences in defensive ideology, which one might dramatically render as two feuding houses of sabermetrics. Yet when it comes to the Indians defense, the metrics loose the bonds of their visceral struggle and unilaterally decry the Indians defense; not only do UZR Range Runs and DRS rPM record the Indians as the worst range team in the majors, they categorically denounce the Indians as 50% worse than the 29th-ranked team. It’s not as though the shift has miraculously delivered baseball to a new golden age of fielding. Derek Jeter is still playing baseball. Mike Morse sees time in the outfield. The Blue Jays once trotted out an outfield of Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, and Edwin Encarnacion. In spite of all of these transgressions, not only are the Indians the team with the most limited range in the majors, the Montagues and Capulets of defensive metrics have come together in mourning of the ongoing death of baseball that is the Indians’ range, a continuing and brutal death that ERA does not capture.

In Snow White, the protagonist is unaware that the apple offered by the old lady is poison. If the audience was an emotionally-involved child, they may have perhaps yelled impotently at the screen, telling Snow White to resist the temptation because the apple is poison.

I’m yelling at the screen now, to you, the reader. It’s tempting to use ERA to evaluate Justin Masterson’s 2014 performance. You should resist this temptation and not do this thing.

*****

Setting ERA to the side, Masterson’s spiking walk rate and decreased velocity are the only fundamental changes to Masterson’s game. His strikeout rate remains above-average (20.6% relative to AL starter average of 19.2%), his ground ball rate remains second-highest among all 102 starters with 90+ innings pitched, and as a consequence of the latter, his 0.55 home runs per 9 IP ranks 16th in that same group. His home run prevention is sustainable because his groundball mixture allows too few balls in the air to begin with to rack up a large number of home runs.

Less concerning of the two changes are the walks. Walks are one of the more consistent year-to-year correlations, but they are nevertheless substantially weaker than the year-to-year correlations for strikeouts, per an extremely useful tool created by Steve Staude. Whereas K% correlated at a rather-strong .702 year-to-year, BB% correlated at relatively weaker .568. What this says, in essence, is that a player can only with great difficulty change their strikeout rates – you can’t teach stuff, in other words – whereas control can either improve or slip by rather more substantial margins from year to year. Masterson’s walk rate increase is hardly encouraging, but at the same time, a decline in velocity on a sinker is said to increase movement; if that is the case, the walk rate might require only an adjustment period.

There’s a fair amount of concern over the velocity – if the injury explanation that Mickey Callaway put out there actually is true, then the velocity loss is not an irrecoverable, permanent loss, and a lingering injury could also explain the uptick in walks. Given how insistent that Masterson had been that he was not affected by injury, and given how incredibly convenient an injury explanation would have been, there’s clearly some mechanical change that has occurred. Doug Thorburn notes that there had been a concrete change in release point, to the lowest point in his career by approximately 2.5 inches. It’s not necessarily true that there’s causation in the correlation, nor is it clear that fixing the release point would in turn fix the velocity or control. That said, given that Masterson is a sinkerballer who has, in spite of his velocity, still achieved a well-above-average strikeout rate in 2014. In the singular facet of the game wherein velocity makes a massive difference, strikeout rate, Masterson has held steady. It’s hard to call a 2 MPH drop in velocity irrelevant, but its impacts seem temporary.

His walk rates and velocity don’t throw up tremendous red flags going forward, his strikeout rates remain, and he retains an incredibly high groundball rate. Were Francisco Lindor rather than Asdrubal Cabrera starting at shortstop to begin the season, were Carlos Santana given no time at third, were Michael Bourn the player Cleveland thought they signed to a now-regrettable contract, the question of whether Masterson is worth a qualifying offer would have been a debated issue, but it would be far from the open-and-shut refusal dominating the Cleveland ethos. Justin Masterson’s 50th-percentile case six months ago would have been worth the $35M, 2 year extension, and Masterson’s peripherals in 2014 have not been so disastrous that a one-year contract at a lower per-year rate would have been a terrible move.

There was certainly a chance that, given the precedent of Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, Masterson would have accepted the qualifying offer. In the context of Masterson’s market value, that would have been – if marginally – a win for Cleveland.

Losing the ability to offer Masterson a market-value contract seems an unusual complaint. However, one-year commitments are largely regarded as irrelevant. The cash-strapped Athletics acquired the notoriously iffy Jim Johnson, prepared to pay him $10M. They don’t always work out – Johnson has been worth negative WAR in 2014 – but their impacts might most rightly be described as harmless; the Athetics are in the running for the best team in baseball and are out from under Johnson’s contract at the end of the year. One-year deals don’t seriously harm franchises. The ability to offer a high-ceiling free agent pitcher a one-year contract at a relatively low AAV almost never present themselves, making the qualifying offer unique and value in supressing the salaries of certain free agents. If accepted, the QO would present a cost-controlled one-year deal; if declined, it attaches the price of a first-round draft pick for all but the eleven worst teams in the majors, decreasing the number of teams against which a team is negotiating. The opportunities present opportunities that no other free agent avenue does. In Masterson’s case, it would have presented a unique opportunity to improve the 2015 ballclub.

The opportunity cost, of course, would have been $15M and James Ramsey. Justifiably, Cleveland believed that the benefits of a QO-contract Masterson were outweighed by the benefits of keeping that money and acquiring a prospect who becomes unequivocally a top-five talent in the system, very probably top three.

*****

James Ramsey, a 2012 first-round pick by the Cardinals, has drawn comparisons to another outfield prospect: Tyler Naquin. This comparison rings rather hollow: Ramsey’s thirteen home runs in the AA Texas League in 2014 substantially outstrip Naquin’s four. While Naquin’s defense has serious upside, and while BP regards Ramsey’s tools as solid-average rather than ceiling-oriented – much nearer 2011 Brantley than 2014 Brantley, for the sake of comparison. The reality is, however, that if Ramsey can become 2011 Brantley, that remains an incredibly valuable asset. As every analysis to date notes, Ramsey is 24 years old and was in AA, but given that Cleveland started him in AAA, the question of his age is greatly mitigated.

For the sake of how much Ramsey becoming an average player would save Cleveland, the analysis assumes that costs per WAR remain at $6M per WAR, that he averages 1.5 WAR annually, and that he makes the same amount as Brantley will through his six years of team control. Brantley, through the ends of his six years of team control, will make $17.1M for 9 WAR. On the free agent market, 9 WAR would cost $54M. If Ramsey lives up to his ceiling and receives what Brantley makes, he will save the Indians approximately $37M over the life of his tenure with Cleveland. This is Ramsey’s middle-of-the-road projection and assumes no injuries, so it’s far from a guarantee, but returning to Masterson’s $1.5M in rest-of-season surplus value, they are quite literally of different orders of magnitude. The surplus value of Masterson’s qualifying offer, likewise, has something ceiling of $20M, and that is if he puts up a Cy Young-like season of 6 WAR.

It’s by no means universally true, but when selling half-season rentals at the trade deadline, receiving even a 50-grade prospect in return – one like Ramsey – can blow rest-of-season surplus value out of the water. Asdrubal Cabrera is bothersome, but the value the provided the Indians back in 2008 all the way to 2012 makes the Eduardo Perez an unequivocal victory. Having held on to C.C. Sabathia the rest of the 2008 season and then signing him to a $130M deal does not approach the value of having a cost-controlled Michael Brantley.

Seeing Justin Masterson leave is part of a painful cycle for Indians fans who still believe in the team’s ability to hold onto its top-name players. Making emotional attachments to players can make analyses of surplus value ring nauseously hollow. Short of a day when Cleveland’s revenue is on par – or nearly so – with large markets, situations like these are simply reality for a club that has interest in contending.

It’s incredibly unpleasant to be reminded that sports teams cannot afford sentiment.

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