The transition has been nearly seamless. Justin Masterson, after flying through the Red Sox system in less than two years as a starter, has made the move to the bullpen seem effortless.
The right-hander needed just two weeks of fine-tuning in the minors to prepare for a move to the bullpen in July. It took exactly one outing after Masterson was called back up to the majors to demonstrate the success of the experiment.
On July 23, the Sox unveiled their new bullpen weapon. Masterson threw 2.2 perfect innings against the Seattle Mariners, needing just 27 pitches to strike out three and record three groundball outs.
“We thought right then that we had a standout reliever and someone who could definitely pitch late in the game,” said Sox pitching coach John Farrell.
That sudden conclusion was in some ways startling. Yet it was not without precedent.
Masterson’s first foray into relief brought similarly immediate results. It was his first bullpen experiment, while pitching for the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape League, that the pitcher suggested the potential to become a late-inning force.
FROM WALK-ON TO WOW
Masterson was not a high profile name in the Cape League in the summer of 2005. In fact, he barely had a profile at all.
He pitched at tiny Bethel College in Indiana. Some organizations, including the Sox, were vaguely aware of him, but there was little buzz about the right-hander. That all changed on the Cape during that summer.
The pitcher did not receive an invitation from any team, but the start of the summer league usually features a few openings for fillers who can round out a roster until other college players conclude their participation in the College World Series.
Mike Hutcheon, Masterson’s coach at Bethel, called Wareham coach Cooper Farris with a recommendation.
“(Hutcheon) called me a said, ‘Coop, I’ve got one,’” said Farris. “‘I have one you need to take.’”
Masterson showed up, and Farris and pitching coach Ryan Beggs were both immediately impressed with his size and confident demeanor. They had already filled their rotation, and so they had a proposal for the hurler.
“They were like, ‘We’re full of starters. Will you be a closer?’ My question was, ‘Will it keep me on the team?’ So I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” recalled Masterson. “It was rejuvenating. It was the first time I had ever been in the bullpen. It was fun.”
Right at the end of Bethel’s season, Masterson had been messing around with grips while playing catch. He unleashed a two-seam fastball that dove late on his catch partner. A pitching style was born, just in time for Masterson’s audition with Wareham.
The hurler refined his sinker and developed a swing-and-miss slider while working with Beggs. The results as a closer for the Gatemen were outstanding. Against elite college competition, Masterson went 3-1 with a 1.15 ERA, 10 saves and 39 strikeouts in 31.1 innings.
As the summer progressed, his velocity increased. He started the summer working at 88-92 mph, and by the end of his season, he was regularly throwing around 94 or 95.
Scouts raved about his demeanor and his late-inning presence, and most concluded that he could race to the majors in a set-up or closing capacity. The Sox agreed that he could become a dominant reliever, but also wanted to explore his potential as a starter.
Masterson transferred after his summer in the Cape to San Diego State, where he spent a year as a starter under skipper (and Hall of Famer) Tony Gwynn. As the draft approached, the Sox conducted research that revealed that he had one of the top groundball rates of any of the elite college pitching prospects. The team plucked him in the second round of the 2006 draft, the culmination of a meteoric rise.
“From an unknown to someone all the scouts loved, he really made a name for himself (with Wareham),” said Beggs. “That summer made his career. If he didn’t have that summer, he’s not where he is today.”
Masterson’s presence in the Red Sox bullpen proved enormous down the stretch. After producing a 4-3 record and 3.67 ERA as a starter, he had a sterling 2.36 ERA out of the bullpen.
The pitcher’s stuff clearly played up out of the bullpen. His velocity, especially on a four-seam fastball that he featured prominently in the Division Series against the Angels, ramped up into the mid-90s.
But it was his sinker, more than his velocity, that proved most impressive. He recorded an incredible 11 double plays in 34.1 innings, and had a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 3.60:1 that ranked fifth among big-league relievers.
Such accomplishments carved Masterson a late-inning niche this season. Sox manager Terry Francona has shown no hesitation about leaning on a pitcher whose size and distinctive arm slot give right-handed batters fits.
It was eye-opening to see Masterson employed against in the Division Series against the Angels as a primary bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon. The 23-year-old pitched in all four games of that series, working in the eighth inning of Game 1, the seventh and eighth of Game 2 and the eighth and ninth of Games 3 and 4.
Yet while the role was impressive, Masterson’s performance was slightly less so. In four innings, he gave up two runs (one earned) while allowing six hits and walking three.
He used his four-seam fastball with unexpected frequency, and despite increased velocity (stadium and TV radar guns had him as high as 97 mph, though Masterson and members of the Sox believe that number was inflated), he pitched up in the zone to mixed results.
So why did Masterson stray from his sinker? The answer may reflect what Masterson describes as a sometimes-challenging season for his bread-and-butter pitch.
“My sinker was sometimes nastier, it had more movement down (in the Cape League) than it does now. This year has been a weird year for me,” said Masterson. “It’s not as good as I wanted, compared to previous years, from the beginning to the end.
“The overall consistency (of the sinker) has been decent, but sometimes it doesn’t have the lateness. It still has the downward angle, but it’s not getting there and falling off the table.”
Masterson’s 5.65 ERA against Tampa was his worst against any American League club this year. Because the Rays lineup features a heavy onslaught of left-handers and switch-hitters—Aki Iwamura, Carl Crawford, Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena, to name a few—Masterson’s matchup potential may be limited.
Even so, Masterson will likely see, if nothing else, key situations against Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Evan Longoria (0-for-7 against the Sox reliever) and B.J. Upton (3-for-7).
One way or the other, the Sox will not shy from using Masterson in high-leverage situations. For years, the team had hoped to feature a pitcher capable of coming into a game and eliciting a double-play grounder, someone in the mold of a Chad Bradford. In Masterson, they believe they have such a pitcher.
That Masterson is so viewed raises a question about his long-term role with the Sox. Just as it was the case with Jonathan Papelbon following his impressive debut as a reliever at the end of 2005, the team faces a dilemma about whether they gain more by having Masterson pitch out of the rotation or bullpen in future years.
The pitcher clearly takes a shine to coming out of the bullpen. He professes his enjoyment of coming into a game in the late innings with runners on base, suggesting that nothing gives him as much satisfaction as a double-play ball in pivotal situations.
“I’m not a real emotional guy, but deep down, (adrenaline) drives you,” said Masterson. “You come in, and that adrenaline just fires you up.”
Masterson has contemplated what his future might bring, whether he will be a member of the bullpen or rotation in 2009 and beyond.
“Every once in a while,” he said, “you have some free time and think about what might happen next year.”
Much of that decision will depend on his team’s needs, just as it was necessity that brought him up to the majors as a starter earlier in the season, and need that prompted the team to reassign him to relief around the All-Star break.
In his current capacity, the team believes that Masterson could achieve the sort of status enjoyed by a former All-Star or even Hall of Famer.
“He’s pretty unique. Throwing from that arm slot in the mid-90s, to see his ascent to the big leagues in two years is unbelievable,” said Farrell. “Innings (as a starter) are important. But so is that guy who can bridge the gap from the middle guy, starter or closer. He’s proven to us that he has the mental and physical capabilities to do that late.
“If there’s a right-handed comparison, Jeff Nelson is pretty close,” said Farrell. “Or even (Dennis) Eckersley—similar arm slots, starter for a long time, go to the bullpen and have a great career.”
For now, those questions can wait. Of more immediate concern to the Sox is how Masterson will do against the Rays. Once again, he will have an opportunity to prove himself out of the bullpen. Though there is an element of foreignness to the task, it is one that Masterson has shown a willingness to try to master.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.