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Justin Masterson, what could have been and never really was

Before Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar, Justin Masterson was supposed to lead the charge into a brilliant new Indians era. Then, he didn't.

David Maxwell/Getty Images

There was a time not that long ago when the Cleveland Indians didn't have a three-headed demon dragon fronting their starting rotation. Just a few years ago even, when the Tribe was still digging itself out of self-imposed exile in the wastelands of 90 losses, The ace of the staff was not a suspected cyborg, but a 6 foot 6 Jamaican man. Yes, Justin Masterson, he of the bowling ball sinker, incredible socks, and general gigantism. For a brief moment, Masterson looked like the first blip in the rise of the Cleveland Indians. Then, just like that, he was gone, traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and nearly out of baseball by the time he was 30. His entire tenure with the Indians was rich with almosts. It was a weird, wild time of unrealized promise.

Everything about Masterson demanded that I become a fan of his. He was huge, he seemed real nice, and his style was unmatched. The shaved head combined with the sometimes Amish beard, the high socks, and his funky osprey imitating delivery were all awesome. He even had that one game in July 2011 where he threw almost exclusively fastballs. Like, 103 of 104 pitches. It was something I try to do in video games and get bombed. He just threw eight brilliant innings. It's like someone made a prototype for what a workhorse ace should be, and out fell Masterson. Big, broad shouldered and threw hard. Once he got his walks under control, hewas everything ihe should have been. For a moment anyway.

Masterson came over in the Victor Martinez trade, so already he had big shoes to fill. Martinez was probably the most beloved Indian on that mid-2000's team that peaked in the 2007 ALCS. He cried when he got shipped off for a kid who was a spot starter and part-time reliever for Boston. All anyone knew about Masterson was he threw a mean sinker and had peaked at number four in the Red Sox organizational prospect rankings in 2007, posessing their system's best fastball according to Baseball America. A lot of raw material, and it showed. He walked more than 10 percent of batters in 2009 and 9.1 in 2010 when he transitioned fully to a starter. But then it clicked, and suddenly dreaming was again possible.

In retrospect, that 2011 season of Masterson's was such a tease. But or a team so bereft of starting pitching the previous year (Roberto Hernandez, Masterson and Mitch Talbot led the 2010 team in innings, with Jake Westbrook bringing up the rear) it was just what everyone wanted, so everything he did became more. He was very good, though not quite great, ate up 216 innings like a good workhorse should and held a 3.21 ERA by the end of the year. He only struck out 17.4 percent of batters, but he walked 7.2 percent of hitters with a 55.1 percent grounder rate. His sinker was working and he wasn't giving free passes. For the Indians' sake, it was a good thing he started giving up all those walks in 2012 again (9.7%, then 9.5% in 2013) because that year was dreadful. It wasn't really his fault either, the bad infield defense of the Indians hurt him, but his FIP was still 4.16. Sinkerballers usually have a higher than normal FIP, but even so. He just wasn't good. Sometimes it's hard to call the good year one of your favorite players has the fluke year.

It was frustrating to watch Masterson when he was going bad. Like dealing with Fausto Carmona all over again. Masterson had such amazing movement on his sinker along with such velocity that he seemed like he'd be unhittable. But the ball moved too much, and he could never maintain. He was so projectable, able to lay such possibilities upon, and if he'd had a better defense behind him who knows if he'd have pitched differently. Watching a bunch of rooks and second year players along with Asdrubal Cabrera and Orlando Cabrera muddle about behind him was so depressing. Who knows how much better he'd have been with a Lindor fielding the ball. The confidence would have been much higher,, he wouldn't have had to try to be so fine and crack under the pressure. He rarely had the respite of easy outs. Jack Hannahan was fun though.

Masterson was even hunting for a long term deal at the end of 2013. That  year he experienced an insane strikeout boost from 17.3 percent to 24.7 percent of hitters after he learned to throw a slider, which helped to waylay the impact of all his walks. It was awesome, he was suddenly a fireballer and a bat breaking dynamo, and I can't be the only one who demanded locking him down. He was just so incredible. He looked like something concrete to build around. it's a good thing I am not a general manager. Because he cratered the next year, so bad that all he brought back in trade was James Ramsey from the Cardinals. Ramsey is now 26 and in Triple-A with the Dodgers. Whatever the Indians brass saw, it was the right thing. They were plainly not bamboozled by knee-high socks.

Who's to say what happened with Masterson. Maybe it was his size getting in his way. The larger you are, the harder it is to repeat mechanics. He had that really funky delivery too, like a giant trebuchet up there dropping his counterweight on every pitch. It's hard to keep up. Now shoulder problems have sidetracked his career, a death knell for pitchers. Last I read, he was in the Pirates minor league system fighting for a comeback. It's a real shame how pitching wears down guys before their time, it would have been fun to see Masterson as an Indian, or anywhere really. for years to come. The Indians did make the right choice in moving him, and the team is better off for it. Their trading him rather than signing him gave the eventual flexibility to get guys like Mike Napoli, who led to a World Series and then led to Edwin Encarnacion. it could be he was never good, just kind of decent, and after a few years of misery he was a breath of fresh air. But he had the style that worked and some nasty stuff. That alone is enough to let any fan dream.