Of the five Red Sox starters, no one looks to benefit less from the arrival of new pitching coach Carl Willis than Justin Masterson. It's not that Masterson is pitching well -- he is doing the exact opposite -- but that his problems go beyond what Willis can mend with advice and teaching. Masterson's velocity is gone, his control lost somewhere with it, and unlike every other starter on the staff, his adjusted numbers look nearly as poor as his actual ones.
The Red Sox could give Masterson more time with Willis to see if some significant fraction of his former self can be recaptured, but lasting just 2-1/3 innings against a struggling A's team on Tuesday night following a horrific seven-run performance against a poor Rays' lineup -- all with a fastball that lives in the 80s and without the extreme ground ball rate that made him intriguing for years -- is evidence against Masterson having anything left to rediscover. Masterson's injuries might have come in 2014, but the damage from them seems to be less self-contained, and the Red Sox can't afford to let him start anymore in a season where they are already 5.5 games back in the East and three back in the wild card race before we officially hit mid-May.
With Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson not quite ready for big-league action yet, there is only one pitcher the Red Sox can turn to: the one they handed the ball to on Tuesday for the final 5-2/3 innings against Oakland. Knuckler Steven Wright might not be your typical pitching prospect, but he's as ready as he is ever going to be for a major-league starting role, and more importantly, he's more ready for it than this iteration of Masterson.
Wright could be horrific as a starter. He might not give the Red Sox a chance in any game he pitches, either because he can't control his knuckler or because it ends up in the seats far too often. That's a worst-case scenario for Wright, however: just as possible is that he can give the Sox the five or six innings of half-decent or better pitching that they need every fifth day, as he's done over over the last four seasons for Triple-A Pawtucket. Wright has limited big-league experience, but the 45 innings he's thrown have been solid, with a 107 ERA+ and twice as many strikeouts as walks. The idea of Wright continuing to pitch around that well is nowhere near as difficult to envision as the one where Masterson suddenly regains a few ticks on his fastball or learns to become a two-pitch junkballer who succeeds even without command at his disposal. Wright's worst-case scenario is Masterson's current reality, and some hope beats none at all.
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You can't exactly predict what a knuckler is going to do each start, never mind over the course of a full season. Tim Wakefield was up-and-down throughout his career, with the only guarantee he could provide being that of innings, and even R.A. Dickey, who won a Cy Young in 2012, has mostly just been a source of league-average innings in the three years since. Wright might not be as good as either pitcher. He might be as good, or he might be a little better. It's tough to tell with knucklers, because they just don't develop and can't be scouted the same way as other pitchers, so projecting them is near impossible: the only way to know what you have in a knuckleballer is to let him pitch against big-league competition.
Projecting knucklers like Wright almost impossible
Steven Wright is intriguing, but as a knuckler, it's going to be tough to know he's good until he proves it one way or the other.
Wright has pitched well enough in the limited opportunities the Red Sox have given him. He has nothing left to prove against Triple-A hitters, and while it's lovely to have someone capable of taking over for a disaster start and then pitching the next five-to-six innings of it to keep the rest of the bullpen out of it, it would be better to just cut out the whole debilitating middle man portion of things.
Masterson likely has nothing left. If he does have something left, he shouldn't be trying to find it every fifth day in Boston, as the Red Sox are trying not to lose anymore ground in a very busy American League. Let Steven Wright take over his rotation spot. Masterson can play garbage man after poor starts instead, or the Sox can send him to Pawtucket to work on finding himself, only bumping maybe future reliever Keith Couch from the Triple-A rotation to do it.
If Masterson can't fix himself, then at least he didn't cause anymore damage in a place that matters. If Wright doesn't pitch well, at least the Red Sox attempted to give themselves an opportunity to win games, one Masterson cannot seem to give them right now. If Wright does pitch well, though, that's one less rotation spot Boston needs to worry about, and suddenly, Eduardo Rodriguez is there in case of injury or if the next struggling starter in line can't give the Sox the innings they need. Remember, Joe Kelly hasn't exactly been giving the Sox a chance to win of late, and he might be just what the bullpen needs, too.
There is downside to the plan, but only in the sense that the Red Sox will be down a long man in the bullpen. If Wright pitches better than Masterson -- and the threshold for successfully doing so is a lot lower than anyone would like -- then the need for a long man is lessened, anyway. The time to make this switch is now: Justin Masterson is less reliable than an unproven knuckleballer, and that is a frightening prospect the Red Sox can't afford to live with any longer.