There are quite a few players underperforming on the Red Sox. In fact, it was just two days ago that I listed them, and suggested it might be time to start making some changes.
Of those players, there are varying levels of promise. Mike Napoli is known for being streaky at the plate, and it's still possible that this is one very long bad streak that will end as explosively as the rest. David Ortiz is old, but he is still David Ortiz. Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly have both had very good performances at times this season to go with their worst, and while Wade Miley's worst has shined through more often, it's a bit confusing just what it is that's made him so bad this season, and so hope that, like Napoli, this could just be a rough stretch.
For Justin Masterson, though, none of this is true.
Aside from perhaps his first out of the season against a decrepit Philadelphia lineup, Masterson has never really impressed. At best, he has survived through his lack of control, through plentiful baserunners, through his inability to pitch to lefties. Ground balls are part of this, and Justin Masterson's ability to induce them will always be to his credit, but it's not enough on its own.
That much was evident last night. Masterson induced two double play balls in the first two innings to keep runs off the board against the Rays, but inevitably, his simple inability to either locate or overpower batters caught up to him. At one point, as his outing was nearing its inglorious end, Masterson threw 10 straight balls. He ended up with six walks and a hit batter in less than five innings of work, and was only spared worse by some clutch pitching from Edward Mujica.
The thing that differentiates Masterson from the other struggling pitchers in Boston's rotation is how obvious it is why this is happening to him. Masterson basically has one pitch that has the chance to be legitimately effective at the moment: the frisbee slider. He's leaned on it more heavily than ever in 2015--it constituted a full third of his pitches going into Wednesday's game--and when it's on and he's facing a right-handed hitter, it has the potential to be devastating.
But it's not a pitch he can rely on. Too many sliders means too many hanging sliders means too many hard-hit balls. He's not particularly confident in the pitch against lefties, either--getting inside against them has always been a problem--and at the end of the day it desperately needs some other competent offerings to support it.
The Red Sox offense isn't where it needs to be yet
Boston's pitching is a problem, but the Red Sox offense hasn't performed like it was supposed to either.
That, however, is something Masterson cannot provide. Once upon a time he could throw in the low-to-mid 90s. But those days are gone. Masterson regularly dips down towards 85 these days, and while some pitchers can get away with that, they do so by exercising excellent control. Masterson, on the other hand, often struggles to so much as come close, particularly in 2015. There are times, as was the case last night, when there's no middle ground for him. It's either a clear strike, or something Bob Uecker might describe as "just a bit outside." The result is a career-low chase rate of 26.5%.
When the Red Sox signed Justin Masterson, it was a flier. Maybe, when healthy, he'll be his old Cleveland self. The one who made Red Sox fans ask "why can't we have guys like that?" in 2011 and 2013. Well, Masterson is apparently healthy, but he's not what he used to be. Not even close. The velocity is gone, and his control is worse than ever. It would be tough to record outs if he were still throwing 93, but at 87 it's not reasonable to expect anything better than we've had so far.
Six games into the season, Justin Masterson has pitched in three Red Sox wins, and given them three quality starts. It's more than they could really have hoped for if they knew how he would be throwing the ball in April and May. If they can't quite get out ahead, the best they can do is get out before they're too far behind.