The tube socks. They are the first clue to Justin Masterson's unconventionality. He often wears them to work, and this wouldn't be so strange if work were, say, a 1970s-era roller rink. But Masterson is a Major League pitcher showing up to work at a big league ballpark. That he is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and walking around in shorts and long socks certainly separates him from the pack.
"I almost think he does it just to get a rise out of people," said teammate Mitch Talbot, who shares the neighboring locker in the Indians' clubhouse. "He doesn't care what everybody thinks. He's him. And that's not a bad thing at all." Especially this season. Masterson has, surprisingly, been one of the best pitchers in the American League this year, and that is a big reason why the Cleveland Indians are, even more surprisingly, in possession of the best record in baseball. Following a tough-luck loss to the White Sox on Wednesday, when he gave up a first-inning sacrifice fly and nothing more in eight innings of work but was outdueled by Jake Peavy, Masterson is 5-2 with a 2.52 ERA in nine starts. He's lasted at least six innings in all but one outing. "I like the concept of being a workhorse," he said. "I like being the guy who sets the tone." As long as the tone is a winning one, Masterson can wear whatever he wants to work. But there was a time not very long ago when the big right-hander's stats were even more startling than his socks. The Tribe acquired Masterson in the July 2009 trade that sent Victor Martinez to the Red Sox. It was an emotional trade for both sides. Martinez was the closest thing the Indians had to a team captain -- the heart and soul of their system. And Masterson, though not nearly as established, was just as beloved in Boston for his strengths as a teammate, as a person and certainly as a reliever. Masterson looked like a lost dog when he got to Cleveland. Not only had he been sent from a contending club to a rebuilding one, but he was being asked to switch roles -- again -- to return to starting. Sure, he loved the opportunity, but he was also mindful of the fact that relieving had been his ticket to remaining in the big leagues. This, clearly, was going to be an experiment. For as unconventional as Masterson's attire might be, his three-quarter arm slot is pretty atypical, too. The arm slot, so many scouts insist, would make it difficult for Masterson to have sustained success against left-handed hitters. His 2009 numbers, in which right-handers hit .203 off him while left-handers batted .323, bore that out. It was more of the same early last season. Masterson started out 0-5, and he was 3-10 with a 5.55 ERA and .295 average against at the end of July. "Before you could get a drink of water," manager Manny Acta said, "you were trailing by five." The Indians, though, had every reason to be patient with Masterson. He wasn't going anywhere, and neither were they. Acta's club lost 93 games last season, with Masterson saddled with 13 of those defeats. But the silver lining to life in the second division is the development opportunities it provides. "We recognized the value that he had, the amount of innings he could throw and also the fact that our rotation wasn't in the best shape," Acta said. "It made sense for us to ignore every criticism of him starting." The reward began to reveal itself last August. As a byproduct of his big frame, Masterson had often shown a tendency to slip out of his delivery patterns and start flying open. But pitching coach Tim Belcher helped instill a series of mental checkpoints that began to keep Masterson focused from pitch to pitch. In his last four outings before moving to the 'pen to preserve his innings, Masterson went 2-0 with a 1.63 ERA. This season, the Indians still faced questions as to whether Masterson was worthy of remaining in the rotation. But those have been answered by his fantastic first two months. "He's had early success, which he didn't have last year," Belcher said. "When that happens and you're taking the mound off a string of four or five good outings -- as opposed to four or five not-so-good outings -- it's a lot less anxiety and tension in your body. You're able to fluidly go through your delivery, execute pitches and throw the ball over the plate." No matter what he's going through on the mound, Masterson, the son of a pastor and a devout Christian, remains a gentle giant off it. But as is often the case in the macho culture of big league ball, Masterson's pleasant personality has sometimes led to accusations that he might be "too nice" to succeed at this level. He's heard such things throughout his professional life and has learned to shrug them off. "You're out there playing a game," he said. "This is a part of my life. I don't believe that because I love God, he's going to help me out on the field. He's gifted me with courage and tenacity and the ability to work hard, and that's what's helped make me a better ballplayer. But when I'm out there, I want to win. Even when I'm at home playing a board game -- and you can ask my wife -- I want to win. "I'm not going to go out and be a jerk. I'm going to play the game the right way. You might hit somebody with a pitch, you might upset some people. That happens. But when you treat people the correct way off the field, that's what matters to me." Masterson's teammates have embraced him, tube socks and all. And it certainly doesn't hurt that his wife, Meryl, makes homemade cookies that are the stuff of clubhouse legend (she even started a business -- Home Plate Cookies -- to make them available to the masses). Whereas the concern was once whether Masterson was fit to be a starter, the only question now is what to call him. "Bat Masterson," "The Big Masty" and "Mastodon" are all worthy nickname options that have been pushed on the populace. In the meantime, Masterson hopes to continue this run by maintaining the consistency with his delivery. He's done a remarkable job keeping the ball in the park this season, allowing 0.1 homers per nine innings, and he's getting ground balls at a 56.9 percent clip. "He's still going to have games where he gets against a really patient club and they start key-holing him and he's off just a little bit," Belcher said. "But by and large, if he continues to throw strikes, it's going to force the other team to be aggressive and not be patient. Hitters don't want to hit off him, period. And they really don't want to hit off him 0-2 or 1-2." Maybe the tube socks aren't intimidating. But the stuff is.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.