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The spring of 2006 marked an important moment in baseball history: the first World Baseball Classic tournament was held. An international tournament designed to counteract the loss of baseball from the Olympics, expand the game to new markets, and give baseball a global stage similar to soccer’s World Cup. The first (and in 2009, the second as well) WBC champion was team Japan, lead by phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka, who would walk away with MVP honors. While the Red Sox struggled through a disappointing, injury-filled 2006 season, the front office was looking at Daisuke and preparing for the Japanese right-hander to be posted by his team.
This of course was their behind-the-scenes action. Publicly, the team was as tight-lipped as possible. As part of his resumption of the GM position, Theo Epstein was working to limit the escape of information from within the walls of Fenway Park. In fact, after the Red Sox failed to acquire significant reinforcements at the trade deadline, specifically Bobby Abreu, the public stance was the Sox did not have the same resources as the Yankees and would always need to consider future plans when making short-term acquisitions.
Matsuzaka could never have been considered a traditional acquisition. The record-setting $51.1 million posting fee (as you may recall, before Japanese players hit free agency, teams can “post” their players in a blind bid system – the winning MLB team then has exclusive negotiating rights) and his negotiations with the Red Sox, conducted by superagent Scott Boras, went down to the wire with the pitcher literally boarding a plane as the negotiation clock wound down.
In Japan, he was larger than life, famously performing Herculean feats (250-pitch 17-inning quarterfinal game; no-hitter in the championship game) to lead his high school team to victory that would propel him to superstardom before Major League teams even had him on their radar. He possessed a mythical pitch, the gyroball, which along with five or six other offerings was thought to foreshadow his emergence as a top of the rotation starter. In their 2007 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America forecast that Matsuzaka would “emerge as the top pitcher by the season’s end.” Before Matsuzaka had thrown a pitch in the majors, the Baseball America experts found a near consensus: “[a]bout the worst thing any scout will say about Matsuzaka is that he might be a No.2 starter rather than a No.1” Looking at his career numbers in seven season with the Seibu Lions it’s easy to see why:
There’s no two ways about it: Daisuke was pretty good in Japan. He struck out nearly a batter per inning, balanced each walk with nearly 2.7 Ks, and made hitters batting average look like Adam Dunn’s. He threw 72 complete games – an unheard-of accomplishment in modern North American baseball. The PECOTA forecasting system at Baseball Prospectus compared him to Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Oswalt among others. Aside from Webb, who has been robbed of the past few seasons due to injuries, the others have been nearly the model of consistency and performance. Obviously not every pitcher who can be compared to Roy Halladay will enjoy as much success as the longtime Toronto Blue Jay turned Philadelphia Philly, but this was the class Matsuzaka was expected to ascend to and join.
Matsuzaka of course, is not superhuman. He does not possess abilities far beyond the normal pitcher, yet alone to rank among baseball’s elite. Whether it was the tougher competition, the larger American baseball, the reduced time between starts, or a history of being overworked as a child and young adult finally catching up to his body, Daisuke Matsuzaka struggled to reach the upper tier of pitchers in Major League Baseball.
These parts of five seasons likely represent Matsuzaka’s entire Red Sox career, unless he resumes pitching for the team at the end of 2012 or signs what at this point would be an unlikely extension. In 2007, where aside from the ERA and home run rate, his season was strong: 200 innings, 200 Ks, a 2.5 K/BB ratio to go along with the traditional 15 wins. The Red Sox, of course, won the World Series that year, and while Matsuzaka was not a large part of their victory (Josh Beckett essentially carried the team with him in epic fashion) all told, it was a good enough freshman season.
Something changed in 2008. The command and control he displayed in Japan, and in his rookie year, abandoned him. His walk rate jumped more than a run to 5.05 per 9 innings. His K/BB, a healthy 2.5 in 2007 fell to 1.64. This is where the Daisuke Matsuzaka people will remember comes from. As noted on FanGraphs, Matsuzaka simply wasn’t able to do what most successful pitchers master: locate the ball in the strike zone and miss bats:
|YEAR||SWING OUT OF ZONE %||SWING
IN ZONE %
|CONTACT %||FIRST STRIKE %||SWINGING STRIKE %|
|2007||24.7.%||66.6 %||54.9 %||60.9 %||10.6 %|
|2008||20.7 %||66.4 %||55.0 %||59.8 %||9.8 %|
|2009||22.1 %||69.7 %||68.0 %||55.8 %||8.3 %|
|2010||28.7 %||65.5 %||70.8 %||57.2 %||7.8 %|
|2011||29.8 %||63.8 %||61.9 %||55.7 %||6.9 %|
The longer Matsuzaka pitched for the Red Sox, the more he drifted away from the talented, young pitcher scouts saw in Japan. Everything started to trend in the wrong direction. He threw fewer strikes to start off at bats and more hitters made contact with his offerings. No matter what adjustments the team encouraged or Matsuzaka made on his own, over his tenure with the Red Sox, Daisuke went from being a pitcher who was difficult to hit to one where bat met ball in 70% of the time in 2010. Did the league adjust to Matsuzaka? Did his stuff decline? Was he more injured than we knew? Or was his talent simply not equivalent to the players on this side of the Pacific?
Now that Matasuzaka has undergone Tommy John surgery, it appears his Red Sox days are numbered. While players generally make full recoveries from TJ, the rehab time is about a year, making it unlikely that Matsuzaka returns to pitching until after the 2012 All Star Game at the earliest. Peter Gammons suggests his struggles could be placed on the culture gap. Everything from the language barrier to pitch counts in games to his exercise and throwing regimen (which was of a lot of throwing, much more than American players tend to do) led to disagreements between the Red Sox and their prized acquisition.
If Matsuzaka has thrown his last pitch in the majors and returns to Japan for the 2013 season and the third World Baseball Classic, he would leave behind a lot of confusion about what went wrong. All we know is that the man who led teams to victory all his life didn’t respond in the ways everyone thought he would for reasons connected to health, culture, ability or all of the above.
While the $51 million posting fee went to his team and not his bank account, it will continue to be held against him by many people as it was paid to open their negotiations with Matsuzaka. But if the Red Sox continue their push into Asia and sign players as free agents, build up goodwill etc. that investment could turn out to be the long-term winner, even if Matsuzaka’s pitching was a disappointment. Junichi Tazawa was the first product of the Red Sox Asian strategy, although he suffered his own injury setbacks, missing 2010, and is now rehabbing in Salem. and Yu Darvish, the next great Japanese pitcher has his eye on pitching in the Major Leagues in 2012. While there is no guarantee the Red Sox are interested, as long as the team is active in Japan and other Asian baseball markets, the high-profile investment in Daisuke Matsuzaka could have an impact on Boston for years to come.