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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is 'The Mysterious Mr. Matsuzaka' Too Lame of a Title?

Stop me if you've heard this one. Daisuke Matsuzaka is an enigma. You don't know what to expect from start to star. He can be as brilliant, or quite ineffective. You just don't know.

You know Daisuke's story. He was a legend of Japanese High School baseball, the ace the the dynastic Yokohama High School team. In 1998 he threw a 148-pitch shutout, a 250-pitch 17-inning magnum opus, and collected a relief win in the High School quarterfinal. In three days. He came back to throw the second no-hitter in the history of the Japanese High School finals.

His legend only grew in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1999 as an 18-year old, and didn't stop dominating the league at any point in his 8-year NPB career. He led the league in strikeouts 4 time, wins three times, and ERA twice. He won the 2001 Eiji Sawamura Award, the equivalent of the MLB's Cy Young. He also won the pitchers' Gold Glove Award seven times, but whatever. Before the 2006 season, he led Japan to victory in the first-ever World Baseball Classic, winning the tournament MVP Award. That winter, the Red Sox paid $51 111 111 to the Seibu Lions for the right to talk to Matsuzaka, and while agent Scott Boras played hard-to-get, Matsuzaka was eventually signed to a 6-year contract worth $52 million plus incentives.

Now the fun begins. Matsuzaka pitched solidly for Boston in 2007, with a 108 ERA+ in 207 innings, then had a unique season in 2008. Despite a 1.324 WHIP, a 1.64 K/BB and only throwing 167 innings, Matsuzaka (new affectionately referred to as 'Dice-K') placed fourth in Cy Young Award voting - due largely to an 18-3 record and the 2.90 ERA behind it.

He pitched Japan to another WBC title in 2009, winning a second MVP award, but hurt himself at some point and pitched horribly for Boston, putting up a 5.76 ERA in under 60 IP. He spent much of the season rehabbing from a later-to-be-revealed hip injury, then returned to post a 2.22 ERA in 24.1 innings down the stretch. In 2010, he was... Ok. While his peripherals stayed about level with career norms, and sometimes better, his ERA stood at an ugly 4.69, 7% worse than league averagewith a 93 ERA+. He struggled with back issues and made only 25 starts.

Two starts into 2011, Red Sox fans are calling for his head. My father, long a proponent of 'I'd put him and that other Chinese fella on a boat back across the ocean', can barely keep himself from wetting his pants and lapsing into a frothing-at-the-mouth seizure at the sight of #18. This is due in no small part to the horrendous line Dice-K posted Monday night against the Rays -- 2 IP, 16 batters faced, eight hits, two home runs, two walks, seven earned runs, hit the showers. Dice-K was booed mercilessly as he held back tears and crawled on hands and knees back to the Boston dugout in Fenway, tail firmly between legs.

After all that I have just written, however, consider my audacity when I present to you the question: is Matsuzaka that bad of a pitcher? He's had some ups and some downs, and oh God, is he inconsistent. But is he bad? And, more importantly, what can we expect from him in the future? That is what I will try to answer here.

Here's what you have to remember about Dice-K. If he's good, it's because he's fine. Not sexy, but very, very deliberate. Very controlled. Ironically, he has a career 4.3 BB/9, but that is a testament to what he tries to do as a pitcher; pick the corners, never give in. He's not incredibly stuffsy, but he can make guys swing and miss. He features a fastball around 91 mph, and Trackman recently listed his slider as one of the best in the AL, and he uses it to induce poor contact. For instance, batters have hit 84.5% of his strikes at which they have swung over his career. For reference, strikeout king Jered Weaver has an 83.4% rate, and the league norm is about 88%.

So, he has pretty good stuff. Can he control it? His walk rate might suggest otherwise, but I would submit that his walk rate has more to do with his refusal to challenge hitters. In his career (592 IP), he has 51 4-pitch walks to his name. According to, his most similar pitcher, John Maine, has 64 4-pitch walks in 585 IP. He can get wild, but his high walk count has more to do with his nibbling attack than any lack of control. That said, however - his control is not improving. In fact, it is getting worse. Here are the percentage of pitches he has thrown for strikes over his career:

2007 - 51.9
2008 - 51.2
2009 - 49.0
2010 - 48.2
2011 - 46.8

He threw strikes at about a league average rate early in his career, but has since regressed quickly. It is not only the regression, but the slow, steady rate at which it is happening, that is concerning. This is not the sharp decline of an injury-plagued or slump-riddled season. It is the slow descent into a ballplayer's 30's.

As his control slowly seeps away, so does his stuff. Look at the percentage of pitches swung-on-and-missed over his career:

2007 - 10.6
2008 - 9.8
2009 - 8.3
2010 - 7.8
2011 - 2.8

While this year's rate is almost certainly an aberration, there is an undeniable trend there. In addition to this, he is continually getting hit harder. In each of the first three seasons of his career, he posted a 20% line-drive rate (19% league average), but this hopped to 22% in 2010, and sits at 27% for now. As with the whiff-rate, 27% is likely an outlier, but there is little solace to be found in these numbers for Dice-K fans. His GB/FB ratio is declining as well - 0.63 in '07-'08, 0.52 since (line drives are included as fly balls). This means that more balls are getting airborne, which is likely partly responsible for 8.8% of opposing batters getting extra base hits against him since 2009 (7.8% league average).

As I look at his numbers, I realize that I could continue to bash Matsuzaka for the rest of the afternoon. It is clear that he has issues, and not necessarily issues that he can work out. He is likely just aging. He could make adjustments, could start giving in to hitters. But, in my opinion, this is what he tried to do before, and this was the result. Perhaps it is time to admit that the Dice-K experiment was a failure. He's a decent pitcher, but his decline is obvious. Does he deserve to be 'shipped back to China'? Not quite. But as far as I can tell, it's becoming slowly more and more obvious that his days just might be numbered.

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