We are two weeks away from the six-year anniversary of the day the Red Sox paid more than $100 million in salary and posting to bring Daisuke Matsuzaka stateside. Over the weekend, the Indians signed Matsuzaka to a minor league deal with incentives that could reach $4 million, quite a dramatic fall.
The narrative for me with Matsuzaka was his apparent unwillingness to throw strikes. In both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, Matsuzaka won the MVP and led Japan to the title. There, he would challenge hitters, and his stuff was such that he dominated them. He had the same stuff with the Red Sox, but whether by confidence or mismanaged routine or some other unaired inhibiter, he seemed to always fall behind hitters.
As a fan, it is much easier to pull for a player who maximizes his natural abilities. Most fans had no chance at the big leagues from the day they were born, and so I believe empathy comes mofre easily for the perceived hard workers.
As with J.D. Drew, there was little empathy for Matsuzaka. Here was the pitcher who was supposed to become the next franchise ace, constantly with full counts, constantly with bases loaded, constantly out before the sixth inning and with no obvious reason for any of it. I can just picture Red Sox nation in a collective outburst of “Just throw strikes!”
Because of that perception, it never seemed appropriate to write Matsuzaka off. The cliché in baseball is that once you display a skill, you own it, and he had certainly displayed the total package in the WBC. Even now, when I first read about his minor league contract, I couldn’t help but wonder at his sleeper potential.
If for no other reason than to help me sleep better at night, I wanted to look at the data to see if my perception of Matsuzaka matched reality. The crux of that perception is my belief that Matsuzaka (1) routinely fell behind hitters but (2) had the command to throw strikes more often had he wanted to.
First, I used a PITCHf/x database to look at first-pitch ball percentage—which I calculated as a percentage of all pitch results, including balls-in-play—of pitchers who have faced at least 1,000 batters since 2007. At 41.3 percent, Matsuzaka came in 157th of 369 total pitchers, which is more toward the wild side but still less egregious than I expected.
Next, I calculated the ball percentage of those pitchers when they were in three-ball counts, excluding 3-0 counts, when pitchers typically attempt to throw a strike at near-complete expense of making a quality pitch. Here, Matsuzaka made it inside the top-30 with 28.7 percent of three-ball count pitches resulting in balls. The top of that list is the who’s who of wild pitchers from the last few years, including Oliver Perez, Carlos Marmol, Andrew Miller, Dontrelle Willis, Daniel Cabrera and Edinson Volquez.
Highest ball percentage for pitchers in 3-1 and 3-2 counts since 2007:
|Player||3 Ball Count Ball%|
Interestingly, Matsuzaka has the third lowest first pitch ball percentage of those 30 names, behind only Javier Lopez and George Sherrill. In fact, if you sort the full list of 369 pitchers by the difference in ball percentage from 0-0 counts to 3-1 and 3-2 counts from smallest to largest, Daisuke, again, makes the top-30.
Smallest difference between ball percentage in 0-0 counts and 3-1 and 3-2 counts since 2007:
|Player||First Pitch Ball%||3 Ball Count Ball%||Difference|
The results suggest that I was wrong about Matsuzaka. There was never more to his tendency to fall behind in counts than his overarching inability to throw strikes. In that context, his new contract with the Indians seems entirely appropriate for a pitcher with a history of poor command and arm problems.
References & Resources
Statistics from PITCHf/x.