Daisuke Matsuzaka’s wild new contract

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%
Clay Hensley 34.9%
Robinson Tejeda 33.5%
Rich Hill 33.4%
Oliver Perez 31.9%
Manny Parra 31.4%
Javier Lopez 31.0%
Carlos Marmol 30.9%
Andrew Miller 30.9%
Dontrelle Willis 30.8%
Daniel Cabrera 30.6%
J.P. Howell 30.5%
George Sherrill 30.4%
Chris Perez 30.4%
Jonathan Sanchez 30.4%
Rafael Perez 30.0%
Edinson Volquez 29.8%
John Grabow 29.6%
Ricky Romero 29.6%
Dustin McGowan 29.5%
Ian Snell 29.5%
Jeff Samardzija 29.4%
Kip Wells 29.3%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 28.7%
Joel Hanrahan 28.6%
Greg Smith 28.6%
Chien-Ming Wang 28.4%
Joe Smith 28.4%
A.J. Burnett 28.3%
Garrett Olson 28.2%
Dillon Gee 28.1%

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
Javier Lopez 38.6% 31.0% 7.6%
Robinson Tejeda 42.8% 33.5% 9.3%
George Sherrill 40.0% 30.4% 9.6%
Clay Hensley 44.7% 34.9% 9.8%
Jason Frasor 37.2% 26.8% 10.3%
Erik Bedard 37.9% 27.4% 10.5%
Joe Beimel 36.5% 26.0% 10.5%
Glen Perkins 36.8% 26.2% 10.6%
Johan Santana 35.9% 25.2% 10.7%
Rich Hill 44.4% 33.4% 10.9%
Roy Oswalt 35.0% 24.0% 11.0%
Micah Owings 39.1% 28.0% 11.1%
Chris Perez 41.6% 30.4% 11.2%
Brandon Webb 36.8% 25.4% 11.4%
Colby Lewis 35.2% 23.8% 11.4%
Kris Medlen 35.6% 24.1% 11.5%
Brad Thompson 37.0% 25.4% 11.6%
Clay Buchholz 39.6% 27.9% 11.7%
Chris Young 38.8% 27.1% 11.7%
Nate Robertson 39.7% 27.8% 12.0%
Jeff Karstens 36.9% 24.9% 12.0%
Rodrigo Lopez 35.6% 23.5% 12.1%
Jeff Samardzija 41.5% 29.4% 12.2%
Jair Jurrjens 38.6% 26.4% 12.2%
J.P. Howell 42.7% 30.5% 12.2%
John Grabow 41.9% 29.6% 12.2%
Manny Parra 43.8% 31.4% 12.4%
Chris Capuano 36.6% 24.0% 12.5%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 41.3% 28.7% 12.7%
Jonathan Sanchez 43.1% 30.4% 12.7%

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.

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Comments

  1. Joe Costa said...

    Interesting numbers. I found Dice-K similarly frustrating . . . overpowering stuff coupled with a seeming inability to trust it enough to challenge major-league hitters.

  2. Bunto Skiffler said...

    “The narrative for me with Matsuzaka was his apparent unwillingness to throw strikes.”

    Save this line for ANY of the japanese imports.

  3. Chris Waters said...

    Basically, Matsuzaka is a head case. He has been pampered since elementary school, and has always had a sense of entitlement. He can be very good, but he is just too arrogant and ego-driven to adjust to situations. He is the polar opposite of Matsui.

  4. asym said...

    “I couldn’t help but wonder at his sleeper potential”  Me too, even after reading the above.  I remember some Cy Young winner that recently turned around….I also remember a mean spitball that DiceK could uncork.

  5. Mitch said...

    Lifelong sox fan since the 60’s,: Throw the ball down the middle of the plate! Few could hit it. He was that good, but he didn’t know it.

  6. David Silverwood said...

    Wow-I feel this is a gamble that the Indians took only ,because Francona is now the mgr 8-12 best he will do then Sept1 gone.

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