Matsuzaka mania

Cast your mind back one year. The St. Louis Cardinals had just beaten the Detroit Tigers to claim a World Series victory; perennial speculation was still abound that Joe Torre would not see another year as Yankees manager; oh, and the media was going into overdrive with the impending arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Major Leagues.

Expectations were that Dice-K, as he was soon anointed, would challenge Johan Santana as the best pitcher in the bigs. This was largely based on his putting up some gaudy numbers in the Japanese League and dominating the World Baseball Classic, waltzing off with the tournament MVP and a 3-0 record. However, his first season in Boston was a qualified disappointment as he recorded a 4.40 ERA. What happened?

The courtship

The legend of Matsuzaka stretched back to 1998, when he threw 250 pitches in a 17 inning win over Japanese team, PL Gakuen—this was the day after tossing a 148 pitch complete game shutout! As a result of these and other performances the Seibu Lions selected him as the first pick in the 1998 draft.

Dice-K’s first professional outing was an extraordinary affair and involved an opposing batter charging the mound, as he thought the 18 year old phenom was being disrespectful by pitching inside. Over the next eight years Dice-K established himself as the dominant hurler Nippon Professional Baseball, recording a sub-3.00 ERA in his last four seasons and comfortably exceeding one strike out per inning.

It was clear though the summer of 2006 that Matsuzaka was itching to jump across the Pacific and ply his trade in America. In late October the canny hurler announced he had recruited Scott Boras as his agent and a few days later he was granted permission by the Lions to pursue a career in the majors via the antiquated posting system.

This involved all interested teams bidding for the right to negotiate with Boras and Matsuzaka. This “posting fee” goes directly to the club and not the player. The successful team would then have one month to secure a contract with the player otherwise he’d stay in Japan.

The Red Sox won the battle with a monstrous $51 million offer—about double the level expected and comfortably ahead of what the Mets and Yankees bid for his services. Theo Epstein and co. played a masterful hand as they signed Dice-K to a six-year $52 million contract, which was way below predicted market value. Rumor had it that Boras was looking for a $100 million, six-year deal, but the vagaries of the posting system meant that the Red Sox were able to acquire him for a song—this was game theory at work.

Expectations

It is fair to say expectations were stratospheric when Dice-K landed on these hallowed shores. Jeff Sackmann, in a column last year, used analysis by Matuszaka watcher Mike Plugh to put a 3.50 ceiling on his ERA. Here is what he said:

His performance in MLB may be better than you’d think. Using Jim Albright’s system for projecting Japanese pitchers in the U.S., Mike Plugh came up with some translations for Matsuzaka. I haven’t delved deeply enough into the numbers to judge Albright’s method, but it seems to have been instructive in the past. If anything, the results might overstate the difference between Japanese and American baseball, as presumably the NPB has gotten stronger within the last decade.

Plugh translates Matsuzaka’s 2005 stats and a chunk of his ’06 numbers as follows:

Year ERA IP H HR BB SO
2005 2.74 215 185 16 63 200
2006 2.52 187 156 21 39 181

Let’s say, for whatever reason, that you’re skeptical of those numbers. So am I. It seems well established that the NPB hosts a higher level of baseball than American Triple-A, but for the sake of argument, let’s translate his 2005 NPB stats as if they were accumulated in the International League. (I can’t find all the components I need to do this with 2006 stats, so 2005 will have to suffice for now.)

2005 IP HR BB K FIP
NPB 215 13 49 226 2.56
MLB 215 18 65 189 3.44

So, as long as there’s nothing about Matsuzaka that makes him incompatible with success in America, and assuming that the Seibu faces harder competition than Pawtucket does, the upper bound on his ERA these days would seem to be about 3.50.

PECOTA took a more realistic view—Nate Silver’s original projections suggested a 4.01 ERA although later revisions saw that fall to the high threes.

And those forecasts were considered conservative. Sentiment at the time was that Dice-K could challenge Johan Santana for the AL Cy Young award and he was a virtual lock on the Rookie of the Year trophy.

What happened?

Dice-K in 2007

2007 got off to a good start as Dice-K dominated the Royals, going seven innings and conceding only one run—a home run—whiffing 10 in the process. Although it was ostensibly against the weakest lineup in the AL the hyperbole looked justified. The media frenzy continued as his next start was in Fenway where he was up against young phenom Felix Hernandez. Matsuzaka was thoroughly shown up by King Felix and gave up three runs in seven innings while striking out four. The only bright spot was that he held his long time foe, Ichiro, 0-for-5.

The first sign that he didn’t come quite as advertised was a couple of early season showdowns against the Yankees, one at Fenway and the other at Yankee Stadium. In the first game Dice-K either wasn’t very good or was overawed by the Yankees’ lineup. He gave up six runs in eight innings as the Sox scraped an unlikely victory. In the second game he led the Red Sox to a comfortable 11-4 victory but managed to give up those four runs in the same inning—a recurrent problem throughout his first year in the majors.

The issue was that his pitches appeared to lack movement and he suddenly become very hittable. When he threw in the zone he got pounded, when he tried to paint the edges he’d issue a walk. By mid-May his ERA was hovering around the five mark and he was comfortably the worst starter in the Red Sox rotation.

Consistency was sorely lacking. For instance in the second half he gave up five runs twice, six runs, seven runs and eight runs. The point is that you’d never see a top class pitcher go have those results in such a short space of time.

What does 2008 hold?

After an on-off year 2008 will be critical in defining Dice-K’s legacy. Including the posting fee Dice-K will cost the Red Sox about $90 million over his six year contract (one must account for the fact that the posting fee doesn’t fall under the luxury tax rules). That implies 4.5 wins above replacement in year one declining by 0.5 wins per year.

On that math Dice-K needed to record an ERA of about 3.20 in 2008 after accounting for his disappointing 2007.

Matsuzaka still has the potential to be a fantastic hurler. He has a large repertoire of pitches; he can be dominant in spells and has nasty stuff. Although there is little doubt that his mystique has disappeared somewhat I expect that 2008 will be a much better year for Dice-K: he’ll be more familiar with his surroundings, and more importantly, expectations will be that little bit lower. And that is good for everyone, except the Yankees.

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