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As Sarah pointed out earlier, the CY Young races this year are pretty lame. So I think I’ll spend some time tackling a far more hotly contested topic: was Matsuzaka worth it?

Before we start talking about Matsuzaka, let’s make a few things clear. First, his contract is for six years and $52 million. But the Red Sox paid $51 million for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. And you can’t just ignore that posting fee. So for the purposes of this conversation, we’re going to treat Mastsuzaka like a $103 million player — which is what he is, as far as the Sox are concerned.

Matsuzaka Mania

 

Also, I know that people will argue that the Red Sox were willing to pay $51 million to negotiate with Matsuzaka, because they knew that signing the phenom would open up all sorts of previously unexplored marketing opportunities in Japan. And that’s a legit argument. But this isn’t a sports business blog and I wouldn’t know how to begin measuring Matsuzaka’s economic impact on the Red Sox. So we’re just going to be talking about Matsuzaka the pitcher, not the brand. We clear? Super.

Now let’s get down to it.

The question of Matsuzaka’s worth is really a two-parter: 1. Did he earn his salary this season? And 2. Was signing Dice-K a good long-term investment?

Let’s start by trying to answer the first part (which is much, much easier). The Red Sox are paying approximately $17 million a season over six years for Matsuzaka. That makes him one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball, in line with guys like Pettitte, Colon, Clemens and Zito.

Does Matsuzaka pitch like one of baseball’s elite pitchers?

He didn’t this season. This year, Matsuzaka was 15-12 with an ERA of 4.40, which was the 43rd best in baseball among pitchers who pitched a minimum of 180 innings. In other words, he was thoroughly mediocre.

Sheepish Dice-KSome people will tell you Matsuzaka was unlucky this season. And of course, there’s some truth to that. But by and large, Matsuzaka had it made. He was backed by the league’s second best offense and the league’s best bullpen.

Hey, the numbers don’t lie. Matsuzaka had good run support. His teammates scored 5.72 runs per game that he started. Wakefield got about the same — 5.76. Beckett got more — 6.59.

Compare that to poor Barry Zito, who only got 4.44 runs per game. Or Brandon Webb, who will come in second in the NL Cy Young voting, and only got 4.38.

Then there’s John Lackey, who is getting no respect in the Cy Young voting, despite his 19 wins and league leading 3.01 ERA. He got only 4.86 runs of support on average.

So, it’s kind of a stretch to call Matsuzaka unlucky.

He was just, you know, really average.

Here’s another number: Matsuzaka tied for 39th in the majors in number of quality starts with 18. Jake Peavy and Dan Haren had the most with 28.

Average, average, average.

Ok, that’s enough piling on Matsuzaka for now. Because, while he failed to pitch at an elite level in 2007, that doesn’t mean Boston was wrong to sign him. Let’s be fair to Theo Espstein. It’s not like there were a ton of options last offseason for a team in the market for a top of the line starter.

In fact, let’s look at how Matsuzaka faired compared to some of the other free agents who were available.

Gil Meche He finished 9-13, but he pitched for the Royals. For a real team he would have had 15 wins. His ERA was a respectable 3.67.

Barry Zito Slow start. Little run support. Big check — $10 million this year, $126 million over 7 years.

Adam Eaton Make the bad man go away!

Jeff Weaver He’s getting $8.3 million for one year in Seattle. Showed flashes of competence, but started slow and flamed out late.

Jason Marquis 12-9 with a 4.60 ERA. Not great. Probably not worth the three years and $21 million he’s getting.

Ted Lilly 15-8 with a 3.83 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. He’s getting $40 million over 4 years. So far looks like money well spent.

Jeff Suppan 4 years and $42 million. 12-12 with a 4.62 ERA? Not good.

Jason Schmidt Was hurt almost all year. Shocker.

Looks like the Sox might have been better off going after guys like Meche or Lilly, though they dodged a bullet avoiding Zito and Schmidt. And even though he’s a lot more expensive, Matsuzaka was probably a better investment than both Suppan and Marquis.

Theo should give himself a pat on the back for landing one of last offseason’s better starting pitchers (though he shouldn’t get too excited — there’s still that Julio Lugo signing to discuss).

Was Matsuzaka worth his $17 million in 2007? No, not quite. But he certainly wasn’t the most overpaid player in the league, or even in Boston. And he was a guy who ate up innings and filled seats. So, while he wasn’t worth $17 million, he was still valuable.

Now what about the long term? Will the Matsuzaka signing work out in the end?

Of course, no one knows the answer to that question. Really, it’ll come down to whether Dice-K is the exception or the rule. Traditionally, Japanese pitchers who make the jump to the majors enjoy strong debuts, but fade in their second and third seasons (see: Nomo, Byung Hyun Kim). Will Matsuzaka continue that trend? If so, his signing will go down as a major bummer.

But there’s plenty of reason to hope.

the wife

Clearly, Matsuzaka has nasty stuff. He was eighth in the majors in strikeouts, which doesn’t happen by accident.

And there’s something else worth mentioning. Boston is a tough town to play in. Not everybody can do it (see:Edgar Renteria). Matsuzaka should get a little extra credit for succeeding in such a tough environment.

Unfortunately, sometimes even Matsuzaka doesn’t know where his pitches are going, as evidenced by his 80 walks, which was 12th most in the bigs. Matsuzaka’s longterm success will hinge on whether or not he can cut down his number of walks. If he issues fewer bases on balls, he can be an ace. If he doesn’t, he’ll just be a glorified Daniel Cabrera, with a much bigger contract.

But I’m betting on Matsuzaka to justify his contract and the big posting fee. He’s got big game pitcher written all over him. This season, he always seemed to save his best stuff for when he most needed it. And that’s what winners do.

Sure, I know that’s not as compelling as statistics, but what can I say? He’s only got one year under his belt and that’s just too small a sample size.

Time will tell.

13 Responses to “Was Matsuzaka worth it?”

  1. Sarah Green says:

    Coley, I agree. I think this year has “adjustment year” written all over it, in kanji characters.

  2. Nick Kapur says:

    ????

  3. Sarah Green says:

    For those of you who have not installed the East Asian Language Pack in Windows, Nick’s comment says “adjustment year” in Japanese kanji characters.

  4. In what universe is Byung-HYUN Kim Japanese?

    I doubt Dice-K ever gets significantly better, but for the money that was paid him, you could do a whole lot worse than accepting what he offers right now (considering contracts like Zito’s).

    No mention of Dice-K’s well known inability to stop baserunners from roaming free, or his penchant for giving up the longball (1.1 hr/9)? Or for ringing up inefficient pitch counts because his control isn’t the best? These aren’t really things that are suddenly learned at age 27-28.

  5. Len, you’re right. Byung Hyun Kim is Korean, not Japanese. My mistake.

    And I didn’t mention Dice-K’s home run rate, but I did mention his lack of control.

    Also, I didn’t mention that in Japan the baseball is a slightly different size than the one used in the US, and that Matsuzaka is probably still getting used to that.

    As for his inability to hold base runners, well, that’s a problem that kind of takes care of itself once one stops allowing so many base runners. And one does that by lowering one’s number of walks. which is what I said Matsuzaka needs to do, and which I think he will do.

  6. From observation, Dice-K either strikes the batter out, or they get on base.

    From Baseball References, Opponent AVGs with no men on is 4th on the list, behind 3, corners, and loaded. Leadoff men (game and innings) have about .100 OPS better than average.

    It’s almost like he doesn’t knuckle down until he’s actually got something to focus on, as in a guy on base.

    I’m not surprised that he was moved to Game 3 in the ALCS. I just don’t trust him.

  7. Sarah Green says:

    Len, the pitch-count question is interesting because in Japan, Matsuzaka was well-known for throwing a ton of pitches but getting better as the game wore on. He would even throw long sessions in-between starts. Obviously, the training regimen in the US is completely different, and I wonder how that has affected his transition this year.

    For instance, Matsuzaka’s teammate, Josh Beckett, also had a lot of walks and homers last year—and, as I’ve grown weary of pointing out, he was only transitioning from the National League. Yet this year, at the age of 27, Beckett’s pitch counts are more efficient, he’s not giving up so many long balls, and he’s given up a career-low number of walks.

    Given that Daisuke is not only coming from a different league, but a different country with different players, a different language, a different number of games in a season, and even a different ball size, I think your characterization of his struggles this season as a “well-known inability” or a “penchant” are a bit premature. If he’s still doing these things next season, then we can speak of inabilities and penchants.

  8. Sarah Green says:

    For reference, here is the column I wrote last week on Dice-K. It’s good. You should read it. :)

  9. Nick Kapur says:

    Look, I think Matsuzaka’s biggest difficulty this past year was the strike zone. In Japan the strikezone is differently shaped. It doesn’t go quite as low (more like the top of the knee rather than the hollow of the knee like in the US), and it is a bit wider on both sides. From observation, I think a lot of Daisuke’s problems would begin when he wouldn’t get a call on a ball near the inside or outside edge which would have been a strike in Japan. A new strike zone is definitely something that can be adjusted to, in time…

  10. Nick, from what I’ve seen of DM (and granted we’re talking maybe 5-6 starts from a non-Red Sox fan) he always seemed to leave the ball up far too often, especially his fastball and tumbling slider (rather than a tight spinner). Sometimes it was a mistake, oftentimes it looked like he was trying to get the belt-high strike. Regardless, with patient hitters it didn’t seem to work and he’d walk guys or give up hard-hit balls. Maybe I just haven’t seen him enough.

    Sarah, I’m curious–did he change his regimen in the U.S.? I knew about his between starts regimen in Japan and I’d have to imagine he kept some of it intact.

    For both Sarah and Coley, I never really thought about Beckett, so you make a great point. I think Beckett finally felt free to use the curve more often without fear of blister problems and that helped round out his repertoire and made him much less predictable. Plus his change appears far more reliable than what I remember it from his Marlin days. Maybe Dice-K can do the same, after all.

  11. Sarah Green says:

    Wow, Nick, I didn’t even know that about the strike zone. That would certainly explain Matsuzaka’s infuriating habit this season of walking towards the dugout on what he assumes is a called strike three, and which often turns out to be a ball. Man. I wish he would stop doing that. I’m sure it’s not winning him any points with the umps.

  12. Sarah Green says:

    Len, all I really know is that he continued to experiment with his training regimen throughout the regular season. It’s not quite what it was in Japan, and it’s not what the US pitchers do either. One day when I get my press pass I will find out!

  13. I am wondering if they have checked all the players for green cards or citizenship status.

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