There might be a couple of late-season starts in 2012, and according to manager Terry Francona, Daisuke Matsuzaka remains driven to help the Red Sox next year. But for all intents and purposes, the fact that the right-hander will now miss the remainder of 2011 and much if not all of the final year of his contract in 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery means that the book on the Matsuzaka era in Boston is now mostly written, if not shut.
Even if he makes a couple of appearances down the stretch next year, it is fair to proclaim that the right-hander came up far, far short of the mammoth expectations and hype that greeted him. Of course, almost no one could have lived up to those expectations.
The right-hander was described as the second coming of Pedro, one of the top five pitchers in the world, a surgeon with a machete, a mound deity who was expected to inspire a revolution in pitching.
It seems almost comical now – as he prepares to have the surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament – to recall how Matsuzaka was considered a potential conditioning trailblazer, someone who would turn doryoku (maximum effort) into a staple concept of training among all pitchers.
Now, in his fifth season with the Red Sox, the pitcher’s career is characterized by an inability to stay on the mound. All told, he has made 105 starts in his Boston career, or about three-plus seasons worth of turns in the rotation.
Between his injuries and his uneven performances – he was quite good for extended stretches in 2007, enjoyed tremendous results that defied all logic en route to a fourth-place finish in Cy Young balloting in 2008, and has gone 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA in 45 games since 2009 – the pitcher will be labeled as an overpriced disappointment.
It would be a mistake to label him an outright bust, since he was an important contributor to the Sox’ World Series team in 2007 and the club that came one game short of the Fall Classic in 2008. Still, he was never the truly dominant force in Major League Baseball that he was in Japan.
That, in turn, raises questions about what Matsuzaka’s legacy will be. When he came to the U.S. in 2007, there was a school of thought that he was a harbinger of a great wave of pitchers from Japan who would cross the ocean.
Matsuzaka’s standing in Japan was described as that of a Michael Jordan-esque figure. His move was expected to open floodgates and, certainly, it would appear that Matsuzaka’s influence may have been in play – at least in part – when amateur right-hander Junichi Tazawa signed with the Sox out of the amateur industrial league.
That said, because of the trajectory of his career, one wonders whether the opposite might occur. Matsuzaka was considered the best pitcher in Japan when he came over, and perhaps one of the best pitchers on the planet based on his pro career and his performance in international play.
He was a model of health – a pitcher whose delivery was described by several clubs as clean, and who had been a picture of durability (missing just one start in his last four years) in Japan.
Because he delivered nothing close to the $103.1 million that the Sox invested in him (a $51.1 million posting fee and six-year, $52 million contract), it is possible that he will serve as a cautionary tale about investing in star pitchers from the NPB.
Certainly, with right-handed star pitcher Yu Darvish potentially being made available through the posting process this offseason, the Matsuzaka experience may inform some of the bids.
“We thought [Matsuzaka] was can't miss – so much for that,” said an executive on one club that bid on Matsuzaka in the posting process in 2006. “He has a nice clean delivery with no real red flags. It can be very unpredictable. And I expect that, yes, [Matsuzaka’s performance] will make some teams gun-shy. Daisuke was the man – better than Darvish and I don't really like Darvish's delivery. I think it will hurt Darvish in the wallet. In a lot of ways, taking a player from Japan is like getting a player in the amateur draft. There is a lot of uncertainty with the transition.”
An international scout suggested that Matsuzaka’s experience would be factored into teams’ decisions, but only to a degree. Teams will use the data of all available pitchers who make the professional and cultural transition from other countries to the U.S. – whether Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda (whose 33-35 record belies an impressive 3.59 ERA in parts of four seasons with the Dodgers), or Kenshin Kawakami, or even Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman – to inform decisions about other pitchers like Darvish who might come to the majors.
Still, in some ways, Matsuzaka highlighted the many potential transitional challenges that might be experienced by pitchers – especially starting pitchers – coming from Japan.
There is the issue of the number of days between starts (typically four or five in the U.S., five or mostly six in Japan), which laid the foundation for some of the disagreements between Matsuzaka and the Sox over his between-starts routine. There is the issue of the different ball in Major League Baseball creating challenges for some pitches. Matsuzaka had a tremendous, swing-and-miss splitter in Japan; he had to drop the pitch in the U.S. because the different ball would not permit him to throw it.
And those on-field differences may represent just the tip of the iceberg.
“We have to recognize that there are a lot of differences that players need to adjust to when changing leagues. The same goes for players from here going to play in Japan,” the international scout said (via e-mail). “Aside from the culture, the time zone, the food, the travel, the ballparks, the ball itself, the game and training philosophies are significantly different.
“Some of these differences can be adjusted to and overcome pretty quickly. However, for starting pitchers, it may take more time to sustain success over a long period of time. Starting pitchers in Japan usually pitch once per week. When they pitch, they are in there to finish the game and usually have high pitch counts. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨“Therefore, take a pitcher that is accustomed to starting with six days rest and at the worst, five days rest. That pitcher will make 26-28 starts over a season that spans about two to three more weeks than the MLB season even though there are 22 less games. They come to the US and have to throw every five days to every six days with a different ball and facing lineups that are often deep in talent from top to bottom. That sums up international scouting – evaluating the talent and THEN trying to predict how the talent will perform under the conditions of MLB.”
Matsuzaka represents a case study in that difficulty. Yet there is certainly danger in drawing too many conclusions from his performance with the Sox.
After all, other players and pitchers have faced a more seamless transition to Major League Baseball. Some have seen their arsenals translate more exactly; others have seen not just sustained success, but have actually flourished to new heights after making the decision to play abroad.
Moreover, the degree to which Matsuzaka might inform judgments about other pitchers – especially starters – may have limits. Certainly, history suggests that multi-year deals for free-agent pitchers in Major League Baseball are terrible investments, yet teams still pour tens if not hundreds of millions into them, a reflection of the scarcity of the commodity.
In that sense, Matsuzaka can be viewed as emblematic of any high-priced pitcher, regardless of national origin. That being the case, even though Matsuzaka failed to replicate his dominance with Seibu to the Red Sox, teams may still line up in an effort to acquire top talents from the NPB.
“I think Major League clubs will have selective memory when it comes to the Daisuke experience,” said an NL executive. “They can’t contain themselves.”
Nor, perhaps, should they. ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine, who spent several years managing the Chiba Lotte Marines in the NPB after managing the Rangers and Mets, suggested that it would be the height of narrow-mindedness for teams to draw conclusions about pitchers from Japan based on the performance of just one hurler.
“It depends on how prejudiced the mind is that’s thinking about it,” Valentine said of Matsuzaka’s impact on MLB teams’ pursuit of players from Japan. “If someone thinks you can judge an entire group of people by one person, then they’re idiots. I don’t know how you can judge it.”
Asked whether Matsuzaka highlighted some of the transitional difficulties faced by a pitcher in a new environment, Valentine scoffed.
“You mean like [John] Lackey transitioning to a different team? Trying to project how he will perform on the East Coast after performing on the West Coast?” Valentine wondered. “It’s very difficult to project when someone changes environments or changes times. …
“Prejudiced minds try to make a deduction or a conclusion that is pre-judged and work backwards.”
Only time will tell whether Matsuzaka’s experience will color the outlook regarding star players who are willing to make the bold transition from Japan to the U.S. Yet the fact that such a question even exists highlights the divide between the expectations that greeted the right-hander when he came to the Sox and the perception of his work in Boston.
He did not perform at an elite level. He did not inspire a revoluation. Instead, Matsuzaka – like many American players – failed to channel the dominance that he enjoyed elsewhere, and a Red Sox career that commenced with so much hype and excitement now seems destined to end with the proverbial whimper.