Did anybody notice that Daisuke Matsuzaka was deemed the fourth-best pitcher in the American League for the 2008 season by those casting ballots for the Cy Young Award?
Were you paying attention to the reality that the Red Sox starter had a 5-1 record with a 3.25 ERA against American League East foes, won 18 games, finished with a 2.90 ERA, and held opponents to the lowest batting average of any starting pitcher in the big leagues?
And had you been paying attention to the evolution Matsuzaka underwent while accomplishing those milestones, exemplified by details such as the fact that he threw his curveball just 11 times all season after breaking it off on 126 occasions in 2007?
As for a final reminder regarding the 28-year-old: He made $8 million for last season, will duplicate the number in ’09 and ’10, while finishing his final two seasons at $10 million per year. And as for the additional expense of that $51,111,111 million posting fee, it continues to get reimbursed through Japanese businesses and good will (translation: prospective future big leaguers walking around Tokyo with Red Sox hats).
Oh yes, and in case you missed it the first time: he is 28.
So as the numbers assigned to dollars and years regarding potential contracts for the likes of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe start trickling in, last week’s Cy Young balloting should have served notice.
This guy has become a rarity – a starting pitcher who might have actually been worth signing to a six-year contract.
“The one thing that clearly emerges looking back at this season is we knew we were going to be in a position to win in every start that he made,” said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell in a phone conversation, citing the Red Sox’ 23-6 mark in Matsuzaka’s starts.
“We felt we had a chance to win every night, we knew it was likely going to be a low-run game, and he would get to the sixth (inning), possibly the seventh. And even though it might be a high pitch-count with some walks sprinkled in there, we knew the game was going to be held in check with us having an opportunity to win every five days he walked out there.”
Though Matsuzaka's pitching persona has seemed baffling at times since his entry into Major League Baseball, there is one potential mystery that hasn’t been difficult to decipher. The reason you might have ignored some of those hat-hangers the righty possessed in ’08 is because of the (putting it kindly) unorthodox, or (not so kindly) maddening, manner in which he survived his starts.
It was sometimes difficult to sift out such nuggets as the notion that Matsuzaka allowed 93 fewer total bases than the pitcher perceived as the Sox ace in ’08, Jon Lester, because he was issuing the most walks in the AL (94) and loaded the bases 16 times. Of course, true to the inside-out methodology of Matsuzaka, he didn’t allow a single hit in any of those bases-juiced scenarios.
For movie-goers, it was Apollo Creed expressing his concern over his fighter taking punch after punch from Clubber Lang in Rocky III, only to be reassured by Pauly that Rocky did, in fact, have a plan and knew what he was doing, getting his opponent increasingly exhausted with each punch.
And for anyone who failed to witness Mr. T’s greatest cinematic performance, Matsuzaka offered one of the most unorthodox existences you’ll see from a successful starting pitcher.
“There were times where command would clearly elude him and he would pitch behind in the count for a couple of hitters in a row,” Farrell said. “But then what became very clear was his awareness of the lineup, and his ability to pitch with a strategy toward that. If you saw it two or three times you would say he got lucky, but he did it so often it was definitely a method to him managing the game.”
It all paints the picture of somebody who is figuring it out, which is definitely a priority when hoping for continued payoff on your six-year investment.
Matsuzaka began to understand that it might not be wise to throw quite as much between starts, and that this strike zone he was working with wasn’t as friendly as the one he left behind in Japan.
It was, however, the alteration of what was once considered one of the pitcher’s biggest selling points upon reaching the United States that may have served him best.
Less became more for Matsuzaka.
“He didn’t throw his split or his curveball that much,” Farrell said. “He made his slider a little bit bigger and a little less powerful, so that was a pitch that gave him a little bit more separation in terms of velocity. And then he would use his cutter. But his two-seamer is what I think made the most strides for him.”
So if you’re looking for a turning point, circle June 13 on your calendar.
On a rainy afternoon in Cincinnati – ironically, the same day Curt Schilling threw his last pitch in a Red Sox uniform – Matsuzaka waited out one wave of showers after another to show Farrell a sign that a new and improved pitcher might be on the horizon. For one of the first times, the righty showed his pitching coach that the two-seam fastball with which he had been only tinkered throughout his professional career might actually become one of his most important weapons.
A pitch that few throw in Japan – partly because of the difference in the baseball – was now being embraced by the second-year major leaguer.
“Last year, in ’07, he threw the two-seamer later in the year just to try and get something on the right-handers," said Farrell. “And to his credit, he’s aware of the adjustments that need to be made, and then he sets out on a plan.
“But in that bullpen session in Cincy he showed an ability to throw it both to the outside part of the plate for right-handers and in to left-handers. It opened up a whole new area of the plate that allowed him to attack left-handers. He understood how he has to pitch inside the strike zone with some action rather than always trying to expand the zone, hoping hitters would chase.”
The changes won’t stop here. Farrell points out that Matsuzaka has committed to changing his offseason program a bit, stressing the importance of coming into camp good overall physical condition, especially with the wrinkle that the World Baseball Classic promises to bring.
But it is all trending in the direction for which one would hope from a pitcher carrying such a large commitment. And that’s a notion that tends to escape too many big-ticket pitchers these days.
So take notice as baseball teams open their checkbooks in the pursuit of promise this offseason. This Matsuzaka kid looks like a pretty good investment.