|Verducci on Matsuzaka’s Future|
Written by Daniel Paulling (Contact & Archive) on April 27, 2009
Daisuke Matsuzaka won 18 games for the Red Sox last season and looked like a fairly good No. 3 starter. If he were able to limit his number of walks, you could make the argument that Matsuzaka was a solid No. 2.
Boston placed Matsuzaka on the disabled list with shoulder stiffness. Some are quick to blame the World Baseball Classic for this injury, but Tom Verducci offers another viewpoint, one that probably better explains Matsuzaka's predicament.
Matsuzaka was 26 when he joined the big leagues, the same age as when Hideo Nomo made his jump. The other relevant comparisons are Kaz Ishii (28 when he joined MLB), Hideki Irabu (28) and Masato Yoshii (33).
Nomo, Ishii, Irabu and Yoshii all had initial success. But the third and fourth seasons became treacherous. Nomo was much worse in his third year and released by the Dodgers in his fourth year. Ishii was done after his fourth year. Irabu made only five more starts after his fourth year. Yoshii was released after his third year.
Here is one way to measure the track record that concerned Boras two years ago. I took the combined stats for the pitchers in question for their first two seasons. (In the case of Irabu, who made only nine starts in his first season, 1997, I took his 1997-99 numbers.) Then I compared those numbers to how they pitched in their third season.
In every case, the third year was a pothole. Their ERAs soared and, in all but one case, their strikeout rate dropped. Nomo did recover to post two good seasons with the Dodgers later in his career, but otherwise he was mostly ordinary after the initial burst.
The biggest concern for such a track record is the difference in how pitchers are used in Japan and in the majors. Matsuzaka pitched every sixth or seventh day in Japan in a shorter season, but his individual pitch counts wouldn't be allowed in America. He threw, for instance, 250 pitches in a high school game, 189 pitches on Opening Day 2003, 160 pitches in his second start of 2005 and 145 pitches in his penultimate start before signing with Boston. Perhaps most ominously, Matsuzaka threw 588 innings as a pro in Japan as a teenager.
As former Red Sox teammate Curt Schilling said back in 2007, "He is a big league ace in the making. The question is, does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at 39?"
That kind of abuse doesn't necessarily show up in a pitcher's arm or shoulder the next season. In fact, repeated years of abuse -- there is no other word to describe what Matsuzaka went through -- can take a while to show up. This may be the start of a few injury-plagued seasons for Matsuzaka.
Also, don't expect Matsuzaka to age gracefully. He nibbles at the plate, and pitchers who do that need to have exceptional command. Matsuzaka doesn't. If he continues to fall behind in counts -- he did lead the AL in walks last season -- look for hitters to square up Matsuzaka's fastball, which definitely won't be in the mid-90s for long.
Boston's only got three more seasons on Matsuzaka's contract after this one.