October 3, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka (18) throws a pitch during the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When Daisuke Matsuzaka was considered an ace

Since Daisuke Matsuzaka made his first start of the season for the New York Mets earlier this week, I thought it would be appropriate to look back on the “best” season of his career.

On Feb. 23, 2007, the Boston Red Sox signed the Japanese pitching star to a six-year, $52 million contract. They had additionally paid $51.11 million for his rights so, in total, Boston spent $103.11 million to get him to wear a Red Sox uniform.

At the time, the signing was deemed a win for the Red Sox organization, despite the money coming out of its pocketbook. Matsuzaka had accumulated an 108-60 record with a 2.95 ERA during eight seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan, and he was baseball’s top prize. No prior Japanese-born player in the history of baseball demanded more attention than he did, not even Hideki Matsui or Hideo Nomo. The 26 year old was viewed as the next ace to toe the rubber in Major League Baseball.

But things didn’t go according to plan, aside from 2008, Matsuzaka’s second season with the Red Sox.

Matsuzaka’s first season with the Red Sox in 2007 might not have been exactly what Boston’s front office had in mind when they signed him, but it was a perfectly acceptable way to start his Major League career. He posted a relatively high 4.40 ERA, but a 4.23 FIP when league average was 4.47. Technically, he was an above average pitcher. Plus, he won 15 games on the way to helping the Red Sox win the World Series.

When 2008 rolled around, expectations were even higher for the right-hander, and he lived up to them and then some. Matsuzaka had the ninth-best ERA (2.90) in baseball and went 18-3. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting behind Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Francisco Rodriguez. The Red Sox seemed to have struck gold, and according to the baseball world, Matsuzaka had become an ace.

However, the hard truth is that Matsuzaka wasn’t much better in 2008 than he was in 2007. In fact, you could make the argument that he was worse, and just happened to be more lucky.

Let’s compare his first two seasons in the big leagues.

red sox

The first thing you’ll notice is that Matsuzaka’s FIP improved in his second season, but it improved only slightly, and since FIP does a better job of predicting a pitchers future performance, his lowered earned run average, which shrunk by 1.50, wasn’t as impressive as it might have seemed. Furthermore, he was worth even less wins in 2008 according to WAR.

He actually struck out fewer hitters, made fewer of them swing and miss and walked a considerable amount more. His line-drive percentage, which usually is a good indicator of hits, didn’t change. The only big difference from the chart is his opponent’s batting average on balls in play. BABIP has to be taken with a grain of salt because it is flaky and can vary. It also has a lot to do with luck. If a pitcher has a high strikeout rate, he usually allows weaker contact versus a pitcher who has a low strikeout rate. Weak contact means a low BABIP. However, Matsuzaka’s strikeout rate took a small dive in 2008, yet his BABIP dropped by 41 points. In reality, his BABIP should have gone up, but clearly Matsuzaka had an extreme amount of luck on his side.

That luck ran out after the 2008 season as his numbers dropped off a mountain cliff in 2009 and continued to plummet from there. In his last four seasons with Boston, Matsuzaka failed to record an ERA lower than 4.69. He was granted free agency after the 2012 season and signed with the Cleveland Indians, but never appeared in a Major League game with them. Matsuzaka signed with the Mets later that year and made seven uneventful starts (4.42 ERA). The Mets re-signed him this winter, and the now 33 year old has a 3.21 ERA in 18 games (two starts).

Looking back on it, predicting Matsuzaka’s fall from grace (if you can call it that) was possible. Playing professional baseball in Japan and playing Major League Baseball are two different animals. Some can make the transition eloquently — see Yu Darvish and Masashiro Tanaka — while others fail to make the adjustment. Unfortunately, Matsuzaka fell into the latter category.

Tags: Boston Red Sox Daisuke Matsuzaka New York Mets

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