Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Like the six-man rotation, Daisuke Matsuzaka never really panned out

Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn't generated a whole lot of smiles this season. Photo from this site.

Daisuke Matsuzaka rendered all the chatter about a six-man rotation moot by getting lit up again Friday, when he gave up six runs on eight hits and two walks in just four innings as he fell to 1-5 by losing to the Braves. To the surprise of no one, the Sox announced Saturday that Matsuzaka’s next turn in the rotation would be skipped and then placed him on the disabled list Sunday with "shoulder weakness."

Maybe Matsuzaka is just having a bad season and stashing him away is a matter of sparing he and the Sox more embarrassment. And make no mistake: This IS a historically bad season. As Tony Massarotti wrote last week, Matsuzaka is faring this badly even with some of the best run support in baseball. He should be 5-1 in spite of himself.

But Matsuzaka’s mysterious ailment—this is the second time he’s been disabled this season and the third time in 12 months—conjures up memories of Matt Clement, who was sidelined in 2006 with an injury that nobody could quite identify until he went under the knife and learned his right shoulder had basically exploded. Clement never threw another pitch in the big leagues, and it’s worth wondering when or if Matsuzaka will ever start again—if not in the majors, then certainly with the Sox.

Even if Matsuzaka is reasonably healthy by spring training, the Sox can’t justify heading into 2010 with him ahead of the likes of Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden. Under John Henry, the Sox have been reluctant to eat money in order to move an underachieving player, but the guess here is the Sox will make the Edgar Renteria exception and absorb some or all of his contract in order to ship him to a National League team.

Regardless of what happens to Matsuzaka and for whom he pitches between now and the end of his contract in 2012, we can presume that this weekend’s news also renders moot the talk that Matsuzaka—whose workload and between-starts regiment in Japan were legendary—could prove that Major League Baseball teams were too careful with their pitchers and unreasonably tethered to the concept of the pitch count.

Even in the midst of all the gushing about Matsuzaka’s revolutionary potential, though, there were notes of caution. Buried in the end of the Tom Verducci story linked above were quotes from the Sox as well as Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, indicating some level of concern over his ability to remain healthy long-term as well as the possibility that Matsuzaka couldn’t throw until exhaustion and beyond and expect to succeed against deeper and more potent American League lineups. (I’m going to presume Boras didn’t express such sentiments during negotiations, during which he said Matsuzaka would be known in America as “Fort Knox”)

So why, then, did the Sox sign Matsuzaka to a six-year deal if history did indeed suggest that Japanese pitchers tailed off dramatically after their second year in America?

In the interest of full disclosure, I bought into much of the Matsuzaka hype following the 2006 season, when I thought he was a better risk than anybody else the Sox could have signed or acquired (alas, the story I wrote for Ye Former Employer was for premium subscribes only). He was only 26, he allowed the Sox to spread Red Sox Nation worldwide and they barely spent more to sign him ($52 million) than they did for the right to negotiate with him ($51.1 million). And even the total outlay was about $23 million less than what the Giants spent for Barry Zito, who was the top starter on the 2006 free agent market.

Zito’s got a much better chance of going down as one of the all-time worst free agent signings (he’s 25-37 with a 4.77 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP for the Giants) than he does of living up to that deal. If Matsuzaka is finished—whether as an effective starter or for good—he won’t join the company of Zito and Mike Hampton, even if his peak looks like one of the great fluke seasons of all-time: Matsuzaka finished fourth in the AL last year with 18 wins and third with a 2.90 ERA despite throwing just 167 2/3 innings and leading the league with 94 walks.

In addition, signing Matsuzaka seemed like a reasonably safe investment at the time because the Sox—as hard as it is to imagine now, what with me spending the last week foaming at the mouth about how to work six starters into five spots—had an incredibly thin rotation. Fourteen pitchers made at least one start for the Sox in 2006, but only three of those hurlers—Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield—made as many as 16 starts.

Schilling, Wakefield and David Wells, all of whom were at least 40 years old by New Years Eve 2006, combined to make 62 starts. Nine starts were made by pitchers who began the season at Double-A (Kason Gabbard, David Pauley and Devern Hansack). Lenny DiNardo, Jason Johnson and Kevin Jarvis combined for 15 starts. Kyle Snyder was designated for assignment by the Royals in June and then made 10 starts for the Sox.

The Sox could not have known that their young and homegrown pitchers would mature so quickly and present them with the surplus of starting pitching they now enjoy. When Matsuzaka was signed, Beckett was coming off his first 200-inning season, one in which he posted a 5.01 ERA, and Jon Lester had just been treated for cancer. Neither Clay Buchholz nor Michael Bowden had pitched an inning above Single-A. Now, Beckett has a 20-win season under his belt, Lester has thrown a no-hitter and looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball and the Sox’ rotation is so deep that Buchholz and Bowden can’t crack it and are stuck dominating Triple-A.

Maybe that’s Matsuzaka’s legacy in Boston: One of the placeholders who bought the Sox time to nurture that young talent. Not bad, but not what you’d want for $103 million, either.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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