The Strange Season of Daisuke Matsuzaka

First in an occasional series reviewing the seasons of key members of the 2008 Boston Red Sox.

  • PECOTA projection: 13-8, 3.90/1.29/.238, 191 IP, 170 K, 67 BB
  • 2008 results: 18-3, 2.90/1.32/.211,167.2 IP, 154 K, 94 BB, 158 ERA+

Is Daisuke Matsuzaka the next Chien-Ming Wang? That is, has he found a unique style of pitching that turns established theories of what makes a pitcher successful on their head? It’s a bit too soon to tell, as he was only a mediocre pitcher in 2007, so has had only one season of success with his maddening style of refusing to give up the hit while seemingly willing to surrender walks in droves.

There’s no direct evidence that Matsuzaka intends to do this. He’s never said, "I’d rather give up a walk than a hit," but it seems to be one of the only explanations for the way he pitches — nibbling the corners, tempting batters to swing but never giving them a good pitch to hit.

The results are a decent WHIP (1.324, identical to 2007) created by the combination of lousy walk numbers (94 allowed, most in the AL) and terrific hit numbers (6.8 H/9, best in the AL). Not since Nolan Ryan in 1977 has a pitcher had such a unique line — a WHIP over 1.30, with fewer than than 7 hits allowed per nine innings and an ERA below 3.00. For that matter, it’s only happened six times. Matsuzaka’s ERA+ is second-best to Hal Newhauser’s 161 in 1942 among all pitchers with a WHIP of at least 1.30 and a H/9 of no more than 7.0 in one season.

The problem with such a style, of course, is not that it’s aggravating to watch — that’s a reflection of our own value systems, and it’s certainly not up to the pitcher to make his appearances more aesthetically pleasing. The problem is that it pushes Matsuzaka’s pitch count higher and puts an increased load on the bullpen.

Matsuzaka wasn’t the worst at getting out of the sixth inning, but he wasn’t good. His 14 appearances of 5.2 innings or less was tied for 13th in baseball; the leaders were Barry Zito and Manny Parra. The difference is the results.

In those 14 games, Matsuzaka went 7-3, and the Red Sox went 8-6. Although none qualify as a quality start under the conventional definition (6 IP/3 ER), Matsuzaka posted at least a 50 game score five times, and at least 45 another five times. Only three times did he give up more than three runs, and eight times he threw 100 pitches or more.

Compare that to Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, who also had 14 starts without going 6 innings. He went 0-6, and the Rays 3-11 in those starts. He broke 100 pitches just three times, allowed more than three runs eight times, and never posted a game score above 48. Or Greg Maddux, who went 3-6. His teams went 6-8. He never broke 100 pitches, and eight times allowed more than three runs. Only three times did he post a game score of 50, with another two times getting above 45.

Of the 20 other pitchers in baseball this season with at least 14 starts shorter than six innings, no one else had a winning record in those appearances or even came close to having so many quality starts. Matsuzaka’s seven wins in short starts led the majors by two (and was third-best in a season since 1956), and his 10 such starts with at least a 45 game score also led the majors (and was fourth-best since 1956).

This is all a bit misleading, however, because Matsuzaka showed some encouraging signs in the final months of the year.

In August and September — excepting a final, four-inning tuneup loss to New York — Matsuzaka went 7-0 in 10 games with a 2.43 ERA. More importantly, he went fewer than six innings just three times, and went seven or more four times. He still walked a lot (4.4 per nine), but he struck out twice as many, and in half those starts he allowed just two free passes while striking out six or more.

Take that back another four starts, and Matsuzaka went 9-1 with a 2.54 ERA, with 10 starts of six innings or longer. After failing to make it out of the sixth inning nine times in his first 14 starts, that occurred just four times in his next (and essentially final) 14. Not surprisingly, he went from allowing 49 walks in 75 innings over the first 14, to allowing 43 walks in 88.2 innings in the next 14 — a drop from 5.9 walks per nine innings to 4.3. His strikeouts also jumped, from 7.8 per nine to 8.5.

Splitting the season exactly in half at July 1, Matsuzaka from then on compiled 16 starts and threw 97.2 innings — just about on track for a 200-inning season and an average of more than six innings per start.

That has the look to me of a pitcher still finding his way, making adjustments, learning what he can and cannot do. If the Red Sox in 2009 get the pitcher they had after July 1 (.214/.319/.319 line allowed), he may be the ace they were seeking — no caveats required.

4 comments… add one
  • Fascinating post. I really believe he’s the real deal, after two years of observation. The high walk line means he will occasionally get torched, as, indeed, most pitchers do. But I’m impressed by his ability to keep the ball down in the strike zone and to get strikeouts. I think it’s somewhat misleading to say he was mediocre last year. He lost a whole bunch of very close decisions that might have placed a very different slant on that season. Give him an extra few wins, and then subtract his worst couple of starts, and then what does his season look like? The bottom line, for me, is that for 2 seasons he has been a very difficult pitcher to score against most of the time, and he is still relatively young and adjusting to a new league, system, and length of schedule. I’m not saying he’s a #1 hall-of-fame caliber ace, but this is a very, very good pitcher. I suspect the Sox are pleased with their investment.

    YF October 22, 2008, 6:42 pm
  • Just looking at his stats now, i’d also note this. The discrepancy in his 2007-2008 numbers is pretty glaring, and you don’t need super complex metrics to see it. It’s home runs. In 2007 he gave up 25. In 2008, 12. The IP numbers make the comparison a little less direct than 1:1 but this seems to me the obvious reason for his improvement. I assume his natural rate is going to be somewhere between the two numbers, and i suspect, given his propensity to keep the ball down, on the low side. If that’s true, I see no reason for him not to repeat his success.

    YF October 22, 2008, 6:50 pm
  • The key to Daisuke’s success is that cute little butt wiggle he does during his wind up.
    This move no doubt has most batters absolutely mesmerized.

    SoxFan October 23, 2008, 6:50 am
  • I know it has me mesmerized. Yowza.

    Hit Dog November 14, 2008, 12:21 pm

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