Spring Profiles: Daisuke Matsuzaka

by Marc on March 4, 2011

in Red Sox

Photo courtesy of slate.com

This isn’t the first time you have heard me express concern over Daisuke Matsuzaka. Back in September, I discussed Dice-K’s history with the club, and how the Red Sox may be better off trading him to open up room in the rotation for a free agent or another acquisition, as he was the lone piece they could upgrade on. There was a follow-up piece that detailed why a move to the bullpen made the most sense for both the Red Sox and Dice-K, who has had problems staying healthy, often pitches himself out of the game early (he’s averaged under six innings per start in his career with Boston) and, as a pitcher with control problems, could benefit from shorter relief stints.

Neither of those events came to pass. Matsuzaka is still in Boston, and still in the rotation. Boston needs him to stick in the rotation–there are already enough question marks surrounding Josh Beckett and his health–as the replacement starters on hand are Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves, two pitchers with their own injury histories. Dice-K has his own lengthy list of aches and pains, which is why the back of the rotation is the only serious question mark Boston has heading into the season.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, we recently hired Corey Dawkins, an athletic trainer who I co-author our injury content with. He has a database that we are integrating into our site, and that database lists every injury–big or small–that has occurred to players over the past several years. Matsuzaka’s career spans that time frame, and it seems there is always something he is dealing with. Below are the injuries that caused him to miss time (there are some other day-to-day ailments, but he didn’t miss any days because of them):

Day-to-Day

  • 4/23/2008: Flu (seven days missed)
  • 2/15/2010: Back strain (38 days)
  • 8/22/2010: Low back stiffness (11 days missed)

15-day DL

  • 5/28/2008: Shoulder strain (24 days missed)
  • 4/15/2009: Shoulder strain (37 days missed)
  • 4/03/2010: Neck strain (28 days missed)
  • 6/08/2010: Forearm strain (16 days missed)

60-day DL

  • 6/20/2009: Right shoulder weakness (87 days missed)

Given his history, chances are good that Dice-K will see more time on the DL in 2011. Matsuzaka crossed the 200 inning threshold in his first season in the states, but has not even come close to it since–167 2/3 innings is his second-highest career total. The depth charts projections are Baseball Prospectus have Dice-K down for 157 innings pitched over 28 starts–that’s a combination of time missed as well as an expectation that he will average around 5 2/3 innings each time out. Neither of those thoughts are appealing, but they are an accurate reflection of his past work.

PECOTA doesn’t think he will be bad when he does make it to the mound, though it’s pretty clear the system still thinks he’s going to pitch himself out of games in the fifth. His projected ERA is 4.14, he is slated to have over eight punch outs per nine innings pitched, and he is also forecasted for 14 quality starts. I’ll be so shocked that my monocle will pop out of my eye if Matsuzaka has an ERA of 4.14, but the rest of it sounds accurate–especially the 4.2 walks per nine and the WHIP of 1.40.

Matsuzaka has had an ERA of 4.14 or lower exactly once in his career, and it was when he was so lucky on balls in play that he posted the lowest hits per nine innings pitched rating in the league. His 2008 season featured a .260 BABIP in a park that inflates BABIP, and even with the lowest rate of hits against in the majors, Matsuzaka still posted a WHIP of 1.32–now, WHIP is pretty much pointless to me outside of its use as a fantasy baseball stat, but as a simple way to show that he still walks far too many people for his own good even when he can avoid giving up hits literally better than anyone in baseball (which was luck, not skill, but either way the point stands). I wrote the Red Sox chapter for Baseball Prospectus 2009, which also served as a history of the 2008 campaign, and this was my comment for Dice-K:

Dice-K was maddening last season, brilliant at times while shutting down the opposition for innings at a time, yet each frame seemed like watching the ninth of an important game with an unreliable closer on the mound, as Matsuzaka would nibble with pitch after pitch rather than putting the hitters away or forcing them into contact. His P/PA increased, as did his walk rate, but fewer home runs and a low BABIP helped him survive that. Dice-K stranded nearly 81 percent of his baserunners thanks to a .164/.285/.288 line with runners in scoring position; relying on both that and his BABIP to hold up in ’09 is just asking for trouble.

Dice-K threw just 59 1/3 innings in 2009 due to the major injury listed above, but he was as horrific as expected when he did make it to the mound (5.76 Run Average, 4.6 walks per nine, 12.3 hits per nine, and four quality starts out of 12). Part of that was injury, and part of that was his own ineffectiveness–the difference between 2008 and the following years is that it didn’t come back to bite him.

Maybe he will hit that 4.14 mark this year, thanks in no small part to the Boston defense, which is expected to be one of the top units in the league. But expecting that ERA is asking a lot, given his history, his inconsistency, his approach–given everything we know about him and his ability. He is supposedly in top (for him) physical and mental shape, which is one of those things that the optimism of the spring makes you want to believe. I’ve heard that song from Dice-K before though, so he’s going to have to prove it’s fact before I can take him and his health at his word.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

BigNachos March 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I remember in 2007, when they signed Matsuzaka, reading about how the Sox’s medical staff was amazed by how structurally clean his shoulder was. Despite all the innings pitched in Japan, his shoulder looked like that of a much younger and much less used pitcher. They attributed these findings to his excellent mechanics and conditioning, and seemed to believe he’d have a long and healthy major league career.

That health lasted all of one season, and he’s struggled with shoulder problems ever since. That seems to be a common theme among imported Asian pitchers.

As the new BP injury guy, do you have any insight as to why these pitchers struggle to stay healthy when coming to the US?

I believe in Japan they generally use a 6-man rotation with one day off per week, so pitchers have 6 days of rest between starts. They also throw much much more between starts.

Is it just that hard to adapt to pitching in games more frequently but doing less throwing on the side? Is it worth trying to juggle starting rotations to allow these pitchers to keep their old one start a week schedule and throwing program?

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Lisa Wood March 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I had high hopes for a trade this year. Or a kick to the curb – whatever – I don’t care how they get rid of him, they just need to do it. I’ve been saying that for three years. It’s pure torture to watch him pitch. And Terry can’t be waiting 5 innings to take him out…

And don’t get me started on Pap…

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Jim March 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

As hard as it can be, ignore for a moment that the Sox committed $100K+ for Dice-K. Now take his numbers, both past and projected and think about him as a 5th starter. He doesn’t seem so bad, does he?

For many teams, Dice-K would be considered the #3 or #4, including the Yankees. The Sox have sufficient depth to survive his injuries and enough quality to not worry about the middling performance. If DK only throws 150 innings, Wake/Dubront/Aceves are there to pickup the difference and the drop off in quality will be non existent and maybe higher.

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doctorogres March 7, 2011 at 9:47 am

Jim, totally agree with you here. He’ll be worth like 2 WAR which will be great from the 5 spot and I’ll skip watching the games he’s scheduled to pitch.

Bill James is predicting a 3.94 FIP over 173 innings, which seems crazy. If that actually happens I will explode. Any thoughts on that, Marc?

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Matt March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I’m on my way back from Florida, where I saw Matsuzaka’s most recent start/catastrophe. Of course it’s spring training so nothing short of injury can really be a catastrophe, but from my seat he sure didn’t look good. He did get some swings and misses, but he also walked guys, ran big counts when he didn’t walk guys, and it seemed to me he gave up lots of hard hit balls. All of which was against what was essentially the Marlins AAA team. It didn’t inspire anything in the realm of confidence.

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bruce meyer March 15, 2011 at 12:42 pm

He stinks, pitch him every six start and use wakefield.

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