Two innings. Just 16 batters faced. Seven runs. 42 pitches. Those short sentences, in a twitch-inducing nutshell, make up Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s start against the Tampa Bay Rays last night. It is painful to go into more detail unless you are a Rays’ fan, but relive the start we must, for how else will we learn?
Thanks to mlb.tv, I was able to go back and check Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s targets against where Dice-K’s pitches actually ended up. As you can discern, given the final score, Matsuzaka wasn’t so good with the hitting of his spots in the second inning.
Ben Zobrist led off the inning. Salty setup low in the strike zone, but down the middle for the first pitch–Matsuzaka left it down the middle, belt high, but for strike one. For the second pitch, Saltalamacchia setup nearly in the right-handed batter’s box for the lefty Zobrist, but Dice-K left a fat breaking ball over the middle, belt high yet again, and it went for a double the other way.
B.J. Upton drew a walk in six pitches in the next plate appearance–strangely enough, despite the free pass, this is the one batter faced during the carnage where Matsuzaka was able to hit his intended targets. Salty continued to setup outside and either in the middle or high portions of the strike zone, and Matsuzaka hit his targets for the most part, though once Upton stopped pulling the trigger on balls out of the strike zone, he was able to trot to first.
Things went south after that. Saltalamacchia setup middle-in on Felipe Lopez, and Dice-K threw a ball out of the zone down the middle. Salty setup in the same place for the next pitch, and Matsuzaka nearly threw a ball in the dirt. Pitch four was an honest-to-goodness quality pitch, as Matsuzaka threw a changeup in a fastball count and got Lopez swinging at it, but, on the very next pitch, he threw a flat fastball right down the middle, thigh high, and Lopez got a hit out of it.
John Jaso came up with the bases loaded, so the emphasis was on throwing strikes. Salty setup in the zone, down the middle, but just knee high–Jaso would have to golf it and may pop up if he made contact. Instead, Matsuzaka gift wrapped it, throwing it right down the middle between the thighs and his belt.
Reid Brignac was next, and once again, the at-bat was over in one pitch. Saltalamacchia setup outside, thigh-high, and Matsuzaka delivered the pitch in the middle of the zone, right at the belt–he couldn’t have caught more plate with the pitch if that was his intended goal. Dice-K got the wheelhouse hat trick with his next offering to Sam Fuld, as the pitcher took another thigh-high, outside target from Salty and turned it into a middle, belt-level meatball–this one ended up wrapped around the Pesky Pole, clearing the bases and eliciting boos.
To say he lacked command does a disservice to players who struggle with their pitch location.
The chart below shows the pitches Dice-K threw last night that had results, be they outs, hits, walks, whatever. Notice a pattern?
If you read the above, you have already visualized this chart, but just to hammer the point home, look at that pitch distribution. None of those pitches in the middle were supposed to be where they ended up.
You have heard me complain about Dice-K’s inability to attack hitters, and how his nibbling causes him to be worse than he should be, but the very worst version of Matsuzaka is the one that cannot hit his spots and turns every pitch into an adventure down the middle of the plate.
The Red Sox were encouraged by Matsuzaka’s improvement in his pitches per plate appearance during the last two months of the 2010 season, as he dropped from his career of 4.0 P/PA to 3.8–not great, but better than giving every hitter he faces, as I wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2011, “the patience of Wade Boggs.” The problem is, over the last two months of the season, Matsuzaka was worse than he had been when he was using more pitches per hitter. He was hit harder earlier in the count during his final 64 innings–his ERA was 5.34 during that stretch, whereas it was 4.22 beforehand.
Those are small samples, of course, but the problem is that Matsuzaka doesn’t understand how to pitch more aggressively, and doesn’t have the command to pull off what he does know. When he doesn’t nibble, he “attacks” the zone with easily hittable pitches.
This is even more of a problem at Fenway, where Matsuzaka has a career 4.72 ERA, 1.8 K/BB, 0.9 HR/9, and an opponent line of .258/.347/.420 (and .269/.359/.468 since 2009). On the road, he is somewhat better: 3.88 ERA, 2.0 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, and an opponent line of .235/.327/.370 (.274/.357/.407 since 2009). Fenway kills whatever chance he has of being effective, and that isn’t going to change.
His first start in Cleveland went better, although not by much–he struck out just two, walked three, gave up a homer, and lasted just five innings. Dating back to August 1, he has a 6.08 ERA, 1.3 HR/9, a 1.8 K/BB ratio, and is averaging under six innings per start. It is getting to the point where Boston has to replace him in the rotation with someone who can actually put together the production of a fifth starter. Just 10 games in to the season, it is far too early to panic about this Red Sox team, but throwing Matsuzaka out there every fifth day to get shelled is is not going to help them pull themselves out of the hole they are digging.
There is talk of Matsuzaka being the “scapegoat” for Boston’s poor start, but, unlike Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, or any of the hitters who are not yet where they should be with their production, there is no reason to believe he is anything but what he has shown himself to be. “Scapegoat” makes it sound like this is unwarranted, like the concern over his performance and the calls for him to lose his rotation spot are uncalled for and undeserved. What, exactly, has Matsuzaka done in the last three years that would lead you to believe losing his spot in the rotation has not been something he has earned?