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Baseball Notes

Matsuzaka’s Sox tenure a tale of two cultures

By Nick Cafardo
April 10, 2011

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When the final chapter of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s major league career is written, what will we have learned?

We have learned about the cultural complexities of Japanese pitchers.

We’ve learned how truly difficult it is to transform a successful Japanese pitcher into a successful major league pitcher.

We have learned that the investment is not only monetary but in time, patience, and resources to make the pitcher’s adaptation to the American culture easier.

Have we also learned that hands off is maybe the best approach?

We remember the hubbub about Dice-K when the Red Sox posted $51 million for the right to negotiate with him four years ago in November. At the time, the Red Sox believed they were getting a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. He was given a contract of six years, $52 million, which made Matsuzaka a $103 million investment by John Henry and Tom Werner. We received projections of 20-plus wins per season, and dominance of the league.

The outlay of money probably hasn’t been worth it. But is it Dice-K’s fault? The Red Sox? Why didn’t this partnership work as expected?

Through all the gyroball nonsense, and the rave reviews about Dice-K’s stuff and his diva status in Japan, the voice of reason has been Bobby Valentine.

The former major league player and manager, and current analyst on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball’’ and “Baseball Tonight’’ was the Chiba Lotte manager for six seasons when Dice-K was the prominent pitcher in Japan. Valentine tried to temper the overexuberance about Matsuzaka. Not that he didn’t believe Matsuzaka was a good pitcher. He knew he was. He just knew the adaptation from Japan to Boston would include some peril. And he was right.

Valentine summed up the great divide between the Japanese baseball way of thinking and the American version: “In Japan the 3-2 count is immortalized. In America it’s frowned upon. The pitch count is a foreign concept in Japan.’’

Valentine said that because the Japanese are not so hung up on pitch counts, battling a hitter and not giving in to him, and then getting him on a 3-2 count is thought to be a great battle between pitcher and hitter.

Valentine is right. That is the fundamental difference in the way Matsuzaka’s pitch counts are perceived here and in Japan. When Dice-K goes to 3-2, people begin to roll their eyes and give it the old, “Here we go again.’’ In Japan, he could run his pitch count as much as he wanted as long he won the battle with the hitter. But as soon as his pitch count reaches 90-something here, it’s time to take him out of the game.

In his first start against the Indians last week, Matsuzaka threw 96 pitches through five innings. He was pitching well. He’d allowed three runs in five innings, and appeared to be getting into a groove. Of course, 96 through five innings isn’t considered a good, economical outing, and Dice-K was pulled for a reliever after that. Afterward, I asked Matsuzaka how he felt about having to leave the game after 96 pitches and whether he felt tired.

He said he easily could have pitched another two innings. His arm is built for that. In Japan, as Valentine pointed out, he probably threw 160-pitch bullpen sessions.

“In six years managing in Japan, I never once had an arm injury,’’ Valentine said.

Valentine said that once the thinking started to change on pitch counts it spelled doom for Japanese pitchers who amass large amounts. Valentine also reminded us that Tom Seaver, Luis Tiant, and Nolan Ryan were three pitchers who threw a lot of pitches and often got deep into the count. That’s the way they set up the hitter to get him out.

“When you look at Dice-K now and the Dice-K who pitched in Japan, he’s different. He used to be a six-pitch pitcher and now he’s a two-pitch pitcher,’’ Valentine said. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good pitcher. He’s pitched important games and he’s won a lot of games. But he’s not throwing his offspeed stuff. He’s been Americanized. It’s nobody’s fault. There was a change in the way things were done here and throwing too many pitches is frowned upon by managers, coaches, and front offices and the Japanese pitchers had to adapt to it.’’

Valentine points out that Hideo Nomo, who also pitched a season for the Red Sox and had a no-hitter, didn’t have a difficult adjustment because Valentine said he was basically a two-pitch pitcher through his major league career. Matsuzaka is far different. Valentine recalls Matsuzaka had no qualms in Japan about throwing a 3-2 breaking ball, or changeup. He could throw all of his pitches on any count and be effective doing it.

Ah yes, but in Japan they pitched once a week. In major league baseball, it’s every five days. But Valentine thinks this is a poor argument for changing Matsuzaka’s approach. Because Japanese pitchers can throw so many pitches, the shorter time between starts should benefit them even more. Interestingly, first-year Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young decided to separate the long-tossing and bullpen side sessions that Matsuzaka used to do in the same day.

Now he long-tosses two days after he pitches and has his bullpen session on the third day. This experiment was tried in spring training and Dice-K responded well to it. But is it really that?

Valentine says he doesn’t blame anyone for Matsuzaka not living up to his billing, but if he had managed him he would have left him alone and allowed him to pitch and prepare just as he did in Japan.

Valentine’s comments make sense. You spend $103 million on a foreign player and you expect him to do it your way?

MANAGING QUITE WELL Transition is smooth for Farrell
It’s tough to figure exactly where the Blue Jays are going. Do they have enough pitching? Will they continue to be a power team capable of winning games, 10-9?

Whatever the case, one thing that has happened is that John Farrell has been accepted as the new skipper of the team. Pitching coaches often have a tough road when it comes to proving themselves and gaining respect, especially from positional players.

Farrell has had a few conversations with Padres manager Bud Black, his former teammate in Cleveland in the mid-’80s. Black has become the poster child for pitching coaches-turned-managers. Black’s basic message is don’t pretend to know all about positional players and how to manage them when you start. He decided to seek the opinions of coaches and the players in putting together a plan on how to manage them.

Farrell has taken a similar approach, leaning heavily on bench coach Don Wakamatsu and third base coach Brian Butterfield for advice. Wakamatsu was a big league manager with Seattle so he understands the process, while Butterfield is considered one of the best all-around coaches in the game.

“He’s been great. Very good communicating with the players,’’ slugger Jose Bautista said of Farrell. “He’s brought a fresh approach to things. Everyone loved and respected Cito [Gaston] but I think our team has taken very nicely to John’s approach about things.

Farrell was surely tested right off the bat. He began the season with starter Brandon Morrow and relievers Octavio Dotel and Frank Francisco on the disabled list. Bautista missed time with family issues. Yunel Escobar suffered a mild concussion. Yet the Jays went 4-2 in their first six games, buoyed by the success of pitching phenom Kyle Drabek, who couldn’t have been united with a better manager than Farrell, who did so much to develop Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz with the Red Sox.

“They have a chance,’’ one American League scout said. “Not sure their young pitching is going to be good enough to get them in contention, but you have to be encouraged by the future and growing with a guy like John Farrell, who you know is going to emphasize the young pitching and maybe get them over the hump.’’

ANOTHER HIT
Not the start Rays wanted The Rays come to Fenway tomorrow but there will be no Manny Ramirez, who retired rather than face a second suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. As a second-time offender, Ramirez would have been suspended for 100 games. So the Rays again have a huge hole in their lineup, especially now with Evan Longoria sidelined with an oblique strain that will keep him out for about three weeks.

The Rays, like the Red Sox, got off to an 0-6 start. This was more understandable for the Rays, who lost a big number of free agents, including left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, and most of their bullpen, including Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Dan Wheeler. Ramirez started 1 for 17, and had one rest day and two personal days before announcing he was through after MLB released a statement Friday that there was an issue with his drug test. He had been booed by Rays fans during his slow start.

Johnny Damon has played the part of team leader, even though he’s been in and out of the lineup with a calf strain.

“It’s early in the season and we’ve had a lot going on and we need to stay together as a team to overcome it,’’ Damon said. “I’ve seen these situations a lot in my career and if you start getting away from each other and guys go their own way when things are tough, it’s not going to work. We have to work this out together as a team. That’s the only way.’’

It’s good the Rays have manager Joe Maddon, who has kept things loose and even-keeled through the poor start. There’s less pressure on Maddon because unlike Terry Francona, he no longer has an elite roster. In fact, the Red Sox outspend the Rays by some $110 million on this season’s payroll. The Rays don’t have a bullpen to speak of, but they do have a good roster for the money.

Their starting pitching still has the potential to be pretty good, though one American League evaluator commented, “For some reason their starters are throwing a lot of their secondary pitches most of the time. Don’t get the reasoning behind it.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. Great seeing Hall of Fame mascot Slider last week in Cleveland. He actually tried to devour my head when I walked by him; 2. When I did my managerial rankings a few weeks back, Manny Acta was 26th. He said last week, “I’m better than 26th and I’m going to prove it to you.’’ A sweep of the Red Sox, a suicide squeeze to win a game, nice bullpen management. He made a good impression; 3. One of the dumbest things you’ll see: teams who employ the shift on Adrian Gonzalez, who hits the ball to the left side; 4. In the first 61 starts made under Buck Showalter, Baltimore pitchers made 40 quality starts; 5. Strange that two AL Central players (White Sox DH Adam Dunn and Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer) and one NL Central player (Matt Holliday) would have their appendix taken out within a week’s time.

Updates on nine 1. Carlos Silva, RHP, Yankees — Silva was out of work longer than expected after being released by the Cubs. For a while, only the Orioles had mild interest, but with Phil Hughes’s velocity way down, the Yankees may need reinforcements. Now, between Silva, who will begin at Single A Tampa, and Kevin Millwood the Yankees have some insurance. The Cubs probably wish they had Silva back with Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells injured.

2. Pudge Rodriguez, C, Nationals — Don’t be surprised to see him available in a trade. The Nationals are reducing his role, and soon will be committing to Wilson Ramos full time. Ramos was the former prospect who had no chance with the Twins with Joe Mauer around. Rodriguez is 39 but can still catch, though he’s slumped to start the season. He entered last night’s game 182 hits shy of 3,000 and would become the first catcher to reach the magical figure.

3. Jim Crane, Houston businessman — He’s sure looking like the future owner of the Astros, though nothing’s official and it’s still subject to the approval of commissioner Bud Selig and the owners. Drayton McLane had put it out about a year ago that the team could be bought for the right price. What that price is remains unknown, though some estimate it could be the mid-to-upper $600 millions. There is a lot of speculation that if Crane got the team, he would try to lure Tampa Bay general manager and Houston native Andrew Friedman to the Astros.

4. Mike Stanton, OF, Marlins — As exciting as Stanton is, he’s had trouble staying on the field. He suffered a quad injury in spring training, which kept him out until the third week of camp. In his first exhibition game, against the Red Sox, he knocked in seven runs, including a pair of three-run homers. Stanton has since been out with a hamstring injury. One thing to watch is whether Stanton gets his cleanup spot back as former Sox draft pick Gaby Sanchez hit .462 in spring training and it has carried over into the season.

5. R.A. Dickey, RHP, Mets — As Tim Wakefield’s career winds down, the next guy to carry the torch as knuckleballer extraordinaire is Dickey. There are few guys who perfect that pitch to the point where they stay around for a long time. Wakefield took the mantle from Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti, and Joe Niekro and Phil Niekro before them. Dickey has a terrific ballpark — Citi Field — to pitch in half the season. He has a 1.99 ERA there, allowing 18 earned runs in 81 1/3 innings.

6. Joel Zumaya, RHP, Tigers — Boy, do the Tigers miss him. He was scheduled to be their seventh-inning reliever but he’s had recurring elbow pain, hasn’t pitched since February, and there’s no telling when he’ll be back. In the meantime, the Tigers blew two games in the seventh last week. Brad Thomas and Enrique Gonzalez aren’t doing the job and this could become a big factor.

7. Fausto Carmona, RHP, Indians — Carmona has to be a pitcher teams would come after if the Indians made him available. They’d likely want a huge package for him, but right now he’s a valuable commodity for a young team. Carmona mesmerized the Red Sox last week when he pitched seven shutout innings. Carmona, in fact, became the first pitcher in 106 years to allow 10 runs in his first start (a 15-10 loss to the White Sox) and no runs in his next start.

8. Fernando Rodney, RHP, Angels — Mike Scioscia really did have a short leash when it came to Rodney. During the offseason it was rumored that Rodney would not last as the team’s closer and that’s when they considered Rafael Soriano. So, Jordan Walden has the job for now. The Angels are awaiting the return of lefty Scott Downs.

9. Alex Gordon, OF, Royals — The Royals waited for him forever, it seems, moving him from third base. Teams had plenty of chances to deal for him, but most felt Gordon was a bust waiting to happen. He got off to a good start, hitting .379 in six games with a home run, five doubles, and four RBIs. He still struggles against lefthanders

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “Bobby Abreu and Ted Williams are doublegangers, each with 525 career doubles.’’ Also, “The Braves’ Jair Jurrjens has an incomplete streak going. He has started, and appeared in 92 games in his career and hasn’t completed any of them. Scott Olsen is second on the all-time list of pitchers who have never completed a start from the beginning of their career; he has 127 incomplete starts. Tony Armas did not have a complete game in all 167 starts of his career.’’ . . . Tomorrow, you can wish Trot Nixon (37), Jason Varitek (39) and Bret Saberhagen (47) happy birthdays.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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