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Matsuzaka in need of a change-up

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 10, 2011 02:56 PM

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Daisuke Matsuzaka has an opportunity this season to look ahead. (Bill Greene / Globe file)

Daisuke Matsuzaka showed up at Red Sox camp today in Fort Myers, Fla., without much fanfare, at least stateside. It is doubtful that there was a phalanx of American-media members staking out Southwest Florida International Airport awaiting his arrival, like four years ago when he showed up for spring training. People don't bivouac at baggage claim for a No. 5 starter.

At that time Matsuzaka Mania was running rampant. We were all turning Japanese and gleefully so, intoxicated by tales of his ability and intrigued by his culture. His signing with the Sox, following a $51.1 million posting fee paid to the Seibu Lions just for the right to talk, dwarfed any of the buzz generated this offseason by the trade for Adrian Gonzalez or the signing of Carl Crawford.

His first start in the big leagues, April 5, 2007 in Kansas City, the Globe had a reporter in Japan to chronicle Japanese baseball fans' reaction to their exalted hero's American baseball debut, which was a seven-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout outing with, believe it or not, just one walk.

Four years later, neither the man, the myth nor the legend have matched the hype. And like the chimerical gyro-ball, Matsuzaka's career is spinning in the wrong direction. Daisuke's foray into American baseball is at somewhat of a crossroads.

For all the talk about rebound seasons for Josh Beckett and John Lackey and what is at stake for closer-under-siege Jonathan Papelbon, no Sox pitcher has as much to prove as Matsuzaka, who will make $10 million in the fifth season of the six-year, $52-million deal that brought him to the Fens.

His career with the Red Sox has been muddled by communication issues with the team, control issues on the mound, deteriorating conditioning and maddening inconsistency. Matsuzaka can throw a near-no-hitter one game, as he did against the Philadelphia Phillies last season, and then allow seven runs while failing to get through the fifth the next, as he did against the New York Yankees.

A new team, a new league, a new culture, it has all seemed to overwhelm Daisuke's senses and his considerable talent. At this point, most denizens of Red Sox Nation probably wouldn't mind if Felix Doubront were the No. 5 starter, not Matsuzaka, and there are no guarantees that he'll be in that role all season long.

Yet, even with two straight cash-for-clunkers campaign, the 30-year-old Matsuzaka's turn in a Red Sox uniform isn't an abject failure, just a major disappointment.

The ballyhooed import has been a member of a World Series-winning team, has a career winning percentage of .630, and posted an 18-win season in 2008.

Speaking with the media prior to "The Red Sox Town Hall" event on Jan. 31 Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was asked how he would characterize Matsuzaka's career.

"Well, I thought he performed really well his first two years as a whole, especially that first year," said Epstein. "He had basically what was an injured season in 2009, and last year bounced back to a certain extent."

His first two seasons, Matsuzaka won 33 games, posted a respectable ERA of 3.72 and had a WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitches) of 1.32. That guy could really help this Sox team, considering that beyond Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (and I have my questions with Clay) there are no certainties in the rotation.

The last two injury-plagued campaigns, Matsuzaka has won 13 games total, posted an ERA of 4.99 and a WHIP of 1.51. Baseball worships at the altar of statistics. However, Epstein thought Matsuzaka, who went 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA last season in 25 starts, pitched above his statistical performance.

"I thought last year was the first year that he pitched better than his numbers indicated or his stuff was better than his numbers indicated," said Epstein. "I think that gives us a little bit of reason for optimism going forward. But if he can approximate next year what he did in either of the first two years we'll be quite happy."

Such an occurrence is not out of the question.

Last season, Matsuzaka's batting average against opponents of balls put in play was .292, according to STATS Inc., which was actually better than that of Jon Lester (.295) and trailed only Clay Buchholz, who ranked 10th in all of baseball at .266, among Red Sox starters. Matsuzaka's number in that category was the same as Cliff Lee and better than Roy Halladay (.296)

(Updated on Feb. 15 to reflect and correct the misuse of batting average on balls put in play:)

Last season, Matsuzaka's on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) against was .706, the second-lowest of his career and better than 2007, when he went 15-12. His batting average against of .240 was also the second-lowest of his career, and the same number that Cliff Lee posted. Matsuzaka's batting average against was lower than Tim Lincecum (.242) and Roy Halladay (.245), which merely proves the old adage that you can get stats to say whatever you want.

But the point is that Matsuzaka's stuff remains far better than that of a generic fifth starter.

Prior to spring training, Epstein said Matsuzaka had been working out extremely hard this offseason and had been in communication with the team. So, there is progress already on two fronts.

The issue with Matsuzaka is something he's out of -- free passes, especially against left-handed batters. He was fourth in baseball last season in walks-per-nine innings (4.33) among pitchers who tossed more than 150 innings. In his nine wins last season, Matsuzaka had a 52-14 strike-out-to-walk differential. In the six losses it was 28-26, and in his 10 no-decisions it was 53-34.

Last year 52 of his 74 walks came against left-handed batters. For his career he has a 2-to-1 walk ratio for lefthanders (185) to righthanders (93). Perhaps, new pitching coach Curt Young can iron this out, and allow Matsuzaka to revert to the pitcher he was his first two big-league seasons, even if that pitcher was not the one who had been advertised as the Pedro Martinez of the Pacific.

That pitcher may never arrive on these shores, but Matsuzaka's future no longer hinges on hyperbole, even though it will always be attached to his career here. Matsuzaka must leave the disappointing past behind and do something he has struggled with much of his time here -- pitch ahead.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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