And you thought comparing a National League pitcher to his American League counterparts could be daunting.
For all the mind-boggling dollars the Red Sox are prepared to sink into Japanese pitching star Daisuke Matsuzaka -- an investment that will likely top $100 million by the time a contract is agreed upon -- the bottom line remains that nobody is quite sure how he'll fare once arriving in America. While names like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are most commonly associated with Matsuzaka, guys like Hideki Irabu and -- while not Japanese -- Robinson Checo remain the primary concerns about importing unknown commodities into the major leagues.
It was just a year ago too, remember, that plenty hailed Boston's trade for Josh Beckett as the most significant since Pedro Martinez. Today, Hanley Ramirez, the shortstop prospect dealt to the Marlins in that deal, is the NL Rookie of the Year, while the Red Sox hope Beckett will see steady progress in 2007 after struggling a good portion of his first season in the junior circuit. More encouraging was that the 26-year-old won a career-high 16 games. Less encouraging was his career-high 5.01 ERA.
If Beckett's adjustment to the more powerful AL was an often-bumpy period, what exactly should we expect out of an imported arm from halfway across the earth?
By most accounts, plenty.
According to Japanese Players.com (which already classifies Matsuzaka as Red Sox property), here are his stats over eight years with the Seibu Lions:
As Jeff Sackmann of The Hardball Times puts it, those are Johan Santana numbers, which easily classify as No. 1 starter and Cy Young material in the American League. But if we consider the NL inferior to the AL, how should we treat the Nippon Professional Baseball League?
One way to predict Matsuzaka's stats would be Jim Albright's method for adjustment, which even the author admits has its flaws.
The means for calculating pitching runs came from Bill James' component ERA. I tried to use component ERA on the existing conversions of hits, homers, walks, and homers, and it was quite clear that my conversion factors worked poorly, especially the ones for walks and strikeouts. A major problem, beyond even the fact these particular statistics do not seem to project quite as well as many of the others, was that the factors were based on the hitters that played in both leagues.
The Matsuzaka Watch Blog, which contains any and all projections, news, and rumor about the Japanese pitcher, uses Albright's method and projects the following numbers for Matsuzaka in the majors, based on his 2005 season:
28 games started
215 innings pitched
185 hits allowed
16 homers allowed
63 walks allowed
8.37 strikeouts per nine innings
3.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Then again, Albright hasn't exactly been on the money with his projections over the past decade. Sackmann was also skeptical, so he attempted to use a different method.
It seems well established that the NPB hosts a higher level of baseball than American Triple-A, but for the sake of argument, let's translate his 2005 NPB stats as if they were accumulated in the International League. (I can't find all the components I need to do this with 2006 stats, so 2005 will have to suffice for now.)2005 IP HR BB K FIP NPB 215 13 49 226 2.56 MLB 215 18 65 189 3.44
So, as long as there's nothing about Matsuzaka that makes him incompatible with success in America, and assuming that the Seibu faces harder competition than Pawtucket does, the upper bound on his ERA these days would seem to be about 3.50.
An ERA of 3.50, by the way, would be nearly a half-run better than the next best pitcher (Curt Schilling) on Boston's 2006 starting staff.
Meanwhile, the folks over at Baseball Prospectus use Clay Davenport's performance translation, which "combines an alternate system to MLE for translating minor league performance with a normalizing step that converts translated performance to a single number on the same scale as batting average." Got that? Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus breaks it down further:
Some terminology to get out of the way: NRA is Normalized Runs Allowed, where the scale to compare a guy against is a world where an average pitcher allows 4.5 runs per nine innings. PERA is a pitcher's ERA based on his peripheral statistics -- his hits, homers, walks allowed, that sort of thing, also set to where 4.50 is the baseline. The two at the end might be particularly foreign to you, but 'dH' describes how many (in this case) fewer hits a pitcher allowed than you might expect, and 'dR' is how many fewer runs. Although BABIP rates fluctuate for most pitchers, there's a level of quality at which it stops looking random and starts speaking to simple dominance, and this comparison indicates that Matsuzaka's one of those guys. The runs element is the sort of thing where a pitcher who induces a lot of double-plays would wind up trending more negative (say, Greg Maddux), and somebody like Nolan Ryan -- poor fielder, poor at holding runners, and all-time wild-pitch record-holder -- does worse than your average hurler. In this instance, it says that there are no such surprises, for or against.
Using that criteria, Kahrl compares Matsuzaka favorably to Roger Clemens, circa 2003-06, the last three seasons during which the former Sox ace dominated for the Houston Astros.
Davenport's calculations also favorably compare Matsuzaka to Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Josh Beckett, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson, and Jake Peavy. That is indeed good company.
"The only pitcher I would say he seems to be clearly behind is Santana," Davenport writes. "I think Clemens has been ahead, but I'm not sure you can continue to project that at a coming Age-44 season. It's also safe to put Halladay and Oswalt ahead too, although the difference there is slim."
With Matsuzaka, the Red Sox would enter 2007 with a top-of-the-rotation guy to go along with Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Josh Beckett, and Tim Wakefield. And that's before you go and whisper about Clemens' possible return to Boston, which could give the Sox a dominant mix of young and veteran arms that should threaten to win a title in 2007, as well as provide a solid foundation for future seasons. If the Red Sox see vast opportunity in selling their name in Japan, perhaps a related question is how much more cash they could recoup on a new generation of “21” t-shirts and jerseys?
Combine those more than favorable projections with the untapped marketing potential the Red Sox will become the beneficiary of in the Far East, and it's evident why such a wealthy investment's risk is more than worth the reward.