It is impossible to label it an imperative evening -- there isn’t really anything that amounts to an important start in April -- but tonight is sort of the beginning of figuring out Daisuke Matsuzaka’s American baseball fate.
Is he really the pitcher the Red Sox felt confident enough to dump $100 million worth of confidence into? Or is he little better than a No. 3 starter, more valuable to the franchise in terms of overseas marketing and development?
Is he really a Cy Young Award contender, as some have opined? Or is he destined for simply a nice, healthy career like that of fellow Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo?
Is he willing to adapt his arsenal for the American game? Or will he continue to nibble at corners and frustrate those who think he has the stuff to go after hitters more?
It has been widely suggested that this is the season in which we watch Matsuzaka mature in the majors. This will be the year that we watch the maddening aspects of Matsuzaka’s game phase out following a season of adjustment. He’ll pitch with more efficiency, go deeper into games, and give the Red Sox a devastating 1-2 punch with Josh Beckett at the top of the rotation.
One start down, and we’ve seen none of it.
While Beckett may be the most important player in the Red Sox’ quest to repeat asWorld Series champs, perhaps no other is as pivotal as Matsuzaka, who could serve as the swing man in those dreams. If he’s very good, start printing up playoff packages. If he’s what he was last season -- adequate to very good depending upon the start -- the late-season pennant push will be a grind in a pitching-rich AL East.
As much as A’s folks are trying not to get too geeked up over what they saw from Rich Harden last week in Japan, the Red Sox and their fans aren’t putting too much into Matsuzaka’s so-so opening to the 2008 season (five innings, two hits, two runs, five walks) against Oakland, a no-decision in an eventual Red Sox 6-5 win.
Matsuzaka, after all, got the start in his native land, knowing deep down that he was the reason why the rest of his teammates had to traipse across the world. The pressure in that situation is understandable, yet the performance of Matsuzaka was familiar enough to spark the same twinges of uncertainty: getting behind hitters, going too deep into counts, eventually walking too many, and taxing a bullpen by reaching the century mark in pitches far earlier than a pitcher of his caliber should.
It looked little different than 2007, when, as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci recently pointed out, “Matsuzaka was especially poor in full counts. He walked 15.7 percent of hitters in full counts, worse than the league average of 12.6 percent. And hitters batted .247 against him at 3-and-2, again leaving him worse than the league average (.232).” That might suggest a learning curve that needs to finish its circumference, but it also might tell us more about the Japanese culture of pitching. Perhaps part of Matsuzaka’s approach is that he’s genuinely not concerned with pitch counts, and would be willing to toss 120-plus pitches over seven innings before calling it a day. In that respect, 96 pitches over five innings might not be so bad in his mind.
Here is what two scouts told the Globe’s Nick Cafardo they saw after Matsuzaka’s 2008 debut:
Scout 1: "I still don't believe he has top-of-the-rotation stuff. His fastball is low 90s and he doesn't always command his fastball. If he doesn't have command, the rest of his stuff isn't exceptional enough. Will he get better? Of course he can. He won 15 games last year and he could win as many again. I don't think he puts fear in the opposition, though."
Scout 2: "I think if he does command the fastball and becomes more comfortable in his surroundings, he'll be a No. 2 and maybe even a No. 1. I think the hype was far greater than the pitcher we see, but I think you have to give the kid a little time to adapt to facing American League hitters who come at you all the time."
The hype, of course, plays a big part in perception vs. reality. Matsuzaka never won more than 17 games with the Seibu Lions, and burst into the American League with a 15-win campaign. His 204 2/3 innings were the second-most he has pitched over a season in the last six years. And as Verducci points out, “He did win 15 games and strike out more than 200 batters. Only four other pitchers did that in their first year: [Doc] Gooden, Mark Langston, Herb Score and Grover Cleveland Alexander.”
That’s pretty good company. But yet, we expect -- we demand -- more out of the Japanese star.
The reality could be that this is Matsuzaka, a pitcher who’s going to be maddening to watch at times, yet finish the season with 15-16 wins to his credit, as well as 200 strikeouts and 85 walks. His ERA may hover around 4.00 and there will plenty of complaints from the fan base that he’s a big time bust, which of course, is not true.
Maybe he’s not the ace that we thought prior to the 2007 season, when Matsuzaka mania was at such a fever pitch that nobody could have been expected to live up to the hype. As good as he looked in many starts, he looked just as bad in others. In September and October, he simply petered out, posting 7.62 and 5.03 ERAs respectively. Prior to the All-Star break, Matsuzaka was 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA. After the Midsummer Classic, 5-6 with a 5.19 ERA. Despite pitching 34 2/3 fewer innings in the second half, hitters hit just about the same against Matsuzaka (.252 vs. .242 in the first half), but his walks increased and Matsuzaka ended up allowing just two fewer runs (49 to 51) than he did in the first half of the season.
This is what’s so frustrating about watching Matsuzaka. It’s not that we think he could be better, but we know he could be. It’s not his pitching that has thus far received mixed reviews, but his perceived approach to pitching. In many ways, those are the same. But more specifically for Matsuzaka, it’s the mental part of the American game that seems to have yet compelled him. Trust in the offspeed pitches. Get ahead of hitters. Lay off the bacon double cheeseburgers, which was Matsuzaka’s choice of lunch yesterday.
This may be the best we see out of Matsuzaka, which isn't all that bad. Frustrating, yes. Disappointing, sure. Disastrous? Hardly.
If that's the case, there may always be the assumption that it was for a lack of trying to adapt to a different culture of pitching. That immersion continues tonight in Oakland with Matsuzaka’s performances beneath increasingly magnified criticism.