Up in arms

In the month of July, all Daisuke Matsuzaka has managed to do is go 1-0 in three starts with 0.49 ERA. Overall, he’s 10-1 with a 2.65 ERA and conceivably could have 12-13 wins if he hadn’t missed a month with shoulder fatigue.

Looks like an ace. Sounds like an ace.

But Matsuzaka is, of course, no ace, thanks to his continued maddening inability to throw strikes consistently. Matsuzaka is fourth in the AL with 57 walks, despite having pitched only 88 1/3 innings, far fewer than top three Daniel Cabrera (62 walks in 134 innings), Dana Eveland (60 in 118.1), and A.J. Burnett (59 in 133).

Then again, no other AL starter with anywhere from 80 to 100 innings pitched this season has allowed fewer hits than Matsuzaka, whose 65 contribute to a bizarre hits-to-walk ratio that’s dangerously creeping to 1:1. In nine of his 16 starts, Matsuzaka has allowed four or fewer hits.
In seven of his 16 starts, Matsuzaka has walked four or more, including three times in which he doled out six or more free passes, which includes the two-hitter at Detroit in which he walked eight over five innings and still somehow managed to win.
That game, in fact, sums up Matsuzaka’s season in one tidy package. The escape artist won’t let you breathe for at least one inning per start, but opponents remain 0 for 11 against him with the bases loaded.
A year after his American coming out party, there’s still little consensus that Matsuzaka is the player the Red Sox sold the world for back in late 2006. Yes, that 10-1, 2.65 looks awfully nice, particularly for a guy considered a No. 2. But for the dollars and marketing behind him he remains maddening to watch, bewildering to understand when he comes away with another victory.
The trouble is there is so much good about Matsuzaka’s season that is being overlooked for the main reason that we have to watch. It’s a laboring process to endure Matsuzaka on the mound, not totally unlike what it once was to see Matt Young toss balls in the dirt. That’s not to compare their physical abilities because it’s evident that Matsuzaka is a far superior athlete. But from a standpoint of not putting a foot through the TV, sort of the same guy.
It’s difficult to defend the stance that Matsuzaka thus far has been worth the money and the hoopla, but the potential for greatness pops up in flashes all the same. There is just such a difficult balance in determining just how dominant he can be. For indeed, if he found the plate more, logic would suggest he’d allow more hits. That’s not the case now. For instance, when batters run the count to 3-1 against Matsuzaka, they’re hitting him at just a .111 clip, but with a whopping .724 on-base percentage. After the 3-1 count, batters are hitting just .077 against him, yet still with a .561 OBP. Those disparities are not that uncommon from other pitchers in similar situations (When Josh Beckett runs the count 3-1, the opposition puts up a .615 OBP), but the virtual certainty that Matsuzaka is going to dish out at least a quartet of walks per start, and very likely 2-to-3 of them in a single inning, makes it a much more dangerous stat for him, particularly if his luck runs out one day and someone starts eking out a bases-loaded hit or two into center field.
Matsuzaka makes his first start of the second half tonight in Seattle, where the Red Sox aim to make it two straight against a team tied for the worst record in the game and earn just their 23rd road win of the season. Matsuzaka is 4-0 on the road this year, with an ERA of 2.15, far and away the best of any Boston starter.
He has also walked more (24) batters than he’s allowed hits (20).
It’s his fatal flaw, of course, one that keeps him from being lumped into the discussion of the game’s elite hurlers. Perhaps it is what he is and what he is to be. Looks like an ace, sounds like an ace. Then you watch him and can’t figure it out. He’s 10-1. Batters are hitting .202 against him. And yet … you’re already nervous about having to endure his next start.
That’s tonight. Deep breaths.

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