Like Daisuke, only goodBy
“Blame Rob Neyer for sending me on this quest, and blame me for most of the confusion over the last few years regarding the gyroball. To answer the most popular questions: Yes, it exists; yes, Daisuke Matsuzaka throws it; yes, I can teach it. That’s just half the story, and the rest is so much more interesting…
One final note on Matsuzaka: the gyroball is really irrelevant when discussing his talent. He has a plus fastball, plus breaking ball, and plus-plus change, which appears to be a forkball. He pitches aggressively with good velocity, movement, and command on all his pitches. He has an innate sense for keeping a batter off the ball, varying his pitches with no discernible sequence. While he tends to use the change as his out pitch, he’ll use any pitch at any count in any situation to any batter. I compared Matsuzaka to Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson due to their demeanor on the mound and their body types, but Clay Davenport’s statistical comparison to Roger Clemens surprised me. The more I think about it, though, the more it holds true. Both are fearless and when standing on the mound–they own the game.”
– Will Carroll, November 15, 2006.
You don’t need me to tell you the sad story of Daisuke Matsuzaka. You know all about the posting fee and the contract, the fabled gyroball that Matsuzaka does not throw, the feuds with management and his difficulty adjusting to American baseball. The Daisuke Matsuzaka story is one we all know and one we all reference when demonstrating the perils of importing Japanese pitchers to Major League Baseball. Yet some five years after the Yankees were outbid by Matsuzaka and watched him go to their biggest rival amid great fanfare only to see him disappoint, they landed their own import, albeit one who came to America four years ago. Kuroda had been watching, observing Daisuke’s transition before deciding himself to come to the United States one year after Matsuzaka. Daniel Barbarisi had the story in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal:
“At the time, [Hiroki Kuroda] was weighing coming to the United States himself, after pitching 11 years in Japan. He saw the initial success Matsuzaka had and decided that he, too, could make the jump overseas.
“Because he was the best pitcher at the time, and everyone thought, well, if he doesn’t succeed in the States, then no one’s going to succeed in the States. So it obviously had a big impact on my decision to come to the States.”
The two men had chatted in Japan and got to know each other better as teammates prepping for the 2006 World Baseball Classic. At the time, Matsuzaka was the best pitcher in Japan, and his name was on everyone’s lips as he considered coming to America to pitch. Kuroda was a good starter in Nippon Professional Baseball, but not a star on Matsuzaka’s level.”
As Barbarisi goes on to tell, the tables have been turned. Most observers would agree that Daisuke’s career has been a disappointment, certainly if judged against the outrageous hype heaped upon him prior to his arrival. But even by most objective measures, Matsuzaka hasn’t exactly been superb. He has constantly struggled to stay healthy, perhaps a product of the difficulty adjusting to pitching every five days. He’s only stayed off the disabled list one season in his career, and last summer he underwent Tommy John surgery. When he was healthy he wasn’t spectacular, going 49-30 over 105 starts. He’s thrown 622 innings of 4.25 ERA ball, a number that matches neatly with his 4.26 FIP. Those are mid-rotation numbers, not sort of numbers one pays over $100 million for over 6 years. They’re certainly not the sort of numbers one sees from Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, or Roger Clemens.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem as if the level of disappointment surrounding Matsuzaka has ever been commensurate with the level of surprise over what Kuroda has been able to bring to the table. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s pitched on the West Coast and saw the playoffs only twice or maybe it’s his age and the fact that he came from a far less renowned Japanese team, but the hype surrounding Kuroda never came close to sniffing Daisuke mania. Check out this prescient scouting report from Mike Plugh exactly one year after Carroll wrote his profile of Matsuzaka:
“He’s not Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Kuroda a very strong power pitcher with a low to mid-90s fastball and a wicked forkball. In addition, he features a plus shuuto, something like a screwball, as well as an effective change. Even if he only pans out as a third or fourth starter in the majors, he will give you innings, work deep into games, and he should be fairly consistent start to start.”
In one fewer season, Kuroda has thrown some 70 innings more than Daisuke (699.0, to be exact) and has started 112 games. He missed significant time in 2009 due to an oblique injury and a concussion suffered when he was struck in the head by a batted ball, but in the three other seasons he’s been as durable as Plugh expected. His numbers have been better than Daisuke’s as well, even if he was pitching in the NL West: he’s gone 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA and 3.55 FIP. True to form, he’s shown a good, hard fastball and shuuto (which is more of a two-seamer or sinker than a screwball), and generates a ton of groundballs while limiting his walks. In sum, he’s not the ace Daisuke was supposed to be, but he hasn’t been as bad as Daisuke was either.
When thinking a way to put this piece together I asked Over the Monster‘s Marc Normandin if he had written anything lately putting a bow on Matsuzaka’s Boston career, figuring that Matsuzaka’s Tommy John surgery last summer likely marked the end of any meaningful relationship between the pitcher and the team. Marc’s answer surprised me. He said no, because Daisuke was ahead of schedule and might return sometime this year. Part of me wanted to scoff at the idea of Matsuzaka making any further contribution this year, but to do so would be to miss the point. Here on the first of March, with the promise of spring and meaningful baseball blooming in full, isn’t the lesson of Matsuzaka and Kuroda that anything can happen and that the game will always surprise and confound you no matter what you expect or project? It’s why we always keep coming back for more, and it’s why baseball will never die.