Like Daisuke, only good

Yankees Catchers & Passed Pitches
2012 Season Preview: Part-Time Help

“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.

Yankees Catchers & Passed Pitches
2012 Season Preview: Part-Time Help
  • jsbrendog

    so glad the yanks didnt get matsuzaka and kind of relieved they didn’t get darvish either. on the list of japanese pitchers who handled the transition well there is hideo nomo and hiroki kuroda (as starters at least.) even nomo fell off a precipice after having some great years. it is just too much to bank number one starter money on.

    this was a great read.

  • Genghis

    Dice-K’s gyro ball was actually made out of ground lamb. Spit-roasted ground lamb, but sliced thin and served up with tzatziki sauce.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

      Yum. Gyro balls.

    • MannyGeee

      he threw to to complement his 4 Seam-Kabob. all were best if thrown with a side of brown rice. #Opah!

    • vin

      I know it’s pronounced “yee-roh,” but I still can’t break the habit of calling it a “gy-roh.” I always embrace other languages, but that’s the only ethnic food I Anglicize.

      • Mike

        Since it was invented in the states, don’t fret too much about calling it a gyro instead of a yeero.

    • Thomas

      You like the sauce. I get you more sauce.

  • Mike Plugh

    Thanks for the mention. I was a participant in the Matsuzaka hype machine as you may remember, and I still believe in his talent. The lesson learned about Japanese pitchers is something I shared with Alex Belth while he was researching for this piece:

    In Japan, the premium in on contact. Playing for one run is a noble pursuit and more in line with the Japanese cultural norms that resist risk taking behavior in favor of a more certain outcome. Pitchers have the luxury of knowing in advance that batters will swing if it’s close and that a runner on first and less than 2 outs is a sacrifice in the making. In addition, a Japanese pitcher only needs to face 3-4 guys in any lineup that would make a Major League roster (most as bench players) and more than half the hitters are of AAA quality or lower. Matsuzaka has the talent, but he didn’t adjust the way he pitched. He still nibbled at the corners because he expected to get a few swinging strikes and when he didn’t he stubbornly kept trying. His walk rate went up, his pitch counts got out of control, and when he gave up a hit it usually resulted in multiple base runners scoring. He’d never pitched out of the stretch so much in his life.

    Kuroda never had this problem in the NL because he had a softer bottom of the lineup to pitch to, and he’d always pitched off his fastball. He didn’t get cute in Japan and so he didn’t have to rethink the game when he arrived in LA. Most Japanese pitchers will have to rethink their approach, including Darvish, and their success is as much predicated on not being stubborn as it is on “stuff.”

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

      I wonder of these lessons are bring learned by the deciders. Wondering – based on how Darvish pitched in Japan, is he more likely to translate, ala Kuroda? Or bust ala Dice BB?

      • Mike Plugh

        Since Matsuzaka earned all the hype and the giant posting fee, lessons have been learned mainly because there’s more scouting now. The question is, how well do the scouts account for the cultural tendencies of the Japanese player and the notion that what’s seemingly the same sport, in reality, isn’t quite.

        Darvish has better physical tools that Matsuzaka and he’s from an international household, so there’s a bit of a break from the unfamiliarity of the non-Japanese lifestyle, but at the same time, I think Darvish will face the kind of adversity in the Majors that he may never have faced before. How he responds to it from an approach and a confidence perspective will tell the story. It’s very hard to be a superstar and suddenly become average. Matsuzaka never dealt with it. Kuroda was never a “superstar” ego so he never needed to worry about it. Darvish is matinee. He’ll have to.

        • Havok9120

          Both posts are great takes.

          Thanks a lot for them.

    • thenamestsam

      Very interesting take. Thanks for posting this.

  • Steve (different one)

    The lesson as always: Will Carroll is always wrong.

    Steroids aside, since this was 2006, doesn’t any analysis that leads to a comparison to Roger Clemens have to be dismissed out of hand? Clemens is possibly the greatest right hande pitcher of all time. No one is Roger Clemens. Period.

    I wanted the Yankees to get Darvish. I am not going to pretend I didn’t, but this is just a lesson that despite all we’ve learned, we really don’t know how to translate Japanese numbers with a great degree of confidence.

    • Mike Plugh

      You’re absolutely right. I had a couple of conversations with Will about Matsuzaka and we both agreed on most things. We both participated in the hype machine and I have no regrets about my role. Matsuzaka has the talent to be an elite Major League pitcher, but clearly not the psychology. He’s stubborn, a little lazy, and entitled. That’s a very bad mix for a guy who was essentially a newbie. You almost have to approach any foreign league player as a rookie, regardless of age, talent, or status. The guys who “buy in” will do fine and the talent will translate. The guys who are entitled and spoiled superstars with the mentality that goes along with it will fall down. Period.

      • DM

        Yep. Character counts. I thought Dice-K had great stuff and all the talent in the world. Ability-wise, he could’ve lived up to the hype. Kuroda seems like the flip side. Less stuff, better character. We’ll see about Darvish.

      • DF

        Not to be disrespectful, but this smacks of a huge cop-out to me. It’s essentially blaming Matsuzaka because you were wrong about his talents. It’s saying, “I wasn’t wrong, Matsuzaka failed me,” and I think that’s a myopic way of seeing the events that transpired. Maybe he wasn’t as good as you thought he was. No shame in that.

        Or maybe he was, but his body started letting him down at the same time he came to the States (he did throw a ton of pitches in his youth, IIRC). Those things happen too. The point is, calling him “stubborn, a little lazy, and entitled” just isn’t fair. I’m assuming you don’t really know him personally, and since he doesn’t speak much English, we are three or four levels of abstraction away from even the usual suspect evidence we have of another person’s mental states.

        • Mike Plugh

          I speak Japanese and followed him during his time in Japan as well as the US. I’m willing to admit that I overvalued the statistical projections of his ability despite the fact that there was insufficient sample size to do an accurate translation, but I stand by my assessment of his talent *and* my assessment of the character issues that led to his struggles. I won’t absolve myself of thinking too highly of his talent, but I also follow the player and the scene surrounding him well enough to know what I’m talking about with respect to character, culture, and the complex factors involved in adjustment.

      • Slugger27

        eh, whatever. i just think he wasnt that good. people talk about his stuff being awesome.. what did he throw his rookie year? 92? 93 at the most? his curveball never seemed dominant to me, not that it would matter cuz he slowed his motion down and telegraphed it.

        i guess i just find it hard to believe he kept walking people because he was stubborn. i think its just a lot more likely he had control issues that were masked in japan cuz they swung at more pitches, and he just wasn’t good enough/didnt have the command to throw strikes when he needed to.

        • DM

          Cone used to be stubborn in the same way. He’d rather take the count full in an attempt to whiff you than get you to put the ball in play and let the defenders take care of the rest. Good for Ks and hits-to-innings — but horribly inefficient. Like Dice-K, Cone’s outings were always laborious with high pitch counts. He’d use 6-7 pitches to get the K rather than hitting a spot with 2 or 3 pitches and getting you to hit a grounder to short.

          • RetroRob

            Cone was an excellent pitcher. For a poster on a blog to call a highly successful MLB pitcher “horribly inefficient” is more than a bit funny.

            • DM

              It’s more funny that you made that comment — since Cone said the same thing about himself. Less Laredo and more 1st pitch strikes, he might’ve had more bullets left in that arm. For a 17 year career that didn’t add up to 200 wins (never mind 250 or 300), he might be the most overhyped “winner” of all time. Pettitte pitched 150 more innings than Cone over 16 yrs, but somehow won 50 more games despite having no where near the stuff Cone did. You don’t need to strike everyone out — even if you think you can.

        • Mike Plugh

          Slugger…I think you’ll find that we actually agree here. I attribute his struggles to stubbornness in being unwilling to change his approach. Underneath it is the fact that nibbling and having pinpoint control go hand in hand, but are only effective when the other half of the relationship (the batter and the umpire) are going along with your plan. When one or both of them are not, you either have to be much sharper or much smarter and if you can’t do the first it’s imperative that you do the second. He could have been smarter and said, “I just don’t get the calls I’m used to here, and the batters don’t seem to swing at the close stuff. I’d better adjust,” but he didn’t. It was a subject of discussion in the Japanese press as much as his conditioning during his struggles, and more than a few MLB types were saying the same.

          • RetroRob

            His inability, or unwillingness to change was what I found most interesting about Dice-K. Is there any reason to believe he’ll change post TJ surgery all these years later?

  • STONE COLD Austin Romine

    “Plus-Plus change-up” ? This is the first time I’ve read Matsuzaka possessing one. I know Okajima’s change-up was considered and played up to be plus-plus so this is a decent surprise in hindsight.

    • vin

      IIRC, Okajima’s changeup wasn’t anywhere close to being a plus pitch. The Sox’s pitching coach (Farrell?) had him adjust his grip, and that’s credited as being the primary factor in him becoming an above average reliever.

    • Anchen

      He definitely had a good changeup (forkball), which I consider fairly unsurprising since the vast majority of pitchers in Japan seem to throw that pitch. Nomo, Irabu, Matsusaka, and Kuroda for sure were all big on the forkball. Given that most also threw it reasonbly hard, probably draws a lot of the comparisons to Clemens and his splitter.

  • Cuso

    …and it’s why baseball will never die”

    the article was good. stay away from the grandiose finales; you’re better than that.

    (perspective: that last line completely distracted me from any substantive commentary I was about to make)

  • tyrone sharpton

    how was matsuzaka not good, other than in terms of innings? he wasn’t burnett bad

    • Tom

      Career FIP of 4.26 (in a park that suppresses HR’s), career xFIP of 4.56

      Or if you prefer a career ERA of 4.25…. that doesn’t strike me as “good” (it’s not terrible, but hardly frontline starter material)

      He also had 1 year out of 5 where he made more than 30 starts… it wasn’t just a lack of innings