There isn’t a draft guide available for 2009 whether online or in magazine form that doesn’t encourage avoiding Daisuke Matsuzaka unless he comes at a severe discount. Given the proliferation of such caution messages, he may very well be discounted in a league that you play… well not if you’re in a league with me. The Matsuzaka Meltdown presentiment is a bit misguided in my opinion. Most, if not all, baseball fans have heard the phrase “the statistics don’t always tell the whole story” and I think that has never been truer than in forecasting Matsuzaka’s 2009 season. Detractors immediately point to the obscene walk and strand rates. I’ll grant that they don’t jive with the ERA and win totals. If a pitcher with questionable talent had put together a 2008 like Matsuzaka’s, I could understand pinning the 72-point font “AVOID” flag on him in your draft spreadsheets.
Matsuzaka isn’t a marginal talent, though. He’s proven that in his first two major league seasons, in his eight seasons in Japan and in two World Baseball Classics. During his major-league debut, he had a career-worst WHIP of 1.32 thanks in large part to a career-worst hit rate of 8.4 hits per nine. He took a much more stubborn approach in 2008 as he didn’t want to give hitters anything to hit which yielded a hit rate of 6.9, on par with his Japanese League career mark of 7.1. Of course it also brought about the ugly 5.0 BB/9 and the resulting WHIP was 1.32 again! The way I see it, Matsuzaka’s ugly walk rate was more by design in that he refused to give into hitters than it was because he just flat out lost control at times a la someone like Oliver Perez. He went seven innings or more in just eight of his 29 starts yet averaged 100 pitches which isn’t a surprise with all of the walks. I think the issue here is that the analysts are approaching Matsuzaka as if he’s just like any other pitcher. There are some of the standard red flags: 5.0 BB/9, 100 pitches in just 5.7 IP per game, abnormally high strand rate of 80% and seemingly unsustainable hit rate of 27%. But Matsuzaka isn’t a standard pitcher. He is far more in control than his walk rate suggests.
Even the 1.8 K/BB with runners in scoring position falls below the 2.0 threshold that you really want a pitcher to have, but topping that figure is hard to come by when you’re walk 5.0 per nine so relative to his season, the 1.8 was a peak. For comparison sake, his opponent’s OPS w/RISP last year was .696 so that was obviously an area of focus for him heading into 2008. There is no doubt that Matsuzaka pressed his luck in 2008 and he won time and time again, but I think that those outlets that project a far worse season in 2009 don’t acknowledge the fact that Matsuzaka is a very talented arm capable of getting better and improving where he needs to in order to earn a high win total and low ERA. In 2007, he deserved better than the 4.40 ERA he had and in 2008, he deserved worse than the 2.90 ERA he had so where does that leave us for 2009? Nearly a strikeout per inning with a mid-3.00s ERA and a great shot at winning a ton of games with that team in Boston.
If you watched a lot of his starts, you saw a guy who was trying to be far too fine and while it hitters struggled to do much when he did give them something, many hitters caught on to the fact that he wasn’t giving in so they chose to take their free base. I went back on MLB.tv and watched almost 20 of his starts and that’s what I saw as opposed to some clueless kid incapable of getting anything over the dish. Already in 2009 he struck out 13 batters in 14.7 WBC innings while walking five en route to a 3-0 record for champion Japan which included an 8-inning domination of Cuba. The case of Matsuzaka is one where the numbers don’t necessarily lie, but they can lead you astray if you follow them without context and eliminate all the previous success enjoyed by a 10-year veteran. As you enter your drafts over the next two weekends, I’d encourage you not to discount Matsuzaka too sharply from the other high-level pitchers. To do so would be putting too much stock into one poor (albeit VERY poor) indicator from a guy who has pitched well for 10 seasons. Unless of course you’re in a league with me, then please discount him massively.