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October 25, 2006

Daisuke Matsuzaka
by SG

There's no question that the starting pitching on the Yankees needs some improvement. With an uninspiring crop of US free agents this year led by Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, one name that has been garnering a lot of interest is that of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka is a 26 year-old right-hander from the Seibu Lions, who was the MVP of the World Baseball Classic this year.

He's not physically imposing at about 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, but he's got a fastball that sits in the low 90s and has racked up some impressive statistics in his career for Seibu, especially of late.

Here's a look at Matsuzaka's career line for Seibu.

While they look impressive enough, it's important to try and put those in context. To do this, I took a look at all pitchers who began their careers in Japan and then came over the American major leagues. Here's the list of pitchers that I came up with.

Akinori Otsuka
Hideki Irabu
Hideo Nomo
Kaz Ishii
Kaz Sasaki
Kaz Tadano
Keichi Yabu
Masao Kida
Masato Yoshii
Satoru Komiyama
Shigetoshi Hasegawa
Takahito Nomura
Takashi Kashiwada
Takashi Saitoh
Tomo Ohka

Here is a comparison of these players and what they did in their careers in both Japan and MLB.

This chart includes both relievers and starters, simply due to the small samples we are dealing with. As you can see, the hits, walks and HRs go up, and the Ks go down.

So I calculated a weighted average for Matsuzaka based on his last four seasons, and then translated it to an MLB equivalency by adjusting all the components based on the differences above. Here's what that looks like.

That's not a bad line, although the HR total is frightening.

This approach has limitations, because how a player accrues the numbers is also important. Also, I've lumped in starters and relievers together here which isn't an apples to apples comparison, although I did it due to the small sample size involved. Therefore, it's also helpful to see what scouts have to say about Matsuzaka. Thankfully, the Matsuzaka Watch blog has a lot of this kind of information easily available. There is a recent link to a Japanese Times article there where a scout breaks down Matsuzaka. Here are some snippets.

"Physically, he could help any team. He is an American-type pitcher. He has the kind of stuff that American major-league pitchers have.
"He is not coming with great movement, or deception on his changeup, or anything of that nature. He is just a good, solid pitcher."
"He usually pitches based upon necessity. He might throw a fastball to a leadoff hitter, or to a hitter with two out and nobody on, that is about 141 kph. But if he is going for a strikeout, he will get that up to 147-150 kph.

"He has an above-average fastball. He has an above-average forkball. His control, most of the time, is above average. When he gets in trouble, it is just touching average."
"When we scout, we rank them from two to eight. Five means average, six is above average, seven is good, eight is excellent.

"Matsuzaka is a 'six' on everything. He is above average. He doesn't have the fastball of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens -- which were 'eights.'
"He has an above-average fastball with some movement on it. I think he is good enough that he doesn't have to put the wear and tear on his arm that he does by throwing so many different pitches."
"He might throw you a 'seven' fastball every once in a while, but he can't do it 20 out of 20 times. He might do it three out of 20. He'll show you a flash."
"The pitches that he has command of are the slider, forkball, changeup, the four-seam fastball -- which is a riding-type fastball with increasing velocity, the two-seam fastball -- which has some sink. All of those pitches are above average.

"Unless his control falters, he will have success. Only injuries will prevent him from being a No. 1 to No. 3 starter."

When he saw Matsuzaka strike out 13 and hit four batters on Oct. 7 at Seibu Dome, in what was likely his last game for the Lions, the apparent contradiction did not raise a red flag for Poitevint.

"He struck out 13 and hit four batters, but those four hit batsmen served a purpose. He had those guys thinking up there. It's not a child's game.
While noting that Matsuzaka has the stuff to succeed in the majors, Poitevint also thinks the hurler possesses the fortitude required to achieve on the biggest stage.

Matsuzaka is an interesting risk. He won't be cheap, and he won't have a shortage of suitors. He's also thrown a lot of pitches in his career to this point, which could make him either an injury risk or show he's a workhorse. I'd expect a team like Seattle to be his likeliest destination honestly, but I think the Yankees have as a good of a chance as anyone besides the Mariners of winning the posting war and then signing him. To me, he's the most attractive free agent pitcher available right now.