Thursday, February 7, 2008

Will Matsuzaka Be An Ace In 08?

It's an interesting question, which no doubt will have a large impact on the upcoming Red Sox season. Daisuke Matsuzaka was solid for most of the season last year. Even while adjusting to a new level of competition, and a new country no less, his first half of the season was ace caliber.

Prior to the All-Star break, Matsuzaka pitched 119.2 innings with an ERA of 3.84 and a WHIP of 1.24. He allowed 8.31 H/9 IP, walked only 2.86/9 IP, struck out more than a hitter an inning and kept opponents to a batting average of .242. Those numbers would place him among the elite pitchers of the American League.

As the season progressed, Matsuzaka clearly fatigued. It's hard to underestimate how much of a change it is to go from pitching every week, to pitching every five days. And the Red Sox didn't manage Matsuzaka's innings and pitch counts very carefully. 120 innings is the lot for a pitcher to handle in the first half of a season, and the Red Sox often allowed Matsuzaka's pitch counts to get into the 110's. Matsuzaka could easily handle those pitch counts on six days of rest, but in the majors, he had only 4 days of rest between starts.

As Matsuzaka fatigued, the largest difference in his performance was the amount of walks he gave up. In the second half of the season, Matsuzaka's walk rates increased by 55%. Poor control is something that's rather atypical for the Japanese star. If he wasn't tired, it likely wouldn't have become an issue.

Not only did Matsuzaka have a dramatic increase in his workload but he was also going through the growing pains of his rookie season in the major leagues. The prospects rankings that classified Daisuke as a prospect, ranked him as the top pitching prospect of 2007.

NPB baseball in Japan has been compared to the minor leagues here in the U.S., so Matsuzaka pitching his first year in the majors is hardly any different from pitchers like Homer Bailey or Phil Hughes doing the same. Growing pains should be expected.

There are factors, other than an increased workload which likely made Matszuaka's rookie season especially difficult. Everything from the size of the strike zone, to the texture and density of a baseball is different in the major leagues. Considering this, Matsuzaka's effectiveness in his rookie season is commendable.

As the season wore on, Matsuzaka managed to hold things together even under an increased work load. In mid-August, he got his ERA down below 3.60. It wasn't until September that he became ineffective. And even with his late season struggles, many of his overall numbers remained solid. It wasn't easy for hitters to face Matsuzaka. In fact, his BAA was almost identical to that of Josh Beckett. And overall, Matsuzaka struck out about a batter an inning.

As is the case with many highly regarded pitching prospects, it's likely that Matsuzaka will see an improvement as adjusts to the majors. But just how much of an improvement could be expected? Well, I'm not much of a fan of projections, but they do provide an objective estimate of possible performance.

And most projections predict at least solid number two starter numbers for Matsuzaka. Here's a quick look at them from best to worst.

Bill James - 193 IP, 3.54 ERA, 62 BB, 188 K
ZiPS - 196 IP, 3.95 ERA, 60 BB, 177 K

CHONE - 196 IP, 3.99 ERA, 67 BB, 185 K

PECOTA - 204.2 IP, 4.40 ERA, 80 BB, 201 K

If Matsuzaka puts up numbers like those, I wonder consider him an ace, but the Red Sox would be in good shape next year pitching wise. Then there is always the possibility that Matsuzaka adjusts to the American League the same way that Josh Beckett did last year. I think Beckett's adjustment was rather dramatic, but even an adjustment half as dramatic would make Matsuzaka an ace-caliber pitcher.

So will Matsuzaka be an ace in 2008? Only time will tell. But I think it's pretty safe to say he'll probably be a solid number two starter. And if he's not an ace in 2008, there's a good chance he will be soon.

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