Why Matsuzaka’s Performance Should Encourage Teams To Sign Tanaka

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s name is often thrown around as a cautionary tale. Matsuzaka’s performance, supposedly, is evidence of the risk of investing heavily in a pitcher who’s spent his entire career in Japan.

There is some truth to that. The $103 million the Red Sox paid for Matsuzaka, between the $52 million contract and the $51.1 million posting fee, outstripped the value Matsuzaka delivered over the six-year deal.

But if anything, Matsuzaka should serve as another data point that pitchers who dominate in Japan and are highly regarded in the scouting community, such as Masahiro Tanaka, will have immediate success against major league hitters.

For Matsuzaka, the stuff did translate. His first two seasons in Boston, Matsuzaka was one of the best pitchers in baseball, posting a 2.90 ERA his second season and finishing fourth in the American League Cy Young vote. According to Baseball-Reference.com, from 2007-08 Matsuzaka racked up 9.4 WAR, ranking 13th among pitchers during that stretch. Yu Darvish, by comparison, has checked in at 9.9 WAR through his first two years with Texas.

That’s not to say Matsuzaka has been as good as Darvish. Matsuzaka was known for his nibbling tendencies and wavering command, averaging 4.2 walks per nine innings his first two seasons. By FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which relies on FIP rather than runs allowed, Matsuzaka checks in at 7.2 WAR, tied for 22nd with Zack Greinke, Derek Lowe and Scott Kazmir. Just about any way you slice it, Matsuzaka was one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball from 2007-08, producing like a No. 2 starter.

Here’s Matsuzaka in his major league debut, showcasing his impressive arsenal with 10 strikeouts over seven innings in a 4-1 victory over the Royals:

After that, injuries derailed Matsuzaka. In April 2009, one month after winning the MVP at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka went on the disabled list with shoulder problems. He returned a month later, made six more starts, then went on the 60-day DL with more shoulder issues, missing nearly three months before returning in September. He threw just 59 1/3 innings that year, his velocity down and the effectiveness of his slider diminished.

After a mediocre 2010 season, Matsuzaka struggled through eight appearances in 2011 before Tommy John surgery erased the rest of his season and most of 2012, the final year of his Red Sox contract, his pitches lacking the speed and snap from when he arrived in Boston.

The lesson from Matsuzaka isn’t that pitchers who have spent their entire careers in Nippon Professional Baseball are inherently risky. Any long-term contract for a pitcher is fraught with risk. Take the 12 pitchers who ranked ahead of Matsuzaka in WAR from 2007-08, and look at what they did the next four seasons, keeping in mind the selection bias that these are just the pitchers who were better than Matsuzaka from 2007-08:

Pitcher 2007-08 2009-12
CC Sabathia 13.1 21.8
Brandon Webb 12.2 -0.2
Johan Santana 12.1 8.1
Dan Haren 10.7 13.7
Roy Oswalt 10.5 10.1
Mark Buehrle 10.5 16.6
Tim Lincecum 10.2 13.7
Jake Peavy 10.1 9.6
Josh Beckett 9.8 11.0
John Lackey 9.8 1.7
Roy Halladay 9.7 25.0
Scott Kazmir 9.6 -0.6
Daisuke Matsuzaka 9.4 -0.2

 

Brandon Webb was completely toast after the 2008 season.
• Scott Kazmir lost his effectiveness after 2008, though he experienced an unusual resurgence in 2013.
John Lackey was a disaster in 2011, then had Tommy John surgery delete his 2012 campaign.
Johan Santana was no longer an ace after the 2008 season, but he turned in two more solid years before having shoulder surgery in 2010, erasing his 2011 season and zapping his stuff when he returned in 2012.

So yes, Matsuzaka should serve as a warning that pitchers can quickly lose it, but no more so than Webb, Kazmir or any other pitcher who’s capable of breaking down. Tanaka might blow out his arm in April. So could Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, David Price or Max Scherzer.

Matsuzaka was frustrating, even excruciating to watch at times. His pace dragged. He was never pitch-efficient. At the end, his stuff was below-average and he didn’t live up to the Red Sox’s investment. But to say his stuff didn’t translate or to point to him as an example of something inherently risky with Japanese pitchers simply isn’t supported by the evidence.

The top Japanese starters who have come to the United States in recent years—Darvish, Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma—have had success in the major leagues. Koji Uehara, who arrived in the majors in 2009, has been baseball’s best reliever from 2010-13 after Craig Kimbrel. And Kuroda, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound righthander who like Tanaka has plus command of a fastball that sits in the low-90s and relies on his slider/splitter combo for his putaway pitches, has been quite durable, compiling 19.3 WAR and a 3.40 ERA in his six major league seasons even though those were his age 33-38 years.

We don’t know whether Tanaka will still have the same stuff in 2017 that he showed in 2013. But there’s no reason to think that Matsuzaka should scare teams off from signing Tanaka. Every pitcher is different, but given that Tanaka’s stuff and command are nearly as good or better than the most recent wave of top NPB pitchers who have jumped to MLB, there are a lot of reasons for them to be excited.

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See also: The Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes