Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Getting Closer

We're getting closer to the likely posting period for Matsuzaka, and news is flying fast and furious. I don't put a lot of faith in most of the news stories jumping off keyboards, so I've been kind of incognito recently. I've also been on a 2 month tear, studying for the GRE. I'll be taking the exam in Tokyo on Thursday, November 2nd. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, the Seattle Times is reporting that the Mariners may only be making a token bid for Daisuke as the asking price is becoming astronomically insane. That's Boras for you. He's weeding out the mid to low market teams early with some scary numbers and some tough talk. The big boys are going to be at each other like sharks with blood in the water though. The article is well written and quite comprehensive.

For Yankee fans, the news from George King of the NY Post is that the Yankees may be looking at Jeff Suppan of the Cardinals as a way to hedge the chance that they won't win the rights to Matsuzaka. That seems like a surefire way to have Yankee fans screaming bloody murder in the streets. If you don't get Daisuke to the Bronx, you'd better bring in Zito. Suppan is a bad pitcher. Period. He has a career 4.60 ERA and a 1.416 WHIP over 12 seasons. Watch the Bronx catch fire if that happens. People will riot, I promise you.

Tim Marchman of the New York Sun does a rundown for New York fans of both teams on the FA options this season. Nothing ground breaking, but a very well written piece to sink your teeth into. The Matsuzaka bit is as follows:

"The next-best bet is Daisuke Matsuzaka, ace of the Seibu Lions and Scott Boras client. His Japanese numbers are so good they're easily discounted — 741.1 innings over the last four years with a 2.51 ERA, a 768/188 K/BB ratio, and a record of success under pressure in championship games. Under the posting system by which American teams gain access to Japanese players, the rights just to negotiate with him will cost probably upwards of $20 million, and then it will take an ace-level contract to sign him.

Is an unknown worth all that money? I'd guess yes, though it's an awfully big risk. We know how good the Japanese leagues are — better than AAA, worse than the majors — and also why. There's not as much power there. Statistically, Matsuzaka looks like a 200-inning, 3.25 ERA or so starter; at his age, that's exceptionally valuable. The problem is that you can't do a linear, one-to-one translation of his statistics and call it a day.

Matsuzaka is eerily reminiscent of a young David Cone, from his low slingshot delivery to nearly patternless pitching based around a wide variety of breaking balls and a fastball that reaches the mid-90s but sits a bit lower than that; should his fastball prove a bit short for the majors, though, and thus more vulnerable to the longball, he might just be the world's priciest junkballer. Despite that, he has youth and a proven track record of excellence. For a team with enough money to sign him and not collapse if he proves a bust, he's worth the risk."

I'm sure that Marchman has never seen Daisuke pitch. The "junkballer" label is something that no firsthand witness of his stuff would ever say. The slider alone is enough to make a 92 MPH fastball look 96-97. But then all of you know that already, right?

Nothing else going on. I won't be posting the next couple of days as I will be immersed in testing. I'll be back and refreshed after the exam and we'll get down to some serious business. Be back soon!!!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Scouting Daisuke

I was referred to a nice article in the Japan Times this morning. The feature is written by Jack Gallagher, and is based on consultation with Chicago White Sox super scout, Ray Poitevint. Poitevint is actually the Special Assistant to the Senior Vice President/General Manager, International Operations. He is famous for his work in the Orioles organization where as Western Regional Scouting Supervisor he signed Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez. He was a long time scout in the Brewers organization, and moved up the ladder to hold a similar post with Milwaukee. He spent a number of years, recently, in the Red Sox organization scouting the Pacific and Japan in particular. During the Hideki Matsui free agent run, he compared the player to Fred Lynn. Over the years, Poitevint has become one of the most well-spoken experts on Japanese talent and chimed in on Matsuzaka. A few of his choice comments:

"He may eventually be a No. 1 starter. If you are looking at a first-division ball club, that has a good pitching staff already, you are looking at him maybe being your third starter at the outset," Poitevint said by telephone from his California home recently. "If he stays healthy, by the second year he would be at least your second starter. He has all of the ability. It has to do with the non-physical things and the adjustments."

That's a fair and conservative prediction from a guy that's been watching Japanese baseball for 40 years. I think there's also the possibility that he can come in as a #2 right away and take off from there. Poitevint goes on to say:

"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."

I agree with this point as well, with the exception that his slider has as good a movement in the zone as any slider in baseball. Later in his discussion of the pitch selection that Matsuzaka features, he also fails to praise that pitch:

"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.' "There are some 'eight fastballs' in Japan, but Matsuzaka doesn't have one. "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." "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.

In my humble, and significantly less experienced opinion, Matsuzaka's fastball is a 'seven' more often than he is perhaps being given credit for. Poitevint talks about the fastball being 141 to most guys with a little extra that notches it up to 147-150 against the big boys. That means he throws an 87-88 MPH fastball to most guys and notches it up to 91-93. I just don't see that. Unless we're watching a different guy. Every game I watch has Matsuzaka up around 147(91-92) to most guys with a ceiling of around 153(95) against tough hitters in big spots. It may seem like a small discrepancy, but it's a huge difference actually. A guy who throws an 88 MPH fastball with little movement is throwing batting practice. That is MLB home run speed. I don't recall seeing any of Daisuke's fastballs that low on the gun.

His slider is an 'eight'. No one throws a wicked slider that buckles knees better than Matsuzaka. To call his slider 'above average' is like calling Derek Jeter's girlfriends 'alright looking'. Aside from those points, I think he's right. The rest of the repetoire is 'above average' and occasionally good. Poitevint makes some other excellent points about the wear and tear that might make teams worry. He recommends that anyone looking to shell out big money should give him a thorough physical. He also praises Matsuzaka's bulldog mentality. He is a mentally tough, and some say cocky, young player. The spotlight doesn't faze him, and being in a jam isn't going to have him pacing around the mound with jitters. That much is universally agreed upon. No Irabu or Contreras choke jobs from Daisuke. The mental part has been mastered. The final point that I'll quote from Poitevint is this:

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

There you have it. My only objection was to the assessment of his fastball and slider. I think he's better than Poitevint says, but that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sitting This One Out

So it appears as though Matsuzaka will be sitting out the MLB/NPB All Star Series at the start of November. Who didn't see this one coming? I was kind of hoping to see him pitch against the Big Leaguers, but it makes too much sense to skip the thing. It means nothing.

If you think about it for a second, why should he pitch? If he wins and looks great, people will say it's one game against half-hearted Major Leaguers on vacation. If he loses, people start the Irabu chatter. If he gets hurt, he costs himself an enormous payday. As it stands now, he's going to get around $10 million a year over 3 or 4 years. That's not going to change if he pitches, but if anything negative happens, the bidding price may go down.

I'm not in the habit of chasing the latest nonsense about where Matsuzaka is going to end up next year, as it will inevitably take us all on a roller coaster ride over the next 3 weeks or so. You'll get every answer from the Yankees to the Royals at one time or another. It is worth noting that during the ESPN Live Game Chat for the 1st game of the WS, Rob Neyer answered the following question:

Anthony (Japan): Who do you see Matsuzaka going to? The latest reports here are saying he is going to the Mets.

Rob Neyer:
(9:13 PM ET ) I would say the Mets are No. 1 candidate, because I suspect they'd love to have a Japanese star of their own. And they can afford him.

Whatever. It may or may not be a good guess, but it is only a guess. I will say this until I pass out from lack of oxygen....No one will know where he's going until the bids are all in. Anyone who says otherwise is lying, or trying to make headlines. See you soon, when I have more news, or another feature cooked up.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

From Bobby V's Lips...

Matsuzaka has hit the big time. Feature story in the New York Times. NYT writer, Tyler Kepner, has done a nice piece on Daisuke in the October 17th edition of the paper. I'll let you read it for yourself, but there are a few notable quotes to share with you.

"Six years ago, as the major league playoffs dominated the attention of American baseball fans, Bobby Valentine was asked about the potential impact of a player from Japan. Valentine, then managing the Mets, said he believed the player was already one of the five best in the world.

That player was Ichiro Suzuki, who quickly proved Valentine right by winning the American League Most Valuable Player award for Seattle the next season.

Now, as the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, Valentine has a more intimate knowledge of Japanese talent. If his instincts are the same, then Daisuke Matsuzaka will be the next big star in the majors. “This guy is the real deal,” Valentine said last week in an e-mail message. “He has the ability to be one of the top starters in M.L.B.”"

I've been waiting to hear Bobby V. chime in on Matsuzaka's posting for a while, but this is the first time I've heard him say anything. Matsuzaka faces the Lotte Marines several times a year, as they are both highly competitive clubs in the Pacific League. There's more:

"One scout who has seen Matsuzaka extensively said his skills went beyond talent. The scout, who asked not to be identified, said Matsuzaka had the competitive drive to battle out of jams.

“It’s not only his stuff — his ability to pitch is even more impressive,” the scout said. “He’s a bulldog.”

The scout said that while Matsuzaka could throw 95 miles an hour, his fastball was usually around 92-93; Valentine described the fastball as “a little above average.” But Matsuzaka’s command is excellent, his slider — called a “Gyroball” in Japan — is sharp, and Valentine called his changeup devastating."

I've been saying this for a while now. Matsuzaka is a mentally tough guy that doesn't back down in jams. It's uncanny. Bases loaded, nobody out. No problem. Walk in the park. I'll just strike the next three guys out....and he does. The fastball is good. It used to be crackling good and topped 100 in the 2004 Olympics, but he doesn't usually top out anymore. He pitches. He realized that he was going to pull a Nomo and burn his arm out if he continued to blaze it by guys. His offspeed stuff is so freakishly good that his 92-93 MPH stuff on the black looks like 96-97. He can still pop one on you if you sleep. The one thing that Valentine said that had me scratching my head a bit was this:

"As polished as Matsuzaka is, Valentine said, “he lost a little this year.”

“It was probably because of the W.B.C.,” he said. “He did have a few small injuries for the first time in his life.”"

He lost a little? The guy posted a 6.06 K/BB ratio that topped all players in Japan by a mile. He also dropped his ERA to a career low 2.13 on the season. I'd like to lose that much too. I'd be standing in line to cash in on 10s of millions. The few small injuries seems a bit odd too. His groin tightened up on him in the 1st inning of one start and he skipped a turn in the rotation, and he had a strain in his "right buttock" one game that he ended up dominating with double digit Ks. The last couple of starts he hit an oddly high number of batters (6 over two games). He's probably tired after pitching so much. Seibu doesn't give a damn if they use him up this season, because he won't be back.

At any rate, a good article by Kepner. He mistakenly says that Matsuzaka's slider is called a "gyroball" in Japan. A gyroball is a gyroball. A slider is a slider. The two shall never meet. Matsuzaka throws one of the nastiest sliders you've ever seen. He does not throw a gyroball. Aside from that, perfect. Enjoy.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Matsuzaka Redux

The recent barrage of news about Matsuzaka and his posting to the Major Leaguers has set off a frenzy for information about the player from many corners of the world. It's been kind of a "running of the bulls" with Matsuzaka in the lead. If I use that analogy, then Matsuzaka Watch is Pamplona. I've been discussing this player here since the beginning of the 2006 season, and have collected some important facts. I've engaged in fiery debate at many popular blogspots and bulletin boards, and I believe I have the means by which to frame the discussion of Daisuke Matsuzaka.

This post is designed to introduce people to the player, sources of information available about him, and the various analytical pieces that I've produced to add depth to the discussion. It is also designed for the fans who have followed Matsuzaka, or have faithfully read my work here already. Thank you for your support. I want to expand the understanding of my analysis for more experienced Matsuzaka followers, and to that end, I'll be re-posting links to each piece and adding some updated thoughts below each. Here we go:

I am a Yankee fan who has been living in Japan for nearly 3 years. I've followed Daisuke Matsuzaka since the beginning of the 2004 season, when I moved to the Far East, and really latched on after his stellar outing against Australia in the 2004 Summer Games (more on that later). As it's increasingly been speculated that Seibu would post him and allow him to pursue a career in the Major Leagues, I have become more and more interested in sharing what I know, and what I've seen of him over this time. There are many other players in Japan that would look nice in a Major League uniform, and perhaps we'll see some of them in the near future. In the meantime, this player is the best of the lot and the most imminent schedule for the US. To that end, I started this blog to chronicle the 2006 season, and provide the best possible analysis a fan with an understanding of simple metrics and Japanese language can provide. I've seen him pitch for 3 years with my own two eyes and hope that what I've seen will help you to paint a picture of the young ace.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is a 26 year old pitcher, for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. He made his pro debut at the age of 18, after a legendary high school career, which culminated in a no-hitter at the revered Koshien Summer High School Baseball Tournament in 1998. That no-hitter came on the heels of a relief appearance the day before that earned his team an important save, and a 17 inning, 250 pitch, complete game against legendary baseball powerhouse PL Gakuen two days before. He was dubbed "Koshien no moshigo", which means "The Heaven Sent Child of Koshien", and later fans in the same age group were labeled as "Generation Matsuzaka". He is a transcendent figure in Japan and one of the most loved players in the history of this country.

He won the rookie of the year in 1999 and was named to the "Best 9" as the pitching representative. It was the first time any rookie had been awarded that honor. In the following few years, Matsuzaka found his ERA in the mid-3's as his control often betrayed him. His walk totals were quite high, and the abuse on his arm was beginning to wear him down. He missed time in 2002 with a non-structural elbow injury that did not require surgery, but kept him out for the better part of that season. The interesting thing that developed from that experience was his newfound control and understanding of pitching as a professional. Since returning from the lost 2002 season, Matsuzaka's ERA has dropped more than a full run per 9 innings, and his walks have been cut in half. He uses his entire repertoire now, and has forgone the 100 MPH fastball that he once threw in Olympic competition in favor of better location and a wicked slider. His ERA over the last 4 years has been:


His K/BB ratio has also improved significantly over that period. Witness:


The 2004 season (2.90 and 3.02 above) was extremely truncated due to Matsuzaka's participation in the Summer Games in Athens. He won his first start against Cuba in a lineup virtually identical to the one he faced in the 2006 WBC. That start saw him go 8.1 innings before tiring in the 9th and allowing a couple of baserunners. His relievers let him down on the shutout by letting the inherited runners score, but the line was still impressive at 7 hits and a walk, with only 2 earned runs. The next start was a 1-0 loss against underdog Australia. Matsuzaka produced what is regarded as the 2nd best start in Olympic history by some accounts. I don't know what the best start was, but it was better than Matsuzaka's perfect game midway through the contest that ended in a 13 strikeout dominanting outing.

The last 2 seasons have been beyond description. The only reason he has played those seasons for Seibu, instead of the Major Leagues, is the club's refusal to release him through the posting system. At this point, they have let him go in order to assure themselves a giant chunk of money for the player, instead of losing him for nothing after the 2007 season when he's a free agent. That brings us to today. Here's where we know:

1. Matsuzaka will be posted in the first part of November.
2. Teams will have 40 days to submit secret bids to Bud Selig's office.
3. Selig and company will hold those bids in trust, before finally delivering the winner to Seibu.
4. That will happen in mid-December.
5. Teams will have 30 days to negotiate with Matsuzaka and Boras, before losing his rights.
6. If that happens, he MUST go back and pitch in Japan in 2007.

Beyond the posting process we also can speculate on dollars and cents:

1. The top bid will likely fall between $25-$30 million.
2. Boras will attempt to squeeze as much money as he can.
3. Rumors have that money anywhere from $8-$12 million a season over 3 or 4 years.
4. The posting money does not count against the tax penalty.

When you add it all up, you're looking at an average out of pocket expenditure of between $14 million and $22 million. The low end is acceptable. The mid-range is only acceptable if you are fairly certain that he's a legit #1. The top end is stupid by all accounts. When comparing this expenditure, it is important to remember to factor the US free agent's taxable salary against the soft cap, while Matsuzaka has none. As for his ability, there are differing opinions:

1. Most people who have seen him think he's a Major League frontline pitcher.
2. Many believe he's an ace.
3. Some people think he's a risk at any price, but especially at top dollar.
4. A few people think he's the second coming of Hideki Irabu.

His repertoire includes a fastball that is clocked at around 95-96 MPH, and at around 92-93 when he locates on the corners or at the knees. His slider is filthy and is thrown with the same motion as the fastball. It's clocked at 82-83 MPH. In addition to those pitches, he throws a nice change, a sharp curve, and an improving splitter. He does not throw a gyroball, as has been reported. The top contenders for his services are generally believed to be (in no particular order):

* Yankees
* Mariners
* Rangers
* Angels
* Red Sox
* Orioles
* Dodgers
* Diamondbacks
* Mets

A few other teams have scouted him, but until I see more substantial coverage in the local papers of those markets, I'll hold off on naming them. In my humble opinion, the best situations for the player are:

1. New York Yankees

I'm a fan, so I hope he plays in New York. Beyond that, the prestige value is the highest. People in Japan revere the Yankees, and are already bananas about the idea of Matsuzaka pitching in pinstripes. The possibility of a title is also greatest in New York, although you'd have to argue that the team hasn't demonstrated anything worthy of that impression in recent years. The money is also best in New York. The Yankees will overpay, and market the daylights out of Daisuke. The franchise worth a billion dollars isn't shy when it comes to the green. Hideki Matsui's profile in both countries also helps him fit in more easily.

2. Seattle Mariners

This one is a no-brainer. Japanese owner. Japanese catcher. Japanese superstar soon-to-be centerfielder. There are actually far more Japanese people in the New York metropolitan area than in Seattle, but the profile in the Pacific Northwest is much higher. The AL West is also a less explosive division from an offensive standpoint, so the lineups he'd be facing 18-19 times a year would be easier to manage. It's just a good fit.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

This franchise may be looking to spend. They splashed at the trading deadline and seem inclined to continue in the offseason. The Japanese population in LA is large, and very high profile in Japan. The NL is a weaker league and Matsuzaka would have the benefit of playing the Rockies, D'Backs, and Padres 18-19 times a year, with the pitcher batting in every contest. The precedent of Hideo Nomo would help him translate to the fan base and to the city, and there's every reason to believe he'd do well there.

The other teams have good cases to make, but those three situations make the most sense to me. I'm sure the fans of the other clubs out there will argue, but I'm sticking with my analysis. The final point that I want to address here is a one-by-one commentary on the links you see at the right:

Final 2006 Stats
This is a simple compilation of Matsuzaka's game log from the 2006 campaign. Each start is listed with the accompanying statistics. At the bottom of the chart you'll find many important ratios like ERA, WHIP, K/9, K/BB, and so on.

vs. Japan's Best
This post was written as a way to put Matsuzaka's pitching into context. Many casual observers want to lump him in the same company as Hideki Irabu. I try to show in this article that Daisuke's numbers are in most ways well superior to his contemporaries. The sample I chose to examine was Jim Albright's All 1990's Team and a handful of current aces that I believe make up the elite.

Abuse Points
The metric called PAP, or "Pitcher Abuse Points" is one way of framing the amount of work (or overwork) that a pitcher is subjected to on a start by start, and cumulative basis. It was developed by the good people at Baseball Prospectus, and I've applied it to Matsuzaka's 2006 mid-season numbers here. If you're looking for a reason to be shy in signing this player, this article is for you. It's not the be all and end all of analysis, but the numbers are alarming.

Koshien and 2005
This is a simple set of game logs that highlight Matsuzaka's 2-time participation in the Koshien competition, and a more recent look at his 2005 games. Nothing fancy, but more data to look at.

Crude MLB Projection

This post is likely to be the most controversial of the lot. It's essentially an attempt to translate the 2005 and 2006 season in Japan to MLB equivalents. The process is very rough, and I warn you that I'm no statistician, but I think it's good enough to draw some simple conclusions. The method was borrowed from the aforementioned Jim Albright, but the data set is very small. Take it with a grain of salt, but understand that there's reason to think highly of this pitcher in the Majors.

vs. Pedro
Again, a sexy idea for Matsuzaka supporters, but hardly a meaningful projection to Major League success. I attempt to show how Matsuzaka has dominated Japanese baseball, and how his level of ability in Japan can be examined in the same context as Pedro in the Major Leagues. The K/BB ratio plays a big part in this discussion, and I think even a guarded approach to this information will leave you with an optimistic outlook on Matsuzaka.

vs. MLB's Best 2006
For fun, I tried to imagine the exact 2006 numbers for Matsuzaka being thrust into a Major League context. It's purpose is not to say that the numbers will translate directly and that Matsuzaka is as good as Johan Santana, but rather to demonstrate how dominating he could be even by significantly dumbing down his numbers. If he's even half as good in the Majors as he's been in Japan, he'll still be a frontline starter.

Pacific to MLB Projections
In this post, I attempt to translate the numbers for the top 3 starters of all six teams in the Japanese Pacific League to the American League. I find the league average numbers for pitchers with over 100 innings pitched in both leagues, and create equivalents to translate the Japanese numbers. The flaw is assuming that a league average pitcher in both leagues is of the same quality. The benefit of this info is that it brings us a little bit closer to understanding the separations between the truly elite pitchers in Japan that have a chance to succeed, and those who would likely be overmatched even given a favorable environment.

vs. the World
This is a look at all the games (at least all the games I know of) that Matsuzaka pitched in international competition. It ranges from outings against Chinese Taipei in the WBC to the Cuban National Team on several occasions, and on to the MLB All Stars that toured Japan in 2004. The main value of this information is that it shows a steady level of excellence against whatever lineup is in front of him. Sure, the sample size is small, but it's still informative.

Each one of his 25 starts in the 2006 regular season are detailed at Matsuzaka Watch. Check the links at the right for any particular start. A You Tube video of his May 9th, 14 strikeout outing is available for your enjoyment. Look for other video clips in 2006 game recaps, indicated by the [VIDEO] next to the start in the linkroll. I'll be adding more to this site as we get closer to finding out where he'll be playing in 2007. I'm hoping to bring you an interview or two in the coming weeks to help add depth to my personal observations. Stay tuned and come back as often as possible.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Matsuzaka Fever

It’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. Matsuzaka Fever is heating up. Already this site has seen more than 10 times the typical traffic in one day, with the announcement by Seibu principal owner Hidekazu Ota that his star pitcher will be sent to the Major Leagues by the posting process. This announcement comes on the heels of Seibu’s elimination from the Pacific League wild card series several days ago. Mr. Ota had previously indicated that he would follow the will of the fans in making his decision to post Matsuzaka, and it became clear at that point that we would be looking forward to this outcome sometime in the not too distant future.

The Japanese press broke the story yesterday with headlines reading things to the effect of “Matsuzaka Okayed to Pursue Majors Career. Yankees and 6 Other Teams Interested.” It was also the hot topic of conversation at the workplace and on the street. At first, my ears perked up to conversations being had at desks around the office. There was a soft murmuring of Japanese with the words, “Yankees” and “Matsuzaka” clearly pronounced. Sometime later in the day, I was asked in the men’s room if I knew Daisuke Matsuzaka. I grinned and told my co-workers about this blog. They were shocked and delighted and proudly announced to me that he would be on the Yankees next season. I was, of course, pleased to hear that they believed one of Japan’s favorite sons would join the Bombers, but I had to remind them that the posting system is open to anyone who decides to spend big. They replied something to the effect of, “Yeeeah. C’mon. He will be on the Yankees.”

I went out last night with some co-workers to celebrate the departure of a fellow teacher and spent the evening in a eating/drinking establishment. There I also heard talk of Matsuzaka joining the Majors, and again I heard an excited “Yankees” in the mix of the discussion. On the street in the area surrounding the restaurant there were taxi drivers and locals talking about the Chuinichi Dragons clinching the Central League pennant, and the conversation turned to the Yankees and Matsuzaka. All of this pleases me a great deal as a Yankee fan. If you’ve spent any time reading here, you know that this is the spin-off blog to Canyon of Heroes, which chronicles the Yanks throughout the year. The pleasure I get in hearing my favorite club admired so enthusiastically in Japan is only measured by the knowledge that whatever the fans want, and whatever Matsuzaka wants, the highest bidder will retain his rights. Take heart in that Mariners, Ranger, Orioles, Angels, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Mets fans….among others.

I’m sure the coverage of this story will grow by leaps and bounds as the posting draws nearer. I will continue to cover the news, and the details of the upcoming Japan/MLB All Star Series. This year’s competition has been announced as a best of five series. All the games will be played, but there is certainly an air of real competition about it. The following comments were made on MLB.com by key figures in the sport.

"Beginning the baseball season with the inaugural World Baseball Classic and ending it with a competition featuring superstars from the two premier professional leagues in the world is a true testament to the global reach of our game," said Paul Archey, Senior Vice President, International Business Operations, Major League Baseball. "This event will provide an exclamation point for what has been a truly remarkable year for Major League Baseball and the worldwide exposure of the game."

"With these games, we take an important step in heightening the competitive aspect of postseason play in Japan," said Eugene Orza, Chief Operating Officer of the Players Association. "While friendship will always be a hallmark of the play, with such talented rosters and an expanded prize pool, these games will certainly be even more exciting and competitive than ever before."

The rosters have also been officially announced. The MLB team will be as follows:

C Joe Mauer
1B Ryan Howard
2B Chase Utley
SS Jose Reyes
3B David Wright
OF Andruw Jones
OF Chone Figgins
OF Bill Hall

C Kenji Johjima
C Brian Schneider
1B Lyle Overbay
2B Tadahito Iguchi
SS Rafael Furcal

SP Johan Santana
SP John Lackey
SP Chris Young
SP Bronson Arroyo
SP Erik Bedard

RP Brian Fuentes
RP Ray King
RP Chris Capuano
RP Mike Myers
RP Scot Shields
CL Joe Nathan

Manager: Ken Macha

Clearly the MLB team will need to add another outfielder or two to the roster, but I think the team is solid. It’s not the best players out there, but it’s more than enough with that pitching in all likelihood. In 2004, we saw Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Vernon Wells on the club, among others, and it was perhaps a bit scarier. A total of three more players will be added shortly. The Japanese will be fired up to take a best of 5 from the Major Leaguers and solidify their reputation as a premier league, on par with MLB. It’s not true, but that’s how it will be perceived, like it or not. The Japanese roster will be very good and will feature many of the players from the WBC championship roster. It appears as though the series will open with Matsuzaka facing Johan Santana, but Koji Uehara has generally been chosen for such opening games in the past with seniority on the former Seibu ace. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

If you are new to the blog, or simply don't know how it works, there are links in the right hand margin to take you to my recaps of all 25 regular season starts, as well as his one playoff start. There are also links to various analysis that I performed on MLB projections, Pitcher Abuse Points, and more. Take your time, browse the content, and keep coming back for more.

Monday, October 09, 2006

All Good Things....

Matsuzaka Watch is sad to report that Seibu's season has come to a crashing end. After outdueling the likely 2006 Sawamura Award winner Kazumi Saito 1-0, Daisuke Matsuzaka watched his teammates cough up the best of 3 series by dropping the final two games by scores of 11-3 and 6-1, respectively. Superstar Nobuhiko Matsunaka did the damage in the second game by driving in 5 runs, while #5 hitter Julio Zuleta broke a tie ballgame in the 8th inning with a titanic 3-run blast in the conclusive game. I've been saying since opening day that whatever the records say in the standings, SoftBank is the best ballclub in Japan this year. I fully expect them to beat Nippon Ham to win the Pacific League pennant and then Chuinichi for the whole enchilada.

What does this mean now for the young ace? It means that he won't be donning the Seibu colors again, in all likelihood. It is virtually assured that he will be posted following the conclusion of the Japan Series in a few weeks. Fans around the country have already begun to prepare for the posting, and are excited to see the man they call "The World's Matsuzaka" or "The World's Ace" don an MLB uniform come Spring Training. In an article from the post-game coverage of the Seibu elimination I found this:

Matsuzaka Greets Fans, But Is It a Parting of Ways?

"Despite Seibu ace Matsuzaka's complete game shutout victory in the first game, the team has missed advancing to the second round by "losing two consecutive". Matsuzaka pined, "I was frustrated because I wanted to pitch a little more." After the game, he appeared on the field alone and performed polite greetings. He took a hat for a fan who was buried in the right wing seats and in the first base infield stands, and bowed to them. Rumors about his right arm being transferred to the U.S. Major Leagues by the posting system (a bid system) did not die out, and he seemed to say his last good-byes to the fans now. Matsuzaka said that he "believed in a Seibu victory, and a lot of fans came to support us" regarding this action."

There is one step before the posting process moves to a frenzy pitch. That last step is the Aeon MLB All-Star Series, called the Aeon NichiBei Yakyu here in Japan. Aeon is the largest retailer over here and they have sponsored the previous two installments of this series in 2002 and 2004. They also provided sponsorship for the season opening games between the Yankees and Tampa Bay in recent years, and others.

You'll note that I wrote about Matsuzaka's participation in the 2004 event in my feature on international competition, linked at right as "vs. the World". Daisuke tossed a complete game against a team of MLB All-Stars in which he gave up one run, 5 hits, no walks, and 6 strikeouts. He'll likely face an even better lineup this November as the series is renewed. The details of this competition are as follows:


NOV 2 MLB All-Stars vs. Yomiuri Giants
NOV 3 MLB All-Stars vs. NPB All-Stars
NOV 4 MLB All-Stars vs. NPB All-Stars
NOV 5 MLB All-Stars vs. NPB All-Stars
NOV 7 MLB All-Stars vs. NPB All-Stars
NOV 8 MLB All-Stars vs. NPB All-Stars

The rosters have yet to be announced, but a number of MLB players have committed to play. The Japanese rosters will be selected in part by fan ballotting, a la the MLB All Star Game, and the manager of the NPB club, Rakuten's Katsuya Nomura. To date the following Major Leaguers have been named as participants in the event:

C Kenji Johjima
1B Ryan Howard
2B Tadahito Iguchi
SS Jose Reyes
3B David Wright
OF Andruw Jones
IF Chase Utley

SP Johan Santana

The rest of the team will be announced later. Typically, the players coming in from the Bigs spend more time buying electronics and picking up women than they do focused on baseball according to some newspaper accounts of the previous events, but there is a different sentiment this time around by all accounts. The Major Leaguers are out to reclaim some dignity for their league in the wake of the WBC competition. A number of guys have been quoted as saying they want to get back some of the pride that was lost in the March event.

Whatever happens, Daisuke Matsuzaka will be there. I'm not certain if we will learn who has won the posting rights during the same timeframe, or if they will announce everything after the games have concluded. I'm also not sure how soon we can expect to get the official press release from Seibu that the posting will go on as planned. I'll be there to cover everything for you. Keep coming back, and get ready for some interesting games.

On a final note, this blog has topped 10,000 hits after slowing building readership every month, and I'd like to thank fans of all stripes for coming by, linking to me, and entering through various search engines. I've had visitors from countries all over the world, and I hope you've enjoyed my work here. More soon..........

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Playoff Watch: Game 1 (SoftBank)

After ending the regular season with a very costly defeat, Matsuzaka looked to pick up the mantle of ace again and lead his Lions into battle. The task would be difficult as the opponent would be the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, led by former Triple Crown winner and WBC standout Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and likely 2006 Sawamura Award winner Kazumi Saito. Leadoff man, Munenori Kawasaki was also a member of the WBC champions.

On the season, Matsunaka's batting line was as follows:

.324/.453/.528 for a .981 OPS
131 games
447 ABs
145 hits
32 doubles, a triple, and 19 home runs
76 runs and 79 RBIs

He walked an incredible 102 times to only 37 strikeouts. Matsunaka ranked 1st in average and on base percentage in the Pacific. He ranked 5th in slugging. His 19 home runs were tied for 6th place with Seibu's left fielder and WBC teammate Kazuhiro Wada. Also, Matsunaka placed 6th in hits, 4th in doubles, and 7th in RBIs. Of course the walks ranked first ahead of 2nd place Wada, who had 78. Yup, he beat the number two guy by 24 walks.

As for Kazumi Saito, what can you say. He's been every bit as good as Matsuzaka this season. He'll turn 29 next month and has shown his brilliance more than ever in the 2006 campaign. Over the last 5 regular seasons, Saito's ERA has been:


That 6.26 is not a typo. I don't know the ins and outs of his career as well as I do a handful of other pitchers, but it probably had something to do with a dead arm or playing through an injury. He's a very good pitcher. This has been the crown jewel season of his career and I don't expect to see him repeat it. All of his numbers are career bests, and his strikeouts jumped tremendously this season. There's no precedent in all the years he's played for these numbers, so SoftBank fans should treasure the level of dominance they enjoyed this year. His numbers:

26 GS
201.0 IP
18-5 (.783)
8 CG
5 shutouts
147 hits
46 walks
205 Ks
1.75 ERA
0.960 WHIP
9.18 K/9
4.46 K/BB

He leads in wins, innings, strikeouts, and ERA. He also leads in shutouts and is third in complete games. How would the matchup of aces turn out? Let's take a look.

Things started well for Daisuke as he went 1-2-3 in the first inning. Actually, he hit the #2 man, centerfielder Naoyuki Omura, but he was erased on a double play. That hit batsman was another in a line of recent "dead balls" that Matsuzaka has produced, making me wonder about how tired he is getting after a long and grueling season. Saito matched him with a nice first inning, where he gave up a ground ball single, but erased the Lions on back to back swinging strikeouts to close the inning.

Matsuzaka got himself into trouble in the second by issuing a leadoff double that was lined off the left field wall by Matsunaka. He then got ahead of the next batter, and hit him for his second hit batsman in as many innings. I began to wonder if this was going to unravel like his previous start to close the regular season. Fortunately, this is Japanese baseball and like clockwork the following batter, Hiroshi Shibahara, bunted to advance the runners. The bunt went directly back to Matsuzaka who fired to third and nailed the runner by plenty. The next two batters fanned on some wicked stuff. Saito went 1-2-3.

Both pitchers worked out of trouble by retiring baserunners on double plays in the 4th inning. Matsuzaka got his revenge against Matsunaka by dropping the nasty slider on him for a strikeout to lead off that frame. It was apparent at this point that these teams were going to have to scratch something out in order to score and whoever blinked first would win. The fifth inning saw two fast outs for Matsuzaka before he lost the grip on what looked like a changeup to #8 man, Naoki Matoba. He had been ahead and dominating the batter, but something snapped and the control went south again. The ball crashed violently into Matoba's ribs and sent him to the ground writhing in pain. A short trip to the clubhouse got the batter back in shape and in the box. Matsuzaka got him to foul off the next pitch before bouncing one to the backstop. I though this was it for sure, but he induced a weak grounder to first to escape any further trouble. Saito again went 1-2-3 and no one had even come close to hitting a hard ball against him through 5.

The 6th inning went like this:

Pop up behind third, one out. #3 hitter Cabrera is dazzled by a nasty screw, changeup, and then high blazing heat. Strikeout looking. 2 down. Matsunaka with another hit. Single to right. Matsuzaka worked him with a nice inside fastball, a slider that missed, a nice slider for a strike, and then went to the well one too many times and hung a third slider. 2 down, man on first. Zuleta swings through 2 good ol' country fastballs high and out of the zone, and then weakly waves at either a slider or a splitter tailing away and dying low and outside. 3 outs.

I began to take more detailed notes as this game progressed to see how the pitchers would operate in a tight game that was getting late early. Matsuzaka was my main focus, so I will provide you with his details as I go. Saito dominated the 6th again 1-2-3.

Matsuzaka's 7th:

Matsuzaka starts off the 7th with a K on the #6 hitter. Got ahead 0-2 with offspeed stuff, then went heat for a couple of fouls before finishing him on a check swing with the slider. The #7 hitter ate the bench on 4 pitches. All heaters in the 93 MPH range. 2 outs. bunt single. Matsuzaka challeged hitter #9 with a combination of fastballs and offspeed stuff to get the count at 2-2. He left one up and we now have runners on 1st and 2nd, two outs. 99 pitches with 2 outs in the 7th.

WBC shortstop and leadoff man Kawasaki was blown away by Daisuke on three straight pitches, but the third was oddly called a ball. Matsuzaka chafed at the call. He then threw a strike that was fouled off and then hit his fourth batter of the game. Bases loaded, two outs, manager comes to the mound to talk. Weak grounder to 1st unassisted ends the threat. 105 pitches through 7.

Back to back hits to lead of the bottom of the 7th had Kazumi Saito in his first real trouble of the game. Hiroyuki Nakajima and Alex Cabrera hit line drives to put runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out and WBC man Kazuhiro Wada at the plate. Saito mysteriously left the field with an uncomfortable look on his face and went directly into the clubhouse. I was stunned. Was this it for Saito? He had put himself in a real jam and was now off the field. The long faces on the SoftBank bench were short lived as he reemerged from the dugout to take the mound. Perhaps he should have stayed where he was as Wada laced a pitch into left field for a run scoring double. 2nd and 3rd and nobody out. Saito didn't budge or blink. He promptly retired the next three batters on a grounder to second that didn't score the runner, and two swinging Ks. It was still a game, but Matsuzaka had the advantage now. Could he close the door?

Matsuzaka's 8th:

Daisuke starts things off in the 8th with his 8th strikeout. The Hawks' Cabrera waives at a slider in the dirt away. Matsuzaka goes 3-0 on slugger and former Triple Crown winner Matsunaka before getting a called strike one. He then challenges him with heat and produces two foul balls. The crowd rises to a crescendo.....changeup strike three swinging!!! #5 hitter, Zuleta, comes up and takes high heat for ball one. He swings through the exact same pitch for strike one. 93 MPH. Matsuzaka wastes a pitch on a dying quail inside. Same pitch on the outside corner is ball 3. Wicked slider drops in over the plate, 3-2. The crowd again bangs its drums and rises.....same wicked slider fouled off. Straight cheese over the lower half of the zone....94 MPH. 10 Ks for Matsuzaka through 8.

Keeping the game close, Saito sucked it up and went 1-2-3 for the 5th and final time of the game. The one costly moment to Wada would spell the difference in his outing and in the complexion of this Best of Three series. It was up to the bottom of the SoftBank order to complete the mission and give them a chance to win. You know it didn't happen, don't you? You know if you've been paying attention to this blog.

Matsuzaka's 9th:

Kept the first batter off balance and got him to pop weakly behind short. One out. Fastball on the inside corner, strike one. Same pitch on the outside, strike two. Bounces the third pitch in front of the catcher (nice block), ball one. Way high and outside, ball two. 91 MPH fastball, swinging K. One out to a victory. Slider breaking away from the lefty, strike one. Wasted a poor pitch inside, ball one. Hanging slider that he got away with on a foul ball, strike two. Straight cheese, 94 MPH on the outside, swinging strike three.

Game over. Seibu wins. 1-0 Lions on the night and in the series. In the postgame hero interview Wada gave credit to both starting pitchers and praised his teammate. Matsuzaka was happy to get the win and seemed very collected and poised during the interview. Fans waved "Sekai no Matsuzaka" signs behind him in the crowd, which means "The World's Matsuzaka". He laughed off the question about hitting 4 batters, but quickly regained his composure and said that it was no laughing matter. He apologized to the SoftBank players and asked for their forgiveness, with a friendly smile on his face.

The final line on the game:

9 inning, complete game shutout
137 pitches
6 hits
no walks
4 hit batsmen
13 Ks

If his teammates can win another game, you'll see him again in the Pacific League Championship Series against the Nippon Ham Fighters. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for reading.