To give you an idea of how worthless wins and losses are in judging a pitcher's season or ability look at these numbers:
Against the Yankees 13 IP 10 runs 13 hits 5 walks 14 K 6.92 ERA 1.385 WHIP 9.69 K/9 2.80 K/BB 2 wins against no losses
Against everyone else 20 IP 6 runs 17 hits 5 walks 24 K 2.70 ERA 1.100 WHIP 10.80 K/9 4.80 K/BB 1 win against 2 losses
If the Yankees pitchers had done anything against Daisuke, he would have lost both starts in an ugly and frustrating pair of performances. Instead, he looks like a hero. Go figure. That's baseball sometimes. His poor showings against the Yankees have raised his ERA from 2.70 to 4.36 and you know he was breathing a sigh of relief and reserving a few Rolex watches for the batters who saved his bacon. The one positive you take as a Red Sox fan from those outings was his ability to limit the damage in the worst of times. The 4th inning today was about as bad as I've ever seen Matsuzaka in all the years I've watched him. Guess what? He had the bases loaded and nobody out after walking the first three batters of the inning. He gave up four runs. The rest of the game, he was dominant. As an ace pitcher, you have to localize the damage. Every pitcher will face tough lineups that will get to them. Koufax, Pedro, Clemens, and every other pitcher with a reputation has found himself staring down ugly innings with crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Mediocre pitchers get knocked out of those games. There is no recovery. Good pitchers and great pitchers localize the damage, regroup, and keep their team in the game. Kudos to Daisuke for that effort.
As a Yankees fan, this season is perhaps the least enjoyable I've had in more than 10 years. I anticipate some kind of firing soon, perhaps Guidry. The team is not that bad. As Red Sox fans, this must be especially enjoyable, but I wonder if any of you can honestly say you have an explanation for the Yankees 8 game losing streak. I'm not talking about an analysis. It's easy to understand that scoring 4 runs and giving up 7 runs every night will produce a long losing streak, but how many people anywhere in the sport can explain what we've seen from Mariano Rivera? Puzzling. It's hard to figure that the rotation can't get a single solitary quality start over that period of time. The Yankees and Red Sox are similarly talented. The Sox have better pitching, while the Yankees have a better lineup (save Mientkiewicz). In the end, you'd expect this season to play out a bit more neck and neck. At this point, honest fans of all "(pin)stripes" have to give a hand to Theo Epstein for putting the Boston boys in a position to be the best team in the sport. That's what the Red Sox are right now. There is no better team anywhere. Period.
I think some of the things that have gone right for the Sox so far will eventually turn South. I'm not saying permanently, but rather some adversity should be expected. Manny and Ortiz will do their best to wake up and carry the club when others begin to struggle, but a bit of regression is at least in the cards. The Yankees will be better than this. The gap will narrow. The one question you have to ask yourself is will the Red Sox continue to play well enough over the next 3 weeks to a month to put the Yankees 10+ games back and eliminate them from serious AL East contention? It could happen. The Yankees could be fighting for a wild card this season, while the Sox may just have built a good enough team to have the best record in the sport and a long overdue AL East pennant. Much of that will depend on Schilling, Beckett, and Daisuke. When you can put three pitchers on the field that challenge for ERA+ numbers of 120 and above, you have a World Series contender.
Today, Matsuzaka escaped. He should be thrilled beyond belief to face other clubs for a while. The Yankees were a failure in many ways that he will need to improve upon later in the year if and when there's a pennant race and the Yankees are fielding a better rotation. Improving on these results may mean the difference between the big AL East prize and a disappointing finish to the season. I am betting on Matsuzaka despite my loyalties. Now, please excuse me while I go lock myself in a dark closet somewhere and cry myself to sleep. ;)
I was sitting at my desk this morning contemplating the gigantic menu of baseball that is in my future for the coming week. Japan will enjoy "Golden Week" over the first 7 days of May, a holiday that provides the Japanese an opportunity to break away from the tedious routine of long hours and very hard work. Many Japanese in the North enjoy cherry blossom viewing as the flowers reach their peak bloom. Still others will pack up their families into cars and head for the hills. I will spend some time with the family, sitting under the "sakura" and sharing the festive spirit of the season with my neighbors. The rest of the time will be wall to wall baseball. The first game on the slate is Matsuzaka vs. the Yankees II: The Bombers Revenge.
As visions of gyroballs danced in my head, a fellow teacher peaked his head over the stack of books between us and asked me if I would be up at 8am to watch tomorrow. I laughed. "Of course", I said. He then told me that he would be up to watch as well and would begin to drink beer much earlier than usual for the occasion. Many Japanese (especially in the North) love to drink beer with every fleeting free moment they have away from work. 8am is a bit extreme, but it started to make sense to me as I thought about what would possess him to start his brew sampling at the crack of dawn. Matsuzaka's starts have almost exclusively come during the work week here, and therefore have gone largely unseen by live Japanese audiences. Not only would many Japanese be seeing Matsuzaka in the Majors for the 1st or 2nd time, all of us will be seeing Daisuke against Hideki Matsui for the first time.
I don't get the sense that the Matsuzaka vs. Matsui meeting carries the same buzz as the Ichiro event, but it is still a major happening nonetheless. Matsui is a favorite of many Giants fanatics, and especially many of the older generation; the 30-somethings and above. Ichiro has the idol appeal that draws in a younger audience, as well as being the 1st position player to head to the US. He won the MVP. Matsui is soft spoken, kind of a goofy interview, and could care less about anything but playing baseball well. He's a very good representative for the sport, no matter the country, but he is not as "sexy" as his Seattle counterpart. Matsui also faced Daisuke in far fewer real game situations. Most of their meetings came in spring games and All Star matchups. There was no interleague until recently. The one caveat to that is the meetings that Daisuke dominated in the Japan Series in 2002 in a losing effort. Matsui's Giants would sweep the Lions for the last of their 20 franchise championships. Here's a look at the total matchups:
As you can see, Matsui has been owned by Matsuzaka. 2 for 17 with one home run and two walks. As Matsuzaka got a bit more experienced he began to strike Matsui out a lot more as well. It's been 4 and a half years since they last met, so it's really anyone's guess as to how their matchup will play out, but it will certainly be a lot of fun; drunken fun for some.
The team matchup is a serious affair, as the Sox will be looking to blacken the Yankees other eye and bury them in the standings. A humiliating defeat of the Yankees may be enough to get Joe Torre fired, fair or not, but we'll be watching on the Yankees side to see how much say George Steinbrenner has in this organization. If the Sox sweep again, and Torre stays, you know George is a figurehead. I think we'll see a much more competitive series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees backs are against the wall, and they will be starting Pettitte and Wang, along with Jeff Karstens. No more Chase Wright to kick around. I also think that the Sox have played slightly over their heads, while the Yankees have played far below their real ability. I'm going to give the Yankees a 2-1 series win, but only by the skin of their teeth. They do get to bat last this time around.
As for Daisuke, he wasn't that great against New York the first time around, but he got the win. The Yankees are dealing with some serious issues right now, and were just blanked by A.J. Burnett. The signs point to a Matsuzaka gem here. Something along the lines of 8 innings, 3 hits, 1 walk, and 1 ER against 13 strikeouts. I'm just not ready to give up on the Yankees at home that way. I'll be a bit of a homer here and predict Matsuzaka will get knocked out early. You'll hate me for this and I'll probably find that my initial prediction of 8 lights out innings was correct, but I'll stick my neck out and guess:
5+ IP 8 hits 2 walks 5 strikeouts 6 ER
The Yankees will take Game One fairly comfortably behind Pettitte. Geez....I know I'm going to be sorry for this prediction. Go easy on me people. I'm sensitive. ;)
Well it wasn't such a dandy for Daisuke, but he got the win. I suppose it made up for the King Felix and Gustavo Chacin matchups that went against the Red Sox rookie. To be honest, I wasn't able to see the game as I was away on some important business for a few days. I have it on my HDD recorder (my new best friend this season) and I want to take a look at it more closely before the next matchup. I think a comprehensive preview of the next Yankees game featuring our hero will serve the dual purpose of examining what happened in the last game, as a way to predict what will occur in the coming contest. You all watched the game, so you know better than I what happened blow by blow. You don't need me to write anything up about the storyline, having been firsthand witnesses to the sweep yourselves.
I predicted in an e-mail to a good friend that Matsuzaka's pitching line vs. the Yankees would look something like this (actual numbers in parentheses):
6 IP (7 IP) 8 hits (8 hits) 2 walks (1 walk, 2 HBP) 8 K (7 K) 4 ER (6 ER)
Not bad. If I keep this up, I just might be able to make some money in Vegas. Last thing today, being swept was not a very pleasant experience for me. The Sox look good. I tip my cap to Theo Epstein for his offseason moves, the best of which just might be Okajima in the end (save Matsuzaka). Okaji has been a lifesaver for a pen that looks mighty bad outside Papelbon. The Yankees are a better team than they showed in that series, thanks to some hideous pitching from rookies and one HOF closer. Another great season ahead in the "Greatest Rivalry in Sports" (c).
Finally, we have liftoff on the recap of the Toronto outing here at Matsuzaka Watch. Before I get into some batter analysis, I thought I'd give my general sense of this performance from an overall perspective. This was Daisuke Matsuzaka as I saw him in Japan. This was about the best I've seen him pitch against Major League hitting to date, and the control that he showed with his entire arsenal was remarkable. I also liked the way he worked pitch combinations more in this game.
Matsuzaka worked primarily off a variety of fastballs and popped the radar gun at 94-95 on many occasions with the 4-seam version. The cutter has improved a lot since he arrived in the US, and I don't remember seeing him go to that pitch nearly as much for Seibu. It's almost as though he's feeling more comfortable with his control of the cutter than he is with the slider. That makes him all the more dangerous when he gets the killer slider back to full strength. It was very good, if not great, against the Jays at any rate.
The 4th inning was Matsuzaka's killer. I felt there were a few factors related to the poor showing in the 4th that need to be addressed. First, his fifth pitch to Vernon Wells was a vicious slider that bit Wells' in half at the knees, but Ed Montague called it a ball from behind the plate. That was a missed call and it frustrated and annoyed Daisuke. I've seen him get burned by bad calls in the past, but he doesn't usually flinch. He usually gets the next pitch in the same location and sits the batter down. Not against Toronto. The very next pitch was tapped to 3B, and Lowell made a nice barehanded throw to first, only to miss Wells by a step. Matsuzaka lost it.
He threw a 4 pitch walk to Frank Thomas, and nothing was close. He threw two nice pitches to Overbay, but a little flick of the bat on the second one produced an astroturf single past Lugo at short. Another bad break on a pitch by which Overbay was badly fooled. Matsuzaka started to work way too fast and lost that nice coiling-uncoiling motion that he has. He looked rushed and uncomfortable throwing a lot of fastballs to Hill. Hill stepped out very very late and Montague allowed him time out on the seventh pitch of that at bat. The final pitch was a badly bounced fastball for a walk. Finally, Greg Zaun drew a walk to force in a run on a lot of balls which missed by a mile. It was not vintage Matsuzaka, but I think the combination of Montague's missed call on Wells, the two weak hits, and Montague's time out for Hill threw him off. No excuses.
What you have to like, however, was the regrouping that he did to keep the game close. Matsuzaka struck out 5 of the last 8 batters he faced, including 4 in a row. Those at bats were dominated by the 2-seam, 4-seam, and cutter along with the slider and an occasional change. The variety of fastballs that he used was something I had hoped to see at some point. Playing around with the offspeed stuff is nice when you can fool batters, but Matsuzaka is too good to be primarily an offspeed guy. He is like Pedro or David Cone in that he can blast a fastball by you for strikes one and two, and he can place it on the black anytime he wants. That sets up the 20 other pitches that might come flying out of his hand and you have no hope. I like the fastball as the primary pitch, especially when it comes in 3 different flavors.
Now for a couple of batters. I decided to write up three of the Jays batters, rather than the complete roster. I have notes on the whole game, but at this point we see that Matsuzaka is going to dominate the league average and below guys by showing fastball and working the change and slider in locations that are just not fair. The big slugger types get a steady diet of high heat until the hammer is dropped with a final curve or slider for effect. I may go back to doing an entire lineup of hitters as we continue, particularly with the Yankees coming up the next two games, but I stuck with the three Jays hitters with career OPS of .800+. Those hitters are Vernon Wells (.827), Frank Thomas (.988), and Lyle Overbay (.835), hitting 3-4-5 in the Toronto lineup. None of them has been particularly hot to start the season, but there are who they are for a reason. Matsuzaka will show us the most in the way he deals with these hitters.
Vernon Wells (1-3 - 17 pitches: 10 fastballs, 7 offspeed)
Wells was actually out all three times at the plate, including two strikeouts. The little cheap hit he managed after Ed Montague's blown call innocently opened the door for the poor 4th inning that ended up losing the game for the Sox. He went right after the Jays best hitter with a whole lot of heat. The threat of the slider was enough to have Wells defensive all night. Guarding against that pitch is what made Matsuzaka a monster in the Pacific League, and Wells fell victim to that style of pitching in this game. Frank Thomas (0-2, 2 strikeouts, 1 BB - 11 pitches: 6 fastballs, 4 offspeed, 1 ?)
Thomas almost saw the minimum number of possible pitches for each of his 3 at bats. A three pitch strikeout, a four pitch walk, and a 4 pitch strikeout. Matsuzaka got the benefit of facing Thomas when he was clearly pressing. He has opened the 2007 season very cold, and is not living up to the comeback year he had in 2006. He seemed to be fooled very badly in both at bats when he struck out, and the walk was really a no contest. It came after the unfortunate Vernon Wells at bat in the 4th inning, and contributed to the Jays win in the end.
#1 - curve (center-strike), slider (inside, but close-ball), cutter (inside-foul), fastball (low/outside black - called strike three) #2 - cutter (inside-strike), change (outside-excuse me RBI single past Lugo) #3 - fastball (center-strike), cutter (inside-ball), fastball (low-ball), fastball (center-strike), 2-seam fastball (center-G4-3)
Against the left handed Overbay, Matsuzaka went with the cutter three different times. I'm guessing that the cutter is something he wants to add to his already impressive collection of pitches for just such occasions. Powerful Major Leaguers batting from the left will get the slider, but more than likely the cutter will take it's place until the Matsuzaka special has his full confidence.
This sets up the final part of this recap. The Toronto game was an unfortunate loss to a decent team that got a little lucky, and had Red Sox killer Gustavo Chacin on the hill, opposing Daisuke. The Yankees will prove to be the greatest test of Matsuzaka's pitching career, stacked from top to bottom, and probably the most common opponent he will face over the next 6 years. This is why he was brought to Boston, right? Here's my prediction on the Yankee batters.
Johnny Damon will get a hit of some kind, but he will be held to one good at bat. Derek Jeter will have a multi-hit game, as I think guys with compact swings, who wait on the ball well, do better against Matsuzaka. Abreu will be on base at some point, but a lot will be determined by how effective Daisuke is at throwing his pitches for strikes. If he isn't sharp, Abreu may beat him. A-Rod is hard to figure. Normally, I wouldn't give him much chance in this matchup. As good as he is, I think Matsuzaka can strike him out repeatedly with hard movement. This year A-Rod is inhuman, and his swing is much more compact. I can't accurately predict what you'll see, but it will be fun. Giambi is meat. I don't think he can hit Matsuzaka. He could draw a walk, but the 2007 version of the Giambino doesn't hit much. When he does, it goes a looooong way, but his average is evidence that he is not going to "hit" Daisuke. If Posada plays, he's also meat. Matsuzaka shouldn't throw him a single straight pitch. Posada will beat him if he throws a fastball close to the plate, but anything dropping down in the zone will provide more strikeout fodder for the Boston ace. Cano will also have a good night. He may look silly once or twice, but his swing is also compact enough and he waits well on pitches. I'm assuming that Doug Mientkiewicz will play first and hit ninth, so you can chalk up 3 or 4 strikeouts there. As a Yankee fan, I've given up on Minky doing anything but senselessly sac bunting for Torre this year.
Strap in people. This should be fun. (I will be rooting for the Yankees to score double digit runs against Matsuzaka, by the way. I know that's not a popular sentiment here, but I have warned you that I'm a Yankee fan all along. I'm guessing that the Sox will win the game 7-4.)
The Seattle recap is up below. Sorry for the delay in getting to that. Work and taking care of baby has kept my hands full lately and I was only able to get to the writing portion of my analysis tonight. The notes were there, but the time wasn't.
I will have a full piece on the hard luck Toronto start up tomorrow at some point. I've just watched it and put together my notes, but there isn't much time this evening to complete the job. Fear not. This one will be up for you faster than you can say, "Where's the offense fellas?"
The anticipated matchup between Ichiro and Matsuzaka was usurped by the King of Seattle. That would be Felix Hernandez, the 2nd year ace of the Mariners. His one hitter of the Red Sox stole all the thunder from the Japanese duo's matchup. In fact, Kenji Johjima's continued success against Matsuzaka also played a part in stealing some of the attention on this evening. The aftermath of the big event has since passed, and we're on to the next start. Matsuzaka vs. Toronto. For your enjoyment, a record of the matchups of the Seattle game:
Was Ichiro amped up for this game too soon? It seems that he may have gotten himself into one helluva slump by thinking about the showdown too soon. Josh Beckett fanned the man 3 times in the game one night earlier, and Ichiro looked out of sorts against Matsuzaka. He wasn't flicking at the ball or putting the barrel of the bat on anything. Even the great ones can overthink.
Adrian Beltre (1-3, 1 walk – 11 pitches: 5 fastballs, 6 offspeed)
Obviously, the discussions in the Seattle dugout were to swing early in the count in the third and fourth times through the order. You'll see the same pattern in the following batters, with some success in the third go around.
Ibanez looked overmatched all night. His line drive in the final turn at bat was well hit, but he was fooled on virtually every other Matsuzaka offering. Raul is a very dangerous hitter against a lot of Major League pitchers, but Matsuzaka is just the type to give him trouble...a guy that throws a variety of pitches at varying speeds. Of course, that's a recipe for trouble for most hitters, but Ibanez particularly likes to feed off the fastball.
Daisuke knows how to pitch to the giant lumberjack types. A steady diet of heat, followed by the nasty breaking pitch for the strikeout. The curve Matsuzaka used as his out pitch in the 3rd at bat worked, but Sexson got lucky and stuck his bat out for a cheap hit. Jose Guillen (1-2, HBP – 11 pitches: 8 fastballs, 3 offspeed)
#1 - slider (outside-ball), fastball (low/outside-ball), curve (high/inside-ball), mediocre fastball (middle-lined high off the Green Monster for a single)
The scouting report on Guillen must be a heavy diet of fastballs. More than any of the other Mariners, Matsuzaka featured his heater to the hot-headed Guillen. I'll be interested to see how this plays out in the next Boston vs. Seattle matchup. Keep a close eye with me. I'm betting Daisuke uses the curve first pitch in the next game.
Johjima owns Daisuke. The mastery of Matsuzaka goes back to their days in the Pacific when Johjima was with the Hawks and Daisuke with the Lions. The catcher sported a lifetime batting average of .271 against Matsuzaka, 32-118 with 5 home runs. Where Ichiro has failed over the years, Johjima has defied the odds and beat up on "The World's Ace". Both of his doubles were solid knocks that left no doubt about who is Matsuzaka's daddy on the M's.
Betancourt really never had a good look at Matsuzaka. The sac fly in the 1st go around was a bit of a gimme, but it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Matsuzaka worked off the fastball and finished with the hard breaking stuff, the reverse approach to the guys in the upper half of the batting order.
Jose Lopez (2-3 – 12 pitches: 6 fastballs, 6 offspeed)
Matsuzaka was sloppy with Lopez. This is the type of batter that he should make look foolish, but he couldn't finish the job after being up 0-2 in both of the final at bats. That's the kind of situation that puts a pitcher in trouble, losing the #9 guy after a dominating start.
Excuse the tardiness on my latest recap. I've been very busy with a number of pressing things. Look for a double whammy of Matsuzaka fun coming your way with the detailed analysis of Matsui vs. Ichiro I and the upcoming start vs. Toronto.
This has been a very busy week, and as such I haven't had enough time to completely recap the performance of our subject, Daisuke Matsuzaka, against the Seattle Mariners. I promise it will be up within the next day or two. In the meantime, I thought I'd briefly share a thought or two on the game, and tell you about a very interesting program I watched last night.
That's called a "Quality Start" in baseball circles, and that's what the Red Sox got from Matsuzaka on a night when his best stuff didn't arrive in time for the game. It's interesting how high everyone on both sides of the Pacific has set the bar for Daisuke that people are generally lukewarm on his Fenway debut. It wasn't so long ago that people were regularly heard wondering aloud if he'd be a huge disappointment, and now we're conditioned to say, "Meh." when he doesn't throw a shutout. No, he wasn't sharp. It is worth noting, however, that the Red Sox offense is expected to score 5+ runs a game this season, and a performance like the one we witnessed really is good enough to win more than 60% of the time under Pythagorean Win Expectations.
The issue so far this season has been the inconsistency of the Matsuzaka slider. That pitch is one of the most fearsome and unhittable pitches ever seen, but has been absent on too many occasions since the start of Spring Training. I've seen one or two of his world class sliders in the games he's pitched. That brings me to the program I saw last night. It's an NHK regular feature called "Closeup Gendai" which means "Closeup Today", with "Today" indicating modern times, rather than the day in question. The host of this excellent program is one of my favorite journalists in any language, Hiroko Kuniya. Kuniya is a graduate of Brown University with majors in international relations and international economics. She speaks both English and Japanese and has worked on both sides of the Pacific. She is brilliant, actually.
On this evening, her guests in studio were Tsuyoshi Yoda (yes, Yoda), a former Japanese Rookie of the Year for Lotte, and current NHK pitching analyst, and Robert Whiting, author of "You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Meaning of Ichiro" among other excellent publications. The topic was Daisuke Matsuzaka and his debut for the Red Sox. The trio discussed a number of things, ranging from the significance of a move of this kind by a Japanese ace to the United States, his prospects for success, his 10 strikeout debut, and his recent matchup with Ichiro. The most compelling portion of the discussion was the analysis of Matsuzaka's slider. An astrophysicist chimed in via taped presentation on the differences between the NPB and MLB baseballs, and the more slippery leather of the US version. He showed how it is effecting the rotation of Daisuke's slider, and Yoda (in his ever so wise way) demonstrated the adjustment that Matsuzaka would have to make with his thumb to get the bite back on his famed out pitch.
Whiting made a very good account of himself in Japanese, as one would expect, and helped to paint a picture of the Major League expectations and the frenzy on US soil over the Japanese hero. Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus also made a cameo by tape, and the 12-9 PECOTA-projected record was featured as a starting point for expectations that may have to be moved upward as we see more of Daisuke.
It was a great roundtable, and I learned a lot. I'll give you the recap soon. Stay tuned.
"When I left you I was but the learner...now I am the master." - Darth Vader
I won't be able to live blog this game today, as I'm currently sitting at my desk at work. I did want to drop in to share a quick story about my Ichiro vs. Matsuzaka experience. I have to leave home at 8:05 at the latest to arrive at work in time for our morning teacher's meeting. It's very bad form in Japan to be late to that meeting, so I had no choice. As I was walking out of my house, Ichiro was strapping on his elbow armor and the announcers were working themselves into a fever pitch. It was excruciating. Each step towards the door I took, Ichiro took a step closer to the batter's box. There was nothing I could do.
Then, I remembered that recently my cell phone crapped out after 2 and a half years and I was forced to replace it. The service here is great and I was able to upgrade to a new phone for about $30. My old phone was a standard issue model with a simple camera and no further bells or whistles. The new phone has a camera, mp3 player, and a television. Go figure. I thought I'd be out of luck to see the pitch, as (1) NHK is not one of the 5 channels that the phone can pick up on the local airwaves, and (2) watching TV while driving is enough to get a person killed.
I turned on the TV, sitting in my driveway, and I was in luck on point #1. The local channels had cut away to the game to show Ichiro vs. Matsuzaka I, and I could at least get a peek at that at bat. The problem was #2. I had to go. I had to start on my way to work, and I wasn't about to put myself in danger for one at bat, no matter how historic. I would at least settle for listening in. Kind of like radio baseball, which was always good enough for me in the past. As luck would have it, first pitch came while I was at a red light sent from heaven. I watched the entire at bat from curve ball one to ground out 1-3. Sometimes God is smiling down on us.
I'll be back later with a substantial recap, and maybe an update or two, if I can manage it.
There is no baseball figure more revered in Japan than Shigeo Nagashima. The former Tokyo Giants third baseman was a teammate of Sadaharu Oh during the 60s and 70s and helped to lead the famous club to 9 consecutive Japan Series titles. Nagashima hit a home run in the first game attended by the Emperor, and will always remain as an icon of Japanese fighting spirit, long after he's gone. Nagashima was a very popular manager of the Giants and was scheduled to lead the 2004 Japanese Olympic Baseball Team before falling ill before the trip to Sydney. A young Daisuke Matsuzaka would hit 100 on the radar gun and absolutely dominate the Australians in a 1-0 losing effort that stunned Japan and the international baseball community.
Nagashima's stroke and his limited involvement in the day to day operations of the Giants, and baseball in general, reminds us that all legends eventually fade, at least in the physical world. Hideki Matsui would have been the natural successor to Nagashima as the cleanup batter of the famous Yomiuri club, and a 55 home run slugger. Had he continued to play for Kyojin, Matsui may well be thought of as that eternal hero and the embodiment of the Japanese fighting spirit that Nagashima, his former manager, sought to pass along to him. One thing has sidetracked that lineage. Ichiro Suzuki.
No one could have ever anticipated that a Japanese player would cross the Pacific to play in the Major Leagues when Oh and Nagashima were dominating the sport, all those years ago. Even in the modern era, it would have seemed far fetched to imagine that the first player to boldly test those Major League waters would immediately win an MVP award. Ichiro so captured the imagination of the Japanese, that he wears the pride of a nation like his Mariners uniform every time he takes the field. He is 2000's embodiment of Japanese fighting spirit. Bold, excellent, and international. I highly recommend you read The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime by Robert Whiting. His books just keep getting better each time out.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is the same kind of person for the Japanese. He transcends mortal man in a way, because he has forged his own legend on the biggest stages in baseball. Koshien, Rookie of the Year, the Sawamura Award, the Japan Series, and finally the World Baseball Classic. All that remains is a Cy Young and a World Series championship. Matsuzaka has the potential to mean as much to Japan as Ichiro. Ichiro was the pioneer and the trailblazer, but Matsuzaka is the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Yamato. He walks the path that Ichiro cleared, but he does it as an anointed national treasure. A kind of royalty.
The upcoming series between the Red Sox and the Mariners carries with it a significance that perhaps will not be understood until both heroes have retired. I was at the first meeting between Ichiro and Matsui, and it was electric at Yankee Stadium. This meeting, in contrast, is a direct confrontation, where the Yankees and Mariners series was merely a sideshow act. When Matsuzaka takes the mound in the top of the first and stares down Ichiro it will be watched by more people that you can possibly imagine. It will be scrutinized more than any at bat has ever been scrutinized in the history of the sport, perhaps. Japanese television will run the highlights, not for days, but forever. This will be the Japanese people's living and breathing irresistible force meeting the flesh and blood immovable object.
The two players have faced one another before. When Ichiro was a bonafide superstar for the Orix Blue Wave, Matsuzaka was a wet behind the ears rookie straight off the dirt of Koshien. They met for the first time on May 16, 1999 at the Seibu Dome. In what has to be one of the most remarkable and memorable performances of his career, an 18-year old Matsuzaka struck out the legendary Ichiro Suzuki the first three times they faced one another. The fourth and final at bat that day saw Ichiro draw a walk. If you watch video of that faithful day with a 2007 mindset, you'll marvel at the youth and power of Daisuke Matsuzaka, noticeably smaller than the present day version. Ichiro looks the same, but also appears a bit smaller and younger. It must be the hamburgers in America, right? Fortunately for all of us, this moment has been preserved for our enjoyment at YouTube, and I proudly offer it to you here for your viewing pleasure:
The following chart is a complete account of the at bats between these two players. Ichiro managed an 8-34 (.235) lifetime record against Matsuzaka with 1 home run. The three consecutive strikeouts account for 3 of the 4 that Daisuke managed against the hard-to-fan outfielder, which adds some mystique to the performance.
It has been said, although I have no hard evidence of it, that Matsuzaka had no interest in playing for the Mariners when he asked to be posted. He didn't want to share the spotlight with Ichiro, instead making his mark on his own without distraction. Proving his ability on the highest stage would be an individual accomplishment that should stand on its own. He did say in February, however, when posed with a question about Ichiro joining him in Boston, “I played with Ichiro-san on the same team at WBC (World Baseball Classic) last year for the first time. I was so impressed by him. I felt that I could trust him. If I could play with him on the same team, I could never feel more confident than that. But this is his decision to make after all.”
Whatever the relationship between these two icons has been, it is about to change again. The evolution of Japan's participation in Major League Baseball gets more interesting all the time. We'll all be there to watch it together, and for a moment in time both the US and Japan will be holding their collective breaths.
Since we're between starts, I thought I'd take a second to plug one of my other projects, Darvish Watch. Some of you may have visited the Darvish Watch blog already, but in case you haven't it's a project exactly the same as Matsuzaka Watch dedicated to the 20-year old ace of the Nippon Ham Fighters, and perhaps the heir apparent to Daisuke as Japan's ace.
He's got a ways to go before he can be discussed in the same breath as Daisuke, but he did lead the Fighters to their first championship last season and subsequently led the same club to the championship at the Asia Games. His manager, Trey Hillman, recently said that he believes Darvish will be a better pitcher than Fenway's new monster. That may or may not be true, but he will be one of the best pitchers in the world sometime down the road. It's not clear whether he'll ever play in the Major Leagues. Part of me believes he won't, as he's quite comfortable in Japan, but he's already on his way to accomplishing everything possible in the NPB while still in his early 20's. All that remains really is a Sawamura Award. If he manages to secure that honor over the next year or two, you may hear rumblings about a posting. Just stay tuned.
More to come here in the next day or two. Come back to read the preview of the Matsuzaka vs. Ichiro matchup scheduled for later in the week.
A year ago I started to blog about Daisuke Matsuzaka at my Yankees blog Canyon of Heroes. At that time, Matsuzaka Watch was merely a feature that I intended to run after each of his starts, but things gained momentum and I decided that MW merited its own space on the internet. I had to bring people information about this pitcher on a more full time basis. Just following the World Baseball Classic performance that earned him the MVP, I began to write. His first 2006 start was against the SoftBank Hawks. You can read that game recap here at Matsuzaka Watch.
Following the 10-day layoff after the WBC, which included a flight halfway around the world, Matsuzaka wasn’t all that sharp. In that game, he managed to go 8 innings on 126 pitches, giving up 3 runs, while striking out 6. The Watch had begun. A new watch begins here today, as Daisuke took the mound for the first time as a Major League player. The buzz has built to an electric level all over the baseball world, and many of his supporters on both sides of the Pacific held their breath as he pitched, inning by inning. How would this new chapter begin? Would it show the promise and the level of excellence that I’ve been trumpeting here for a year, or would the naysayers have their first feather in the “naysaying” cap? Pedro or Irabu?
By now, I’m sure you know that Matsuzaka went 7 strong innings, giving up 6 hits, one walk, and an earned run (on a home run), while striking out 10 batters on 108 pitches. The Red Sox earned him his first Big League win with 4 runs of support, although 2 would have sufficed. I sped around the internet in the wake of the victory to gauge the reaction of various fans. Red Sox fans were understandably jubilant, while many less-reality based Yankee fans wanted to poke holes in the performance, chalking it up to a AAA quality Royals team. Other, more objective fans were impressed and look forward to more from the Japanese ace. People here in the Far East have been proud and happy all morning, with wall-to-wall news coverage of the outing. I appear to be the only one at work visibly tired from my 3am wake up call, but I’m betting that there are others who are just better at hiding it than me.
As I will do with each Matsuzaka start this season, a batter-by-batter look at the pitcher’s approach will be found just below. You may be able to see the way that Matsuzaka works by following this analysis, and I hope to perform this portion of the recaps in a few different ways. Today, I have chose to go batter-by-batter, rather than inning-by-inning. I’d like to establish the way that Daisuke changes his approach (or doesn’t) to hitters in his 2nd, 3rd and 4th time through the order. In future recaps, you might find standard inning by inning account of the pitching from leadoff to the final out of each frame. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve as well to keep things interesting. Here we go:
#3 – change (middle-strike), fastball (90 mph-HR to right)
Matsuzaka had the most trouble with DeJesus, who seemed to be waiting on the fastball. Daisuke missed with his location on the breaking pitches and DeJesus did what a good leadoff hitter should do, he waited for his pitch. The two hits that DeJesus worked against Matsuzaka were on a hanging curve and a flat fastball. Patience pays off when you get a couple of mistakes to hit. He did.
#1 - fastball (outside-strike), change (high-ball), slider (low/outside in the dirt-ball), fastball (low-G4 force out 4-3)
#2 – change (high-ball), slider (low/outside-swinging strike), fastball (on the hands-foul), slider (bouned-ball), fastball (low- called strike 3)
#3 – curve (strike), change (middle/in-strike), slower change (high-ball), change (low-out in front but popped up for a bloop hit)
Matsuzaka clearly wanted the ball down against German, and he managed to do so for the most part. The first 2 at bats saw Daisuke record outs on low fastballs, while he tried the change as an out pitch in the final at bat. He had German badly fooled, but was unlucky as the ball popped high into the air and dropped between Pedroia and Drew.
A lack of feel in the first inning forced Matsuzaka into a bad situation. He ended up walking Teahan on 6 pitches, and never really gave himself a chance. In his interviews with Japanese television after the game he remarked that the cold weather gave him some early control problems that worked themselves out as his warmed up later. That was evident as Teahan was sent to the bench looking in his final two at bats. A no contact day for the Royals number three hitter.
Emil Brown (1-3, 2B, 1 strikeout – 6 pitches: 3 fastballs, 3 offspeed)
#1 - curve (high-foul), slider (back to the pitcher-1-6-3 double play)
Brown's approach was clearly to look for his pitch early and hit it hard. He failed miserably in his first two at bats, letting Daisuke off the hook in the 1st inning, and only saw something he could handle on a mistake pitch in the 6th inning. The curve was only marginally effective all day, while the fastball and slider (Daisuke's bread and butter) worked to perfection.
Alex Gordon (1-3, 1 strikeout – 12 pitches: 6 fastballs, 6 offspeed)
Daisuke had a rookie here in a tough spot. Gordon hasn't fared all that well so far in the Majors, and might be pressing. In the second at bat he played the classic game of 0-2 high fastball, but Gordon showed good patience. A broken bat single was the rookie's first Big League knock. Matsuzaka then gave him a very tough look in the third time around with the splitter. It's a pitch that he only started using fairly recently and it looks like a pitch he may be able to use in the Majors more and more.
#1 - fastball (strike), fastball (inside-ball), fastball (inside-strike), fastball (94 mph low/outside-ball), fastball (outside-line out to right)
#2 - change (outside-strike), fastball (inside-foul), fastball (foul), slider (way outside-ball in the dirt), curve (low-strike three looking)
#3 - fastball (on the hands-foul), slider (high and ugly-ball), fastball (low-foul on a good swing), slider (outside-ugly strike three swinging)
Shealy was a fun matchup. Matsuzaka went predominately fastball to him, and challenged Shealy to catch up. In the second at bat, you see that Daisuke went change to start him off after 5 consecutive fastballs in the first go around. He returned to the fastball, and then sat him down with a combination of the slider and the curve. Nice pitching. The third at bat was similar in that he showed fastball and then worked the slider (his best pitch) to make Shealy look foolish.
#3 - curve (strike), slider (low/out-swinging strike), fastball (low-protective swing foul), slider (bounced to the backstop-ball), slider (low-swinging strike three)
Gload had no chance. He tried to stay alive a few times, but I think he had no idea what was coming. He struck out on the fastball outside and the nasty slider, and tried in vain to guess on the first pitch of his second at bat. Matsuzaka never gave him anything easy to hit.
Matsuzaka had a scouting report of some kind that told him not to throw anything straight with the first pitch to Buck. He featured the curve all three times. Buck was badly fooled along with his other "bottom of the order" compadres, but managed to escape in the second at bat when Matsuzaka foolishly hung a curve after being ahead 1-2. Otherwise, no contest.
Tony Pena, Jr. (0-2 – 10 pitches: 8 fastballs, 3 offspeed)
#1 - fastball (outside-ball), fastball (high-strike), slider (bounced-ball), nice changeup (ground out to the pitcher 1-3)
#2 - fastball (high-ball), fastball (high-ball), fastball (blew it by him-strike), fastball (low-strike), fastball (high/out-foul), fastball (foul), change (ground out to pitcher 1-3)
Pena is a solid rookie, just over from the Braves. He will be a very good player, but he fell for the easiest combination in the Major League book, fastball/change. Both at bats saw him way out in front and grounding out to the pitcher. That was good thinking by Daisuke. Understand the opponent.
There's the recap of game one. I'll keep you posted on more reaction by the fans in Japan, and anything else that may come out in the media related to the debut of Major League Baseball's newest phenomenon.
The 7th inning was a 12 pitch affair that saw Daisuke regain his strength and strike out both Shealy and Gload on very tough sliders. He looked more and more like Daisuke Matsuzaka as the game went on. The command of the fastball was good, and the slider, curve, and change worked better and better in the later innings. In the end, his stat line was:
7 IP 6 hits 1 HR 1 ER 1 walk 10 K 108 pitches
If you look back at my prediction, the only thing I missed was the 8th inning and extra 20 pitches. The rest of the numbers were dead on. (Pats self on the back).
Yes, it's Kansas City. Yes, he still has to do this against the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, and so on. Could you have asked for any more in a debut? 10 Ks for Daisuke in his first go around is outstanding. One walk makes it all the more remarkable. The WHIP is 1.000 and the K:BB is 10.00. His 1 game K-rate is 12.86 per 9 innings. I'll be back later today with a batter by batter recap of the game. You'll be able to see the pattern he used to work each man three times through the order. Thanks for reading. Remember, come back later for more....
The 4th inning had Daisuke starting to look like himself a bit. His pace improved, and while the breaking stuff still wasn't sharp, he found enough to sneak a few good ones behind his fastball. 3 up, 3 down, all strikeouts. He's bouncing. Getting his rhythm and his confidence has helped him look relaxed and he carried it over into the 5th inning with 10 consecutive batters retired.
The 5th saw Daisuke in a little trouble. He got ahead of Alex Gordon nicely, and actually jammed him badly with a 95 mph fastball, but the bat broke and the ball went into left center. That was Gordon's first Major League hit. Out of the stretch, Matsuzaka worked Shealy with fastballs again and struck him out. Gload was 1st pitch swinging and lined out. The catcher, Buck, was also dominated and behind in the count, but Matsuzaka hung a curveball badly and lost it to a hit. 1st and 3rd with 2 out. Rookie, Tony Pena, Jr. saw a straight diet of fastballs in the 93 mph range and finally grounded out meekly to the pitcher for the final out. Daisuke responded to trouble the way he usually does, calmly and effectively.
The third time through the order was not kind to Daisuke. DeJesus greeted him with a big home run on a mediocre fastball with little movement. German dropped a little pop up between Lugo and Drew for a hit and watched as Teahan battled and battled a variety of pitches. The umpire called him out on strikes, and a bang-bang play at 2nd on a steal attempt was called out for a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play. At first glance I thought he was safe, but the replay showed how close it really was. Emil Brown doubled to left center and the umpires were showered with more boos as the crowd felt that would have been the game tying hit. Alas, nothing came of the extra base hit (or the booing) as Alex Gordon looked overmatched, falling behind on splitters before being called out on a 94 mph fastball on the outside black. Varitek set up way outside and Daisuke hit his spot. 1 run and 1 walk against 8 strikeouts through 6. Not a bad debut so far.....
I had some thoughts about "Live blogging" this game, but it's now 4am in Japan, and I can't muster the energy to do it. Maybe next time.
Daisuke looked nervous to start the game, and a bit cold. It's Top of the 4th now and I think Matsuzaka has done a good job getting through three innings unscathed. He hasn't had his best breaking stuff so far (weather?), but he's changing pace and location nicely to keep hitters off balance. He touched 94 on the gun a few times, and has thrown one or two very nice sliders. The fastball is the key. When he's worked off the fastball, the offspeed pitches have been effective. When he's featured the breaking ball, it hasn't been as strong. Let's see what happens in innings 4-6, shall we?
Check back again for an update, and later in the day I will break this game down batter by batter.
The way people are talking about the Matsuzaka debut, it's as if we're about to witness the prophecy of the Archangel Gabriel's "end of days", or at least the coming of the Nazgul to the American Midwest. Spring Training has been very exciting and a lot of people have come to know Daisuke Matsuzaka a bit better for having seen him firsthand. You'd have thought that the mythical version of his background would have subsided just a bit with a closer personal experience with the pitcher, but in fact it has grown. To paraphrase Verbal Kint:
He's become a myth, a spook story that managers tell their hitters at night. Don't take your swings, and Daisuke will get you. Ty Cobb always said 'I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him. Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Daisuke Matsuzaka.
People in Kansas City are tingling at the chance to watch the pitcher make his debut. The Japanese media is flooding Missouri and Red Sox Nation is ready to explode. From Japan, there is little more than standard anticipation for a national hero's performance on the international stage. That, in and of itself, is a big deal, but not nearly as big as the wave of excitement that exists in the US by all accounts. It has come to my attention that NHK aired a segment Thursday morning, Japan time, in which fans interviewed on the street all planned to be awake at 3am for the debut. I'll be there as well. Tomorrow is going to be a sleepy Japan. If any aggressive nations had their sights set on an invasion, Friday would be the day.
Looking ahead to the game, it will be interesting to see how the Royals approach Matsuzaka. None of them have seen him, and he hasn't seen them either. The KC ball club is a mix of youth and veterans and it figures that the younger players stand no chance against the man from Yokohama. I honestly can't see Pena or Gordon doing much against a wily veteran like Matsuzaka. If I had to predict his approach, I would guess that he will challenge the younger guys with the fastball on difficult parts of the plate, and high in the zone, using the change as his out pitch. The veterans will see the change, but I'm guessing the slider will be the killer that finishes the job. My prediction:
The Red Sox may not allow him that many pitches, in which case he'll probably go 7 innings and the other numbers will be adjusted down accordingly. I know it's silly to guess on something like this, but it's all in the name of fun. Hang on folks. Away we go.
The Spring has wrapped with a final Matsuzaka go round. It wasn't his best performance, but it was certainly enough to get by. Matsuzaka's problem the last 2 starts has been his abnormally high walk totals. It is apparent that he is displeased by the lack of control he's displayed after being able to hit any spot he's wanted for the last 3 years. I've been saying since he signed with the Sox that there will be times when we are all left scratching our heads about a game, as a result of the adjustments he'll be making to a new league, a new culture, and a heavy travel routine.
The final tune up for Daisuke was a 4 inning affair in which he gave up only 2 hits, while striking out 7. The downside was the 4 walks and 3 runs that he gave up to Philadelphia, including a 2-run homer to red hot Pat Burrell. That's the good and the bad of it. We'll see what kind of fireworks the man from Yokohama brings with him in his regular season opener against KC. I'm guessing you'll see the best of Daisuke Matsuzaka in that start and a lot of people will be super impressed. Let the naysayers do their nay saying now, while they can.
The last thing I wanted to do this Spring, before things get going, is compare the exhibition numbers of Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa. You all know I'm a Yankee fan and that I'm hoping for good things from Igawa. As I've been singing the praises of Matsuzaka to anyone who will listen, I've also been talking up Igawa. Yankee fans need to hear me tell them that Igawa isn't in the same ballpark as Matsuzaka, while Sox fans need to be told that he's a legitimate MLB starter, who is more than a consolation prize. The truth lies in the middle. Matsuzaka is a brilliant once in a generation talent. Igawa is a strong Major League #4, with #3 potential. Here's the stat lines:
Igawa's enemy is the walk. Always has been. Matsuzaka has been plagued by walk-itis in the Spring, but should get that straightened out soon. His 10.80 K/9 ratio is stunning. If he had walked 1 less batter he'd have a WHIP under 1.000 and if he'd gotten Pat Purrell out rather than surrendering a 2-run homer he'd have a 2.08 ERA. Nice.
For Igawa's part, the WHIP is about where I expect it to finish. His ERA will be a little higher. That K-rate is fair and I think he'll get the walks a bit more under control. I'm predicting 17 wins for Daisuke and 15 for Igawa. Matsuzaka's numbers will be better across the board, but Igawa will get the slightly better run support. There's nothing left to it, but to do it. Let's get ready to rumble......