By Dan Rubin
In February, 2007, the Boston Red Sox made one of the biggest splashes in international baseball history when they locked up pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to a contract that totaled, including the posting fee, $103 million. At the time, terms were used describing the contract’s “magnitude,” “stature,” and “value.” Matsuzaka was considered Japan’s crown jewel, the latest of national treasures loaned to the United States as a way to dominate American baseball through the Japanese school of thought.
Four years later, Matsuzaka walked off the mound against the Tampa Bay Rays a defeated man. Boos rained on him from all points of Fenway after another fiasco outing. This one lasted a little over two innings, and the man tabbed as “The Gun From The Rising Sun” was dominated by a mediocre Tampa lineup. There are reports the Red Sox are trying to trade him, but that the “value” of his contract and the “stature” of his arm are nowhere near the same. He is the untradeable albatross of the Red Sox rotation, which is saying something because it is, in itself, a litany of questions heading into the season.
So the question remains as to why Dice-K became such a pariah, and is this an aberration or a trend? The first question is pretty easy to answer. Since arriving in Boston, his records and performances steadily diminished. In his first season, he pitched 204 innings, but his record stood at a paltry, 15-12. In 2008, he produced Matsuzaka-expected numbers with an 18-3 season with a 2.90 ERA. But from there, it’s been two seasons of falling off the radar. An injury-plagued 4-6, 2009 campaign before last year’s 9-6 record have put him out of favor. Having opened up 0-2, with a combined seven innings pitched in his first two starts, the Boston media and fans, known for being as fickle as any, have officially turned 100% against a man who finished fourth in Cy Young voting just three seasons ago.
Four full years, now into year number five, a career ERA currently standing at 4.28 is not very good. A career record of 46-29 isn’t awful, but when his best season contained an average of five innings per start, it’s not as good as people would hope. He averages a season record of 16-10, a far cry from when he was heralded as “the next Pedro” on his signing day. In postseason play, he never threw a six-inning game, and his career postseason ERA is a shade under 5.00. Even though he was a member of a team that won the World Series, it is safe to say that Dice-K is not what Sox fans and management hoped he would be, and now he’s being considered as one of the biggest busts due to his hype upon arriving in the US.
Part of the problem is that Matsuzaka still hasn’t acclimated to the United States culture and the Boston baseball culture, in particular. He’s never one of the main interviews, and he still doesn’t speak without an interpreter. To me, I couldn’t care less, but to the average fan who loves soundclips and to the pink hat whose fallen in love with Jonathan Papelbon because he’s a media bonehead, that’s a big deal. To reporters, not being able to speak with us is the cardinal sin, and the most beloved players are the ones that provide us insightful, or, if nothing else, entertaining, sound clips.
But the other side of the problem is the main crux of my argument – that Japanese baseball and American baseball are two different worlds, where crossovers are, for the most part, doomed to failure.
Japanese baseball has always fascinated me. Ever since I saw the movie Mr. Baseball with Tom Selleck, I’ve been completely intrigued with a completely different culture surrounding the same exact game I played, watched, and now report on in the States. There are slightly different rules, and ties are allowed. Instead of the “Games Behind” way of calculating the standings, Japanese baseball uses winning percentage as its tool, so teams with less wins and more ties might actually finish higher in the standings. Games go a maximum of 12 innings.
Outside of actual gameplay, there are extremely different customs. Teams have cheering sections behind their dugouts, and the fans do not intermingle. There’s music and songs played in the grandstands. Nobody boos opponents. Within the teams themselves, they sometimes sit reverentially in the dugout, since it’s considered a sacred place. Try telling an MLB club that they can’t spit on the dugout floor or cheer. And there are customs on the field to show respect for the other team, whether it’s the tip of a cap or the rub of a ball differently.
What makes Japan so much different is the way the game is played. Japanese pitchers and players are on different regiments than the American way of life. It’s much more structured to its rest, as many have heard regarding Dice-K in recent seasons. Pitching rotations typically use six starters, and schedules allow for seven days of rest between starts. Matsuzaka typically threw over 170 pitches in his starts, warming up through the first 70 pitches or so before turning lights out in the middle innings as his pitch count rose. This is different from the US, where pitchers typically “have it” or “don’t have it” in the first three innings (as we’ve found out more often than not).
Japanese baseball is a totally different world, as I’ve come to find. There is definite talent, but it doesn’t translate as well to the American game, especially from a pitcher’s standpoint. Take the following pitchers – Hideo Nomo, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kaz Ishii. These four guys opened up their careers with lightning stuff, especially Nomo, who was the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year. They all had flashes of complete greatness, where American hitters couldn’t solve them. After a three year window, however, all had their statistics completely drop off and were traded to other teams (mostly the Mets, ironically).
Why did this happen? It’s quite honestly because the games are totally different, and even though these men are talented, they aren’t the lights out starters on par with a Halladay, Lee, or Pedro Martinez. They come to MLB and they’re lights out because they have enough talent and absolutely no scouting. Nobody in MLB has barely heard of these guys, let alone know how to hit them. Within three years, there’s enough film, stat breakdown, and analysis to know how to catch up to them, and the American hitters start to catch up. There’s too much talent in American hitters to sneak a somewhat better-than-average pitch by them after they’ve figured it out. That’s what Dice-K is learning now.
Now, I’m not saying that Japanese players aren’t talented. Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are some of the best pure hitters I’ve ever seen. I’m merely coming at this from a pitching standpoint. And, again, I’m not saying this about all Japanese pitchers. I’m just saying that the game is so much different, and the pitchers are handled so differently that the initial success is attributed to lack of knowledge.
I’ll be honest – I don’t have the statistical evidence to say the same works in reverse with pitching. I did some research, but I couldn’t find much on former MLB guys that went to Japan and had the same problems. But the stat breakdown of Japanese pitchers coming across the pond supports this theory.
I’m also not saying that there isn’t a Japanese Pedro on the horizon. There is somebody out there who will come to America and reinvent the game. But that hasn’t happened yet. Despite what the marketing departments say when a team signs a guy.
So, back to Dice-K. What’s going to happen to him? Honestly, I don’t know. I still think he’ll end up on the Mets, because, well, he’s not very good and the Mets like pitchers who aren’t very good. But I think he has the talent to grind out a Nomo-like career. Nomo spent parts of 12 seasons with 9 teams. He finished with a career record of 123-109, milking a journeyman career through a season average record of 13-12. He never won 20 games after that initial lights-out rookie year, even though his second year was solid. And from 2001-2003, he was the prototypical #4-starter, goiong 13-10, 16-6, and 16-13 for Boston and Los Angeles (throwing a no-no for the Sox in ’01). He never projected to be the 20-game starter after those first years, and after bouncing around, he retired in 2008 with people saying, “He had a decent career, and we’ll always remember him,” but he was never an All Star (not after his rookie year at least), and he’ll never be a Hall of Famer.
But hey, at least there’s those two World Baseball Classic MVP’s, right?