Daisuke Matsuzaka reappeared in the big leagues on Friday night with the Mets. [Joshua Sarner/Icon SMI]
Remember Daisuke Matsuzaka? The pitcher who came to MLB from Nippon Professional Baseball as the most hyped Japanese player since Ichiro, who supposedly boasted an unhittable "gyroball" and was going to be the second coming of Hideo Nomo, only to end up as arguably the biggest trans-Pacific bust since Hideki Irabu? Well, he's back, in
Pog Mets form, appearing in Friday's game against Detroit on the mound in the blue and white pinstripes of New York for his first major-league start since Oct. 3, 2012.
Unfortunately for the man they call Dice-K, Friday's start wasn't a throwback to his stellar 2008 season, or even a fun reminder of what he could do with one of the biggest pitching arsenals of any starter in baseball. Instead, he got knocked around by a tough Tigers lineup, giving up five runs in five innings in the Mets' 6-1 loss. With a fastball struggling to break 90 MPH, Matsuzaka gave up two monster home runs to Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera and even threw in a four-pitch walk for old-times' sake. But he did retire the final 10 batters he faced, including a called strikeout of Cabrera on a vicious curveball, and the four-pitch walk was his only of the game. All told, Matsuzaka threw 86 pitches, 58 for strikes, relying mostly on his four-seam fastball, cutter and slider.
Once upon a time, Matsuzaka was supposed to be Boston's untouchable ace. After nine seasons with NPB's Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka was offered to MLB teams via NPB's posting system, garnering a record $51.1 million bid from the Red Sox. After a month of tense negotiations with Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, Boston landed Matsuzaka with a six-year, $52 million contract.
Armed with six pitches, including a 93 MPH fastball, devastating slider and a changeup that flummoxed hitters, Matsuzaka debuted in 2007 with 15 wins and 201 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings, finishing fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He even picked up a win and RBI in Game 3 of the 2007 World Series against Colorado. Surrounding that was an almost unfathomable level of attention from Matsuzaka's fans back home and the Japanese press; it was par for the course for a dozen Japanese reporters to descend on Fenway Park and other stadiums during one of his starts, and for Japanese TV stations to broadcast his outings live despite a 12-hour time difference.
The breakthrough season was 2008, when Matsuzaka went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 5.3 WAR and 154 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings. That season earned him a fourth-place finish in the season's Cy Young voting, an award claimed easily by Cleveland's Cliff Lee. But the warning signs were already cropping up. A rotator cuff strain cost Matsuzaka a month of the season. Equally worrisome was his walk rate: 94 free passes handed out that season, or five per nine innings. His 2009 season was an injury-riddled mess, with just 59 1/3 innings thrown and a 5.76 ERA. From there on out, Matsuzaka showed only flashes of the superstar he was supposed to be; in 2010, he finished with a 4.69 ERA and 74 walks in 153 2/3 innings. An elbow injury cut short his 2011 season and required Tommy John surgery. Matsuzaka made it back in time to contribute to Boston's horrific 2012 campaign, with a woeful 8.28 ERA in 45 2/3 innings, along with 20 walks and 11 home runs allowed, and the Red Sox let him walk at season's end.
With Matsuzaka's Boston career at an end, there was speculation that he would return to Japan. Instead, he signed a minor-league deal with Cleveland. Matsuzaka was solid if unspectacular with Triple-A Columbus: A 3.92 ERA in 103 1/3 innings, with 95 strikeouts, 39 walks and 11 home runs allowed. That wasn't enough to get him a call-up, however, and the Indians released him on Aug. 20. Two days later, the Mets came calling.
It's likely that Matsuzaka, barring injury or total ineffectiveness, will stick around with the Mets until season's end. The team has already stated it is imposing an innings limit on Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, and has lost starters Jeremy Hefner and Jenrry Mejia to elbow injuries. Moreover, the team's pitching prospects are also nearing their innings limits, and the team is short on alternatives at Triple-A.
For Matsuzaka, the question will be whether he can turn his stay with the Mets into further MLB success. He'll be 33 in September and hasn't shown consistent success in the pros for going on four years. A few good starts with the out-of-contention Mets probably won't turn around his career, but it could give him another shot to showcase the talent that created such a buzz out of Japan.