What concerned the Red Sox even before those starts was that the club had no control over Matsuzaka's training regimen. After throwing 408 innings and pitching deep into the postseason two straight years -- when Boston wanted to give his body more recovery time, as Tampa Bay did with its starters coming off a long 2008 season -- Matsuzaka reported not to Boston's camp but to Japan's WBC camp on Feb. 15. The club's attempts to monitor his throwing program were futile, giving way to Japan's national fervor to win another WBC.
The Red Sox, however, better hope it is only the WBC that caused Matsuzaka's fatigue. When Boston placed him on the disabled list, I thought not only about the WBC, but also about a story I did about Matsuzaka prior to the 2007 season, his first in the majors after a distinguished, and grueling, career in Japan. What stuck with me is how both the Red Sox and Scott Boras, the agent for Matsuzaka, were concerned about the ominous track record of Japanese starting pitchers when they jump to the big leagues. Both the club and the agent knew about a pattern in which Japanese starters have success in the majors for a year or two, but wear down in years three and four.
"The greatest concern is ensuring his health," Boras said then, "not just this year but over the life of the contract and beyond. The history of the Japanese [starting] pitchers who have come here is concerning."
The Red Sox, who study these things exhaustively, correlated the decline to age, with the dropoff occurring in the early 30s. But general manager Theo Epstein, when asked about the trend of third and fourth year declines, said, "We may be talking about a similar thing, just measured differently."
Matsuzaka was 26 when he joined the big leagues, the same age as when Hideo Nomo made his jump. The other relevant comparisons are Kaz Ishii (28 when he joined MLB), Hideki Irabu (28) and Masato Yoshii (33).
Nomo, Ishii, Irabu and Yoshii all had initial success. But the third and fourth seasons became treacherous. Nomo was much worse in his third year and released by the Dodgers in his fourth year. Ishii was done after his fourth year. Irabu made only five more starts after his fourth year. Yoshii was released after his third year.
Here is one way to measure the track record that concerned Boras two years ago. I took the combined stats for the pitchers in question for their first two seasons. (In the case of Irabu, who made only nine starts in his first season, 1997, I took his 1997-99 numbers.) Then I compared those numbers to how they pitched in their third season. Take a look at the comparison:
In every case, the third year was a pothole. Their ERAs soared and, in all but one case, their strikeout rate dropped. Nomo did recover to post two good seasons with the Dodgers later in his career, but otherwise he was mostly ordinary after the initial burst.
The biggest concern for such a track record is the difference in how pitchers are used in Japan and in the majors. Matsuzaka pitched every sixth or seventh day in Japan in a shorter season, but his individual pitch counts wouldn't be allowed in America. He threw, for instance, 250 pitches in a high school game, 189 pitches on Opening Day 2003, 160 pitches in his second start of 2005 and 145 pitches in his penultimate start before signing with Boston. Perhaps most ominously, Matsuzaka threw 588 innings as a pro in Japan as a teenager.
As former Red Sox teammate Curt Schilling said back in 2007, "He is a big league ace in the making. The question is, does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at 39?"
The Red Sox for now have no serious concerns about Matsuzaka, not with his current shoulder fatigue and not long term. Said Epstein, "We think he'll be fine after taking a break for a couple of weeks. He went through a similar period last year."
The Red Sox, it should be noted, are considered to run industry state-of-the-art maintenance and rehabilitation programs for pitchers. Perhaps Matsuzaka, as Pedro Martinez did, will need these periodic down times to manage his way through long seasons and the every-fifth-day routine. But if Matsuzaka retains his strength and elite pitching through the next season or two, he will be bucking the trend that concerned Boras upon Matsuzaka signing with the Sox.
How much real value is there to being considered "the face of the franchise?" If you said $38.4 million, you understand the difference between Edwin Encarnacion of the Reds and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. They were born a year apart. Both are third baseman. Both made their big-league debuts in 2005. Both have between three and four years of service time. Both signed multi-year contracts within the past two months. Both have a career OPS within .002 of 800. Want more similarities? Check out their career numbers:
Now check out their new contracts:
Zimmerman: Five years, $45 million.
Encarnacion: Two years, $7.6 million.
The Nats, of course, still are trying to gain some traction in Washington/Northern Virginia. They are a franchise without an identity, no brand power as the marketers would say. They need someone to project stability. And so they are betting that Zimmerman is the "face of the franchise," as well as that he will become an All-Star caliber player, though his OPS+ has declined three straight years since his 20-game cameo in 2005.