With an array ofpitches as sublime and mesmerizing as haiku, $100 million import DaisukeMatsuzaka could tip the American League balance of power to the Red Sox--andexplode the old myths about pampering pitchers
THE CHERUBIC FACEof Daisuke Matsuzaka bears a mysterious contentment, the calm self-assurednessof a kid who knows something you don't, who knows the questions before the examis given. It's as if the pitching gods have let him in on a great secret, andit's safe with the chosen one. ¬∂ The look is there even at the end of anexhausting day, in the cramped clubhouse of what the Boston Red Sox call theirplayer development complex, a tract of green fields carved among industrialeyesores in a section of Fort Myers, Fla. Matsuzaka, 26, is still wearing hisbaseball undershirt and the rest of his uniform, some six hours after hedressed and long after many of his teammates have hit the back nine. Boston'snew Japanese import put in the equivalent of heavy lifting for this early inspring training: 80 pitches from flat ground, 50 pitches off the bullpen moundand 50 pitches of live batting practice, followed by an hour of autographs, twopress conferences (one to English-speaking journalists and one to the 150Japanese journalists on hand expressly to record his every word, pitch andbreath) and a lengthy sit-down interview with a Japanese televisionnetwork.
What strikes younow about Matsuzaka, once you get beyond the knowing countenance, is that afterall that throwing, never did he bother to ice his arm or shoulder. In majorleague locker rooms, ice packs are ubiquitous appendages for pitchers, who wraptheir shoulder or elbow or both, the better to calm muscles, ligaments andtendons that have been stressed by the unnatural act of throwing a baseball.Relievers are known to ice after facing only one batter in a game.
Not Matsuzaka. Hedidn't ice after he threw 103 pitches in the bullpen the second time he steppedon a mound in spring training in 2007, more than twice the number of even theheartiest of his fellow Red Sox pitchers. He didn't ice after one of histwice-weekly 20-minute long-toss sessions, when he throws from the rightfieldfoul pole to the leftfield wall--a distance of about 300 feet--while takingonly one step to load his arm. (Most pitchers throw half that distance.) Inpast years with the Seibu Lions, he wouldn't ice even after his frequent300-pitch bullpen sessions, a program that would have been grounds fordismissal for any major league pitching coach who allowed it.
Then you reflecton the 250 pitches he threw in a 17-inning complete game in high school--theapex of a stretch in which he threw 54 innings in 11 days--and the 189 pitcheshe threw on Opening Day in 2003, the 160 pitches in his second start of the '05season, the 145 pitches in his penultimate start for the Lions, the 588 inningshe threw for Seibu before he turned 21 (Oakland ace Rich Harden, 25, stillhasn't logged that many big league innings) and the eight games last year inwhich he threw at least 130 pitches--more such games than all major leaguepitchers combined.
It's allunheard-of stuff Stateside. But it is explained by the concept of doryoku, orunflagging effort, which in Japanese baseball is seen as a prime virtue. Thegreat home run hero Sadaharu Oh valued doryoku so highly that he included theword in every autograph.
You askMatsuzaka, through an interpreter, about using ice, the standard Americanprecaution, and what you get first is that knowing smile and a littlelaugh.
Then he says,"No, never."
Matsuzaka throwseight known pitches--eight!--and is tougher than Sanskrit for hitters to readbecause he has the confidence to throw any of them at any time and can put allof them in an open mailbox from 20 paces. He has the equipment to be thegreatest rookie pitching phenomenon since Dwight Gooden in 1984, greatercertainly than his forebearer Hideo Nomo, who for all the cross-culturalexcitement he generated in 1995 won only 13 games.
More important,Matsuzaka is a potential agent of change. It's his throwing regimen, ratherthan his place of birth, that makes him the ultimate foreigner to major leaguebaseball. If he succeeds in the U.S., he could transform the accepted industrypractice of overprotecting pitchers. The system guarantees diminishing returns:Despite advances in medicine, nutrition and training, teams work pitchers lessthan ever before and yet pay them more.
"After beingpart of this for three years," former big league manager Bobby Valentinesays by e-mail from Japan, where he's the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines,"I am convinced we do a bad job of coaching in the U.S. forpitchers."
Fact is,Matsuzaka would not be this Matsuzaka if he had been born in the States. SaysRed Sox general manager Theo Epstein, "I'm not even sure he would have beendrafted out of high school, as a 5'11" righthander who was pushed like thatat such a young age."
Matsuzakarepresents a clash of cultures that goes well beyond the standard laundry listof adjustments involving food, language, customs and entertainment. (Good luckexplaining sports talk radio to him after the Sox blow a game late to theYanks.) What happens when a pitcher from the East, this good at this age, meetsWestern baseball philosophy? What happens when he encounters the pitch-countclicker, that all-powerful totem worshiped by American managers and coaches?What does manager Terry Francona do when Matsuzaka has thrown 120 pitches intothe eighth inning? How much do the Red Sox Americanize the pitcher?
Better still, isit possible that we can learn more from Matsuzaka than he can from us?
"You betterbelieve it," says Eddie Bane, the scouting director for the Los AngelesAngels. "I think we're going to have to take a look at our system. It's aslap in the face [to Japan] if we don't. And they won the World BaseballClassic, don't forget.
"Theirphilosophy is, If you're a pitcher, you need to throw. It makes sense to me.We're training our pitchers to throw less. And nobody wants to try anythingdifferent. If [Matsuzaka] is this good, we might want to take a look atit."
The Red Sox arebetting $103.1 million--including an industry-rattling bid of $51.1 millionjust to secure his negotiating rights--that Matsuzaka is not only the real dealbut also will swing the balance of power in the American League East for thenext six years, the length of his $52 million contract. The question is notwhether Matsuzaka is good enough; it's whether, following his most un-Americantraining regimen while facing deeper lineups and starting games morefrequently, his arm holds up.
In January,Matsuzaka sat in the contemporary splendor of the California office of hisagent, Scott Boras, and admitted, "If there's any one thing I'mparticularly worried about, it's the injury [factor]. My clear intention is toplay the entire season healthy.
"Looking atthe players that are truly successful, you see the durability and long careers.Those are the players I respect and look up to. I hope to become a player likethat."
The old pond
A frog jumpsin
The sound ofwater
Matsuzaka'spitching motion is an elegant haiku, beauty captured in three parts separatedby two pauses that he varies from pitch to pitch. He swings his hands over hishead, pauses, lowers his hands as he begins his turn on the rubber, pausesagain, then unleashes all the stored energy in a violently quick motion to theplate in which he drops so low that his right knee sometimes scrapes the dirtof the mound. It's like nothing taught in America.
Look aroundspring training mounds. Pitcher after American pitcher is throwing with aone-size-fits-all delivery largely patterned on Roger Clemens, whom amateur andprofessional coaches have adopted as their template. There is no swinging ofthe arms away from the body when the ball is in the glove. The hands remainclose to the chest, as if winding up in a phone booth. The pitcher stays tallover the rubber and falls on a downward plane toward the hitter.
The compact"tall and fall" delivery is technically sound, a Sousa march with nowasted elements. Matsuzaka's free-flowing, drop-and-drive delivery isimprovisational, like live jazz. As American coaches would see it, Matsuzaka iscoloring outside the lines when he turns his front shoulder slightly away fromthe hitter and swings his hands and left foot slightly past parallel with therubber. But in Japan, pitching styles are less rigorously enforced, andMatsuzaka learned from watching.
"As a child Ispent a lot of time imitating [Japanese] professional baseball players," hesaid. "Over time, putting the pieces together, that led to my own formbeing revealed. Not that it resembles any particular pitcher, but somethingthat evolved naturally through practice."
Now Matsuzaka isthe frog in the most famous haiku of Japan's most famous poet. He is hittingthe water of the old pond that is major league baseball with an unmistakablesplash. Matsuzaka grew up dreaming of such a jump, a wish practically unheardof for the generations of Japanese children before him. When it came tobaseball, Japan embraced the island mentality, enchanted by its own leagues andits own rich history and unwilling to risk the possibility of its players'failing in the major leagues. Then Nomo jumped in 1995, did well, and a bridgewas built. Matsuzaka was in ninth grade then, with his eye on America.
"Though I amnot aware of all the details leading up to his departure from Japan,"Matsuzaka says of Nomo, "there was some controversy, and in general it canbe said it was not a very healthy departure. That said, to see himsingle-handedly face this brand-new, challenging environment left a bigimpression on me and was inspiring.
"As for therisk of [Nomo's] failure, as someone who actually had seen his performance inJapan and seen how great he had been, there wasn't even a thought in my mindthat he would fail. That's the way I was thinking in the ninth grade."
Matsuzaka's ownlegend was born in 1998, when as a senior at Yokohama High he pitched in thefamed Koshien tournament, Japan's equivalent of March Madness. Clay Daniel,working at the time for the Arizona Diamondbacks, watched the performance."I saw him throw nine innings, then nine innings, then 17 innings, come inand close a game for one inning, take a day off, then throw a no-hitter in thechampionship game," says Daniel, now supervisor of international scoutingfor the Angels. "In Japan the pitcher wears number 1, the catcher number 2,and so on. He was number 1. After I saw him pitch nine innings he was out thereagain the next day, and I was thinking, 'Can that be the same little runtwearing number 1?'
"He was only5'10". But he threw 90-plus with a nasty hammer. He was throwing 90 to 95at the beginning of the tournament and around 85 by the end, but nobody couldhit him because his command was amazing. I nicknamed him Elvis after that.People would go crazy when they saw him walking around, wanting to take hispicture, get his autograph."
Arizona offeredhim $3.3 million to sign (and Colorado more than $3 million), but Daniel sayshe couldn't compete with the offer from Seibu, which he estimates at about $15million plus assorted perks. Matsuzaka was an immediate sensation in the Japanleagues. At age 18 in 1999 he threw 180 innings, had a 2.60 ERA and struck outIchiro Suzuki three times in one game. The Japanese television network NHKproduced a 50-minute program that year entitled Eighteen-Year-Old DaisukeMatsuzaka: The Super Rookie's Spirit and Technique.
Over his eightseasons with Seibu, Matsuzaka compiled a 108--60 record with a 2.95 ERA whileaveraging a complete game every 2.8 starts. (The major league average in 2006was a complete game every 33.8 starts.) His 13 complete games last year weremore than the staffs of all but one major league team had.
Was he everremoved from a game because of a high pitch count?
Did coaches keepa pitch-count clicker in the dugout for him?
Did Matsuzakaever have a pitch limit?
"I had threemanagers and various coaches in Japan," he says. "All of them wereoperating with the understanding that this guy can throw any number of pitchesunless I requested to be taken out because I was tired or I was hit very badly.Those were the only two reasons they would pull me."
By 2005, in needof a bigger challenge, Matsuzaka was eager to move on to the majors. Seibuacquiesced to his wishes after the '06 season by officially posting hisavailability to major league teams, a system agreed upon by Japanese owners andMLB to create an open market for Japanese players (preventing the kind of dealthat gave the San Diego Padres exclusive rights to Hideki Irabu in 1997). Teamsentered blind bids for the rights to Matsuzaka, the winner paying that amountto Seibu upon signing the pitcher.
Early speculationhad the top fee coming in at $20 million to $30 million, roughly twice the $13million Seattle put up in 2000 for the rights to Ichiro. Glowing reports fromPacific Rim scouts Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble persuaded the Red Sox that theyhad to have Matsuzaka. Privately they were terrified the Yankees would get himand build a dominant rotation with Matsuzaka; 26-year-old Chien Ming Wang, a19-game winner last year; and Phil Hughes, who at 20 is considered baseball'sbest pitching prospect.
Red Soxexecutives figured New York was capable of bidding more than $40 million. Butunbeknownst to them, Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman, who'd gained control ofbaseball operations, had been pushing a philosophical change to improve playerdevelopment and curb the team's lavish spending. Cashman bid $33 million (andtold people afterward that he felt uncomfortable going even that high).
Unlike theYankees, whose bid was based largely on Matsuzaka's perceived value, the RedSox were playing the game. They talked themselves into a $50 million bid as ahedge against the Yankees. Then owner John Henry bumped it to $51.1 million,for extra wiggle room and the uniqueness of the number. "We had to decidewhat he would be worth as an unrestricted free agent, then get the total priceto fall in that range," Epstein says. "Two forces were at work. First,if you don't win the post, you don't get the player. We had strong indicationsthat he didn't want to go back to Japan and would be motivated to sign. Andsecond, the posting money is not counted against the luxury tax."
Henry and Red Soxpresident Larry Lucchino walked into the offices of Major League BaseballInternational with their sealed bid five minutes before the deadline. Theypromptly ran into New York Mets G.M. Omar Minaya and his assistant, TonyBernazard, who were hand-delivering their own sealed bid: $39 million.
"I'm sure theMets felt like they had the winning bid," Lucchino said. "The nextthing you know, when the bid was announced, everybody was saying, 'The Red Soxbid what? Oh, my god.'"
As if to justifythe $103.1 million expenditure, talk in the Boston front office quickly turnedto the ancillary benefits of adding a foreign superstar. Lucchino spoke of"expanding the Red Sox' footprint in Asia." There would be newadvertising partnerships with Japanese companies and more merchandise to sell.But outside of the sales made in shops owned by the Red Sox, Boston gets thesame 1/30th cut of the profits on Matsuzaka merchandise as every other team,including the Yankees. Club sources put Matsuzaka's direct economic impact onthe Red Sox at about $3 million annually. That figure includes the $900,000sponsorship from a Japanese electronics company for a dedicated Matsuzakainterview area, in Fenway and on the road, with the company logo plastered onthe background.
First andforemost, though, the Red Sox got Matsuzaka for his arm. They judged him to befar better than Barry Zito, the free-agent lefty who would sign with the Giantsfor a greater average annual salary ($18 million) over more years (seven)despite being two years older than Matsuzaka. Publicly, the Red Sox are tryingto walk a precarious line between cashing in on the excitement of his arrivaland tempering expectations. Privately, they believe he can have as big animpact as two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana has had in Minnesota. Onthose magic nights when Matsuzaka has all of his pitches working, the Soxenvision 15-strikeout games. They even believe he'll have better movement andvelocity than he did in Japan, because major league baseballs are slightlylarger, with bigger seams.
Like Santana,Matsuzaka has a power pitcher's fastball (typically about 94 mph, though hisfour-seamer is relatively straight and will be prone to homers) but a finessepitcher's touch and intellect. Sox pitching coach John Farrell estimates thatonly about 55% of Matsuzaka's pitches are fastballs, well below the majorleague average of about 66%. Matsuzaka talks of his "second nature"ability to change movement on pitches by varying the pressure of his fingertipson the baseball, in the manner of Greg Maddux.
By his own count,Matsuzaka throws a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a cut fastball, ashuuto (hard sinker with left to right cut), a curveball, a slider, a splitterand a changeup that the Red Sox regard as his nastiest pitch because he impartsa rare screwball action to it. "No gyroball," Matsuzaka volunteers,referring to the near-mythical pitch with a spiral spin that often has beenattributed to him.
Asked what heenjoys most about pitching, Matsuzaka responds, "The ability to try tooutthink and try new things against the batters."
"He has anexcellent chance at winning at least 15 games, maybe 20," says veteranoutfielder Karim Garcia, who played against Matsuzaka in Japan in 2005 and '06and returned this spring to battle for a roster spot with Philadelphia."He's going to be like Pedro [Martinez]: He throws every pitch for astrike. [But] he can throw 140 pitches [a game], no problem. After six or seveninnings he's just getting warmed up. The closer he gets to the end of the game,the stronger he gets.
"Watching himpitch over there, it was like he wasn't challenged. It was like it was too easyfor him."
Says Matsuzaka,"Ever since elementary school I realized this is where the top level ofbaseball is played, and that has been with me ever since: to play at the toplevel in the world."
Signs read: welove daisuke
Manny asks,"Who's that?"
--Yanks fan inBoston
(winner of haikucontest at yanksfan vs. soxfan website)
In the Red Sox'signing of Matsuzaka, one moment was more anxious for Boston than theanticipation of the winning bid's announcement: the wait for the results of theMRI on his right arm. Just about every picture taken of a pitcher's shoulderand arm will reveal clues, however small, about the strain of pitching--tinytears, adhesions, loose bodies, the detritus of the craft. The BaltimoreOrioles once backed out of a deal with Aaron Sele because they didn't like whatthey saw on his MRI. Sele has gone on to pitch more than 1,000 innings sincethen.
When Matsuzaka'spictures came back, the Red Sox were shocked at what they saw. The MRIs werewhistle-clean.
"He's afreak," Daniel says, "one of those rare guys that doesn't come aroundoften."
Says Valentine,"I think he will do fine if he doesn't become Americanized. I think theyare smart guys in Boston and they 'get it.' But there will be a time wheneveryone will be writing that he needs to throw more fastballs. The reason somany pitchers throw so many fastballs is because they can't throw their otherpitches over the plate with quality. This is one of this kid'sstrengths."
Farrell, thepitching coach, met with Matsuzaka in January to establish the rough guidelinesof a training program. The Red Sox, he said, would make all their resourcesavailable to him, and Matsuzaka could adopt whatever elements he chose."It's been about 80 percent his program, 20 percent ours," Farrellsays.
For instance,before Farrell allowed the 103-pitch bullpen session, he won a compromise byhaving Matsuzaka skip his normal 300-foot toss session the day before. Franconasays Matsuzaka will not be throwing in the bullpen after he has been removedfrom a start, a practice the pitcher sometimes followed in Japan. "I'd belooking for a job the next day [if I let him]," says the manager.
Why don'tAmerican pitchers throw as much as Japanese pitchers, or even as much as theyused to? The rise of the offensive power game in the majors has made pitchingmore strenuous than ever; the degree of difficulty in getting through lineupstoday is much higher than it was 25 years ago. But one club that studied thedrop in the American pitching workload found the tipping point to be managerBilly Martin's 1980 A's. Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCattyand Brian Kingman--all of them in their 20s--completed 93 of their 159 startsthat season. Each broke down in subsequent years. The media attention given toMartin's strategy and the pitchers' injuries sent a shiver through managers andclubs. No one wanted to be labeled an arm-killer. A new conservatism grew thateventually led to the development of the specialized modern bullpen, whichpicks up the innings that once belonged to starters.
Further, asorthopedists such as Frank Jobe, the pioneer of Tommy John surgery, advancedthe field of sports medicine, baseball received additional support for thepractice of treading lightly with pitchers. Says noted orthopedist Lewis Yokum,"My philosophy, going back to training with Frank Jobe, is that a pitcherhas only so many bullets in his arm.
"What we seefrom a lot of draft picks out of California and Florida is that they get hurtbecause they're throwing year-round. I like to say, 'Give me a snowfall.' Letthem have an off-season."
Mets pitchingcoach Rick Peterson discourages Little Leaguers with strong arms from pitchingat all. He has frowned on his major league pitchers' throwing to bases inroutine spring training drills because such throws run counter to the"saving bullets" philosophy.
Managers alsoknow the media's "pitch-count police" will set off alarms if a starteris allowed to throw more than 120 pitches in a game. Baseball Prospectus, forinstance, tabulates the ominous-sounding Pitcher Abuse Points, which boils apitcher's health risk down to a numerical score based on pitch counts. TheDiamondbacks' Livan Hernandez rang up the most points last season, 42. (He alsoled the majors in 2004 and 2005--and has never been on the disabled list.)Matsuzaka blew away that total with 176 points in Japan last year, and that wasdown from a whopping 284 in 2005.
Valentine, whoformerly managed the Texas Rangers and the Mets, admits that he too coddledpitchers in the majors, though it took understanding the Japanese throwingphilosophy for him to see the error of that accepted practice. "TheJapanese pitchers have superior mechanics," Valentine says. "They alsohave wonderful balance and core and foundation strength. They work the smallmuscle groups, and [Americans] work the large ones. The large ones make youlook better.
Valentine allowsmost of his starters to throw 200 bullpen pitches a day in the spring."They have been doing it forever and have not broken down," he says. Onthe day before a starter takes the mound, he'll throw 90 pitches in the penand, Valentine says, "have [his] best fastball in the ninth inning" thenext day.
"What we feelwe know in the States is that fatigue and bad mechanics lead to the operatingtable," Valentine says. "Yet we don't throw enough to counterbalancefatigue, and the ideas some of the coaches have there are just plainwrong."
Still, the RedSox and Boras are concerned that pitching in the majors, with a more gruelingschedule and deeper lineups, will exact a toll. Matsuzaka was part of a six-manrotation in Japan, where every Monday is an off day, thus making him aonce-a-week pitcher. (Last season he made only one start with five days' restand the remaining 24 with at least six days' rest; he'll normally get only fourdays off with Boston.) And working on less recovery time, he'll most likelyhave to work harder to get through lineups that have more power than those inJapan. "He was so dominant in a lot of the games [in Japan]," saysFarrell, "he didn't tax himself."
Says Lucchino,"We're trying to take a more Japanese-like philosophy [while looking] atthe long-term perspective."
Says Boras,"The greatest concern is ensuring his health not just this year but overthe life of the contract and beyond. The history of the Japanese [starting]pitchers who have come here is of concern."
Nomo had threegood years for the Dodgers before he was traded at 29 and released at 30,triggering a journeyman's career. Irabu was done at 33. Kaz Ishii was done at32.
"I'm going todo my best, doryoku, to keep my pitch count low and be able to pitch into thelater innings," Matsuzaka says. "I personally feel very ready to acceptthe major league system."
Says teammateCurt Schilling, who's entering his 20th season, "He is a big league ace inthe making. The question is, Does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at39?"
Matsuzaka, theeight-pitch wonder with the diversionary delivery, is a riddle to big leaguehitters. The even greater puzzle, however, is what happens when two pitchingphilosophies collide, when doryoku meets the pitch-count clicker? Even thegreat Matsuzaka, for all the assuredness upon his face, cannot know the answeruntil time slowly reveals it.
More from Tom Verducci on Matsuzaka, including thetruth about the gyroball.
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