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Matsuzaka’s Control: One Night Only or a Recovery?

Last night, for only the seventh time in his major league career, Daisuke Matsuzaka didn’t walk a batter. During his four years in the majors he has developed a reputation for wildness, which came as a surprise. In Japan, where he played for the Seibu Lions, he demonstrated quality control. From 2002 through his final season in 2006 he kept his walk rate below three per nine. In fact, in 2006 he walked just 34 batters in 186.1 innings. Once he reached the majors, though, that rate started to rise.

In 2008 he developed a reputation as a wild pitcher who could work out of jams. He walked 5.05 batters per nine innings, a mark that ranked second highest in the majors. Despite all those base runners, though, Matsuzaka finished the year with a 2.90 ERA and an 18-3 record. A number of factors aided this phenomenon, and few of them appeared to be sustainable feats.

What stands out most, and what plays most into his reputation for working out of jams, is an 80.6 percent strand rate. His expected LOB%, based on xFIP, was about 10 percentage points lower. Speaking of xFIP, it sat at nearly two runs higher than his ERA. This was due not only to the high walk total, but also because only 6.1 percent of his flyballs allowed left the park. That’s a considerable feat for someone who allows 43 percent fly balls.

Matsuzaka’s numbers with runners on base helped, too, as did his performances in high leverage situations. With the bases empty he walked 5.55 per nine, but once a runner reached base that dropped to 4.52 per nine. More helpfully, he induced more poor contact, holding opponents to 5.84 hits per nine. With the bases empty that figure was 7.84 per nine. The 40 batters he faced in high leverage situations didn’t find much success, hitting just .152/.300/.212, striking out 11 times.

It’s tough to gauge exactly how lucky Matsuzaka got in 2008, because he has spent most of his time since 2008 on the disabled list. After pitching just 59.1 innings last season he has only 17 this season after missing most of April. We’ve seen his LOB% come back to the mid-70s, and we’ve seen his home run rate more than correct itself, but how much of this was due to him pitching hurt, and how much was due to a statistical correction? I’m not sure anyone can really say.

Last night, though, Matsuzaka pitched perhaps his best game in the majors (though I’d vote for this one). He completed seven innings, allowing just three hits and one run. Even more impressively, he struck out nine and walked none. More than two-thirds of his 106 pitches were strikes. The only time he even remotely ran into trouble was in the sixth, when a double, wild pitch, and double allowed the Blue Jays to score their only run of the game. By that point, though, the Red Sox offense already had the game well at hand.

What impressed the most was how effectively he used his fastball. He threw the four-seamer 68 times, far more than he normally does, but generated seven swings and misses. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but he has decent movement on it and, at least last night, threw it for strikes. His two other fastballs, a cutter and a two-seamer, help, as does the changeup he has worked in more frequently this season.

What I’m not sure of is whether this signals progress for Matsuzaka, or if it’s a tease. On the progress end, he corrected the one aspect that has hampered him more than any other during his major league career, his walk rate. On the tease end, he’s done this before only to later revert to his wild ways. Now that he’s healthy we should get a good look at him this season. Surprisingly, he has only two more left in Boston after this. It feels like he just went there.