Time to Move on from Daisuke Matsuzaka?

In the first part of this mini-series, we investigated Raul Ibanez. We looked at the issues the Phillies have to consider when debating his future role with the club this season. With legitimate prospects coming up behind him, the main dichotomy at play was a question of the risk and upside of a young player versus the predictability and downside of a veteran.

In the case of Daisuke Matsuzaka in Boston, the issues at play are slightly different. The options behind him are worse, and the extracurricular risks might be more dire. In the end, though, the answer could be similar. Once Matsuzaka is healthy again, is he still the best option in the rotation?

First, let’s think of possible off-field issues. As perhaps the most high-profile posting from the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan, Matsuzaka has been touted as a possible human inroad to Eastern markets. During the negotiations for his contract, Scott Boras (admittedly a biased participant) claimed that the Yankees made as much as $21 million a year from the Japanese market when they signed Hideki Matsui. Dropping Matsuzaka could be seen as an indictment of the posting process with possible negative effects for a portion of the Red Sox fan base.

Except there’s no real evidence that this is all true. Even if Boras’ numbers are correct, the Red Sox never made the same commercial deals with Japanese companies that the Yankees pursued. The Yomiuri Newspaper advertisement that sat on the outfield wall in New York was never replicated in Boston, nor has any signage followed Matsuzaka on the road. Sales of hats and jerseys completed outside of Fenway Park are shared with the rest of the teams. And concerns about alienating future Japanese players and fans seem overblown and misguided. Every Japanese player is different – Junichi Tazawa picked a smaller financial package from the Red Sox because he preferred their development plan, for instance – and every Japanese fan is different.

Even the most ardent Japanese fan, for instance, would note the negative trends in Daisuke’s performance. His best ERA in the past three years was 4.69 in 2010, and his strikeout and walk rates have both been going in the wrong direction since his decent debut. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that his swinging strike rate has dropped every year (from an above-average 10.6% in 2007 to a poor 6.9% this year). His velocity has dropped more than a mile per hour on all of his pitches. All this, paired with his recent elbow ligament issues, does not paint a pretty picture.

But is it as bad as Yahoo columnist Jeff Passan has put it? In a scathing article posted this week, Passan called the pitcher a “bust” and “Another Chubby Easterner.” Passan pulls no punches and suggests that the Red Sox would be happy to leave Matsuzaka in Japan, where he is currently. He quotes anonymous sources as calling the pitcher “lazy” and “pigheaded.”

Matsuzaka has not performed so poorly that he deserves this treatment. Leaving aside his posting fee, he’s actually already been worth $43.9 million of his $52 million contract. His FIP has been better than league average in three of his four-plus years, and 622 2/3 innings of league-average work over that time frame is not quite bust-worthy. Of course, there is the matter of the posting fee, but it’s hard to quantify the benefits they’ve received over the past five years as well.

No matter. In the here and now, his walk rate is too close to his strikeout rate, he’s showing the worst fly ball rate of his career, and his elbow hurts. What’s in the cupboard?

The best prospect is Felix Doubront, currently at Triple-A for the second time. He’s even relieved and functioned as an emergency starter in the major leagues, so he’s close. But Doubront has also battled some forearm and groin issues so far this year and hasn’t cracked 20 innings pitched. The consensus is that he needs a little more time to work on his control and his secondary pitches. Going with him now might risk his development process unnecessarily.

Behind him the cupboard is nearly bare. The best option is Kevin Millwood. As exciting as Millwood’s 3.67 ERA in 2009 might look, his FIP over the past four-plus years has been worse than Matsuzaka’s. His velocity is long gone and his swinging strike rate hasn’t hit 6.7% since 2008. Even a reduced Matsuzaka has more things going for him than Millwood at this point in his career.

Once again, we’ve come to a similar conclusion. Despite a very different set of circumstances from those seen in Philadelphia, the best option in Boston is probably still the veteran. The best plan for the Red Sox, once Matsuzaka is healthy, is to phase him out slowly while giving Doubront time to get healthy, refine his command and work on his secondary pitches. And then the team can thank Daisuke Matsuzaka for services rendered and move on.

Thanks to Marc Normandin of Red Sox Beacon and Patrick Newman of FanGraphs and NPBTracker for their conversations in preparation for this column.



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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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