A Dice-K Proposition

By traditional standards of measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness, Red Sox righty Daisuke Matsuzaka had a stellar 2008 season. With an 18-3 record and a shiny 2.90 ERA, one would be led to believe that he was one of the very best starters in the majors. When one digs a little deeper, however, there are plenty of trends that point to regression for Matsuzaka in 2009. Here are a few of the factors working against Dice-K:

BABIP: Matsuzaka got plenty lucky on balls put in play in 2008, with a .267 BABIP. BABIP for a pitcher tends to hover around .300, and in fact Dice-K posted a .306 BABIP in his first state-side campaign in 2007. Even if we allow for Matsuzaka to post a slightly lower-than-average BABIP because of the quality of Boston’s defense (the Red Sox posted the 5th-best Defensive Efficiency in baseball), he’s still due for regression to the mean.

Walk rate: As any Red Sox fan can attest, Matsuzaka has a maddening tendency to nibble at the corners. Dice K’s walk rate went from a mediocre 3.52/9 in 2007 to a bloated 5.05/9 in 2008. Among starters with at least 100 innings pitched, only Tom Gorzelanny, Fausto Carmona and Barry Zito walked more batters per nine innings. For the record, none of those three guys had an ERA under 5.15.

Home run rate : Matsuzaka’s home run rate fell from 1.10/9 in 2007 to 0.64/9 in 2008. However, there are no real trends to support that drop, as Dice-K generated about the same number of groundballs (about 38 percent), flyballs (43 percent) and line-drives (18 percent) in both seasons. The only difference was a dip in his home run/fly ball rate, from 10% in 2007 to 6.1% in 2008. HR/FB rates tend to normalize around 11 percent for pitchers, so Matsuzaka is due for regression to the mean here as well. As a flyball pitcher, Dice-K is pretty unlikely to give up just 12 long balls ever again.

Left on base%: Dice-K stranded 80.6% of baserunners in 2008, well above the league average and his 2007 showing (73.9%). If that number comes back to earth, so will his ERA.

All of these auspicious numbers led to a large dichotomy between Matsuzaka’s actual ERA (2.90) and his Fielding Independent ERA (4.03). That’s the third-largest difference among starters tossing at least 100 frames (Armando Galarraga is first, Justin Duchscherer is second).

None of this is to say that Daisuke Matsuzaka is a lousy pitcher. He ranked among the top 20 starters in strikeout rate and, as his Fangraphs page attests, Matsuzaka has a cornucopia of pitches at his disposal. However, if you’re expecting another sub-3 ERA from Dice-K, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Don’t let those W-L numbers fool you: Matsuzaka is good, but not that good.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

6 Responses to “A Dice-K Proposition”

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  1. Mike Ketchen says:

    He has posted a strand rate above 73% in 8 out of his 10 seasons so at what point do we not give some credit for him having an ability to bare down from the stretch? Also he gives up a ton of walks in exchange for hits. I am a Sox fan and I watch nearly every start and his approach is somewhat by design. He simply refuses to give in and it works. He will never be dominant by formulas such as FIP. However in terms of fantasy, he is a great strikeout pitcher who is going to get wins (due to playing for Sox) and be league average or better in terms of ERA and WHIP. That is a top 20 or Tier 2 starter in my book

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  2. I think we’ll all agree that he is a very good strikeout pitcher, but I think his walk problem is a serious concern, especially in the ERA department. I’ll admit I personally think of him as a bit of a wildcard. A pitcher who if he were to get his walks (and furthermore pitch counts) under control he could be a top 10 pitcher, but I think it’d be irresponsible to go after him like one and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be someone in most leagues who will end up doing just that. You shouldn’t be that guy.

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  3. David Golebiewski says:

    Maybe it’s possible that Matsuzaka is unique, but I think we can get into trouble looking for justifications as to why a certain player gooes against a principle that seems to hold pretty strongly overall: strand rates tend to hover around 70-72%, and he fell close to that range in 2007.

    And, even if we concede that Matsuzaka has an ability to pitch out of situations where runners are on base, there are still troubling trends in terms of his BB rate, HR rate and BABIP. Pitchers just don’t post sub-3 ERAs with a walk rate over 5.

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  4. Mike Ketchen says:

    I agree with what you are saying on the surface. However he has outperformed that rate in 8 out of 10 years! This is not Ryan Dempster lol. Honestly though I do not know how to explain my thoughts beyond what I have read about japanese pitchers and seen with my own eyes, I think he simply refuses to give in, which in turn leads to walks but also leads to not getting hit hard (career IP/H 372.1/319) He chooses his spots very well. Again maybe I am crazy, however how often do we see stubborn pitchers “challenge” a hitter in a hitters count and get hurt, rather then nibble with a pitch and either make a hitter swing at their pitch or simply walk a guy and start fresh with a new hitter.

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  5. Tom M says:

    The ‘Dice-K is overrated’ theme is provocative, but ultimately wrong. Even just on the Red Sox team, the most overrated and most overpaid player is actually JD Drew, who makes $14M as the highest paid hitter, who is always hurt over minor injuries and refuses to bat higher than 7th in the batting order. In 2008, Josh Beckett enjoyed almost the same run support as Dice-K did, and other pitchers who walked a ton in 2008 include Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez (both over 80 walks).

    Dice-K gets the job done, period. All he does is win. He won 33 games his first two years in the league, his MLB playoff record is 7-3, and he was the MVP of the past 2 World Baseball Classics. I think his high walk rate is a cultural thing – it’s clear he never gives up on a hitter and would rather walk him than just throw it down the middle. His mindset isn’t like a lot of pitchers today, his mindset towards walks is old school like Nolan Ryan’s. Both pitchers had low ERA’s and extremely high walk rates.

    Calling 18-3 and a 2.90 ERA as “luck” is ignorance simply because he pitches differently from what you are accustomed to. Why don’t you point out that Dice-K had the league’s lowest batting average against among all pitchers in 2008? How about the fact that with any runners on base, Dice-K had the league’s best BAA and ERA? The walk issue is a cultural and philosophical thing, because clearly whenever runners are in scoring position he was the best pitcher in the 2008. I’m gonna guess that in Japan they throw junk to get hitters to chase, and bring the goods when runners actually reach base.

    If you throw out Dice-K’s horrible 1st start, he has a 3.60 ERA and a 7-2 record in 2010. This hardly ever gets brought up in Boston media…

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  6. Michael Coker says:

    Daily best phone sale guide!

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