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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles: Daisuke Matsuzaka

Dice-K lives! The Boston Red Sox expensive Japanese import has fallen off fan’s radar since losing the majority of the 2011 season to Tommy John surgery. While many fans won’t be welcoming him back with open arms, recent reports place Daisuke Matsuzaka’s return as sometime in May. The NPL star is excited to be returning and even more excited about his new manager:

“The biggest difference I think with Bobby is he knew me when I was in Japan and he knew how I pitched when I was at my best,So having him see that and having him see me now – when I’m not at my best and when I’m still working on my mechanics and trying to get back to my best – it’s good to know that someone is familiar with the differences in those areas.”

Whether or not Bobby Valentine will be the difference maker for Daisuke, if healthy, he could have significant impact on the Red Sox starting rotation when he returns. While Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz form an impressive trio at the top of the rotation, the final two spots are certainly questionable.

Felix Doubront, who has just 35 innings experience in the Major Leagues won the fourth starter role out camp. He is a promising young lefty who could be an important part of the Red Sox future, but he has also struggled with injuries, missing much of the 2011 season and, at 24, innings limitations will still keep him from making 30 starts this year.

Ace reliever Daniel Bard won the fifth starter despite some lackluster Spring Training stats and the Red Sox appear committed to transforming him into a starter long term. However, he has control issues that haunted him first in the minors and then again this spring and with so little starting experience, he could easily fall back into the bullpen. Even if he is reasonably successful as a starter, he has never pitched more than 75 innings in a season as a professional and he may not be good for 30 starts this season either.

While Alfredo Aceves is the likely sixth starter at the present time and Aaron Cook is readying himself for the role in AAA, Daisuke would easily jump past those two in the depth charts if he was at 100% strength. While his constant nibbling at the outer edges of the strike zone and his slow inefficient pace has driven Red Sox fans crazy, Matsuzaka has been an average to above average pitcher in his five years withBoston. In 2010, his strike out rate slipped a bit, down to 7.71 K/9 from his career average of 8.21, but he still managed a very average 4.08 FIP and a nearly average 4.69 ERA. He is a fly ball and as such he can struggle when his home run rate climbs, but he also gets the benefit of below average batting averages on balls in play. Also, his HR/FB ratio is a bit lower than expected on his career, at just 8.1% so he has never been far above average in surrendering the long ball, despite the fly balls.

Repertoire

When Matsuzaka was first being posted, there was all kinds of rumors about the incredible array of pitches that he could throw and throw effectively. The truth is fairly simple, though. Daisuke throws three fastball variations and two off-speed pitches, a change up, a curve and a slider/curve type pitch.

Matsuzaka’s most used pitch is four-seamer, which he throws about 40% of the time. It averages 91-92 mph and tops out around 94. He uses throughout the strike zone against hitters on both sides of the plate. The pitch has a large rise and some movement toward the catcher’s left hand side.

His cutter gets the second most work. He uses it about 15-18% of the time and throws it a tiny bit slower than his four-seamer, at 88-89 mph. The movement is what you would expect from a cutter, breaking towards the catcher’s right hand side, though Daisuke’s cutter is not as sharp as Josh Beckett’s or Jon Lester’s. He uses differently as a result, throwing it all over the zone, but without an emphasis on keeping it in on lefties. Instead, he often “back-doors” the pitch against them. He does, however, keep it away from righties, as most RHP pitchers tend to.

His final fastball variation, a two-seamer comes in at the same velocity as his four-seamer, but it moves more horizontally toward the catcher’s left. He uses this pitch around around 15% of the time, though he was favoring to before his injury last season, using it almost 30%.he follows a fairly typical usage pattern for this pitch, keeping it on the catcher’s left side, or in to righties and away from lefties.

His most used off-speed pitch is a slider/curve hybrid or slurve, which he throws around 22-25% of the time. It is possible that it is really two variations on a slider, one with more drop that comes in a bit slower and a slightly hard one that stay up more, but I tend to think it is just one pitch that is throw as slider and that varies in speed. It average close 80 mph and he typically throws it away from hitters regardless of handedness. He throws a change up to lefties as well, accounting for around 10% of his pitches. It has the same horizontal movement as his two-seamer, but virtually no rise. It averages 82-83 mph and he throws it away from lefties almost exclusively.

For all the hype that accompanied his arrival and all the disappointment fans have felt the last few seasons, the truth about Daisuke Matsuzaka’s abilities always seems to get lost. He is a good, but not great pitcher with strong stuff but a lack of control that hurts him and often leads to short outings. As much as he can drive fans crazy, the Red Sox will probably be a better team if he can make 10-20 starts this year in place of the other fill in options they might be forced to consider without him. If Bobby Valentine can reach him, and he can be more aggressive against hitters, he could even be valuable enough to lock down a starting gig for the entire season.