While I was reading Ian Browne’s wonderful book Dice-K, one thought kept sticking in my mind. The book talks a lot about Daisuke Matsuzaka, and his adjustment to the American way of pitching. It talks about his difficulty with pitch counts. It talks about the tough transition from getting “ace” treatment. It talks about the worries that come from not being given the benefit of the doubt. What if the Sox removed all of those issues?
It’s not like Dice-K is the first pitcher to have similar issues. He’s not even the first player to have such complaints. When Eric Gagne came to the Sox for the second half of 2007, he struggled. How, everyone asked, could an elite closer become a less than useful set-up guy? How did he forget to pitch? The answer, of course, was that he still knew how to pitch. He just wasn’t used to the situation. He didn’t like looking over his shoulder. He didn’t like not controlling his destiny. As a closer, you were on the mound until the game was over. If you give up a hit, it’s still your game. If you give up a run, it’s still your game. If you walk the first three batters you face, it’s still your game. So, there was a mental margin for error. When he went to the set-up role, he felt he had to pitch differently. If he gave up a hit to the leadoff guy, was he being removed? Would someone start warming up? How many hits could he allow before getting the hook? It messed with his head, and he was ineffective.
The same thing happens to rookies. Especially in Spring Training. A young player trying to win a job needs to be a lot more perfect then a veteran who is secure with his role. If Ryan Kalish goes hitless this spring, there’s no way he makes the team. If Carl Crawford goes hitless, I’m fairly certain he’ll still be the starting left fielder on April first. There’s a margin for error that Crawford has that Kalish doesn’t. So, if Kalish doesn’t start hitting right away, it will put him under a different set of pressures than Crawford.
That seems to be bothering Matsuzaka. (Or at least it was during his rookie year) He didn’t like looking over his shoulder. He didn’t like knowing that if he threw too many pitches, he was in danger of coming out of the game. If he walked one guy too many, he’d get the hook. In Japan, he got the Pedro treatment. Was there a situation when Pedro was Pedro that he would ever come out in the middle of an inning? Did the manager ever yank him in 1999? Or 2000? That’s what Dice-K was used to. He was always allowed to work himself out of jams, so he didn’t worry as much. He always knew he would get out of it. And, in many of the cases he’s been allowed to try with the Sox, he’s done just that. How many times has he walked the bases loaded only to strike out the side? That’s what he’s used to. That’s when he can let it all go and pitch. If it takes 175 pitches to do it, he’s going to do it. He’s done it before. So, what if the Sox let him?
I’ve always said that babying a pitcher wasn’t necessarily in the team’s best interest. When Pedro was having the best year a pitcher ever had in 1999, he was on a bit of a pitch count. The Sox were preserving his arm so he could pitch longer. Basically, they cut back on the number of pitches the best pitcher in baseball threw in 1999 for the Red Sox so the Phillies could get a couple more innings out of Pedro in 2009. How did that help the Sox? I say spend the bullets while they’re good, and let the other teams worry about him later in his career. So, let’s try it with Dice-K.
The Sox have Matsuzaka under contract for two more seasons. What if they said to him, “The last four years haven’t exactly been stellar. You’re our fifth starter now. You only have two years. So, let’s try it your way.” What if they told him he would never come out of a game unless he asked? Or, he would pitch seven innings every game, whether he was working on a no-hitter, or being lit up. Or even that he would finish every inning he started. What’s the worst that could happen? The Sox might lose a lot of his games? He’s the fifth starter. Lots of teams lose games with their fifth starter. Plus, this is quite a line-up the Sox have. I bet they would win a fair amount of slugfests if they needed to.
He could blow his arm out. Yup. So, they lose an ineffective pitcher for a year or two. From what I hear, he hasn’t really been pitching well enough to worry about that. Some people have actually been saying he should just be cut anyway. Besides, they have Wake or a youngster to fill in if that happens.
What’s the upside? They could get the Matsuzaka they thought they were signing. They could get the only MVP the World baseball Classic has ever had. They could be getting a top half of the rotation guy pitching in the fifth spot. They could get half a season, or a full season, or two seasons of a superb pitcher. They could get the gyroball.
Matsuzaka is still young. It’s not like giving a 43-year old pitcher the green light. He’s only 30. He should be able to withstand being “overworked” for a season. Are the Sox worried about him being worn out in October? Is there a scenario where he would pitch a playoff game? At this point in his career, what are the Red Sox saving him for? Why shouldn’t they take a chance and trust him to know his body? What do they have to lose? Let him go out there and pitch until his arm falls off.
He’ll probably be on another team by then.