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Dice-K could face rocky transition

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Video of Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching in the bullpen on Thursday, posted online by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, revealed nothing spectacular or particularly revelatory. If anything, Matsuzaka resembled the pitcher he’s always been.

His mechanics weren’t drastically different from the form he utilized last year with the New York Mets and his delivery looked typically Matsuzaka, longish and with a slight hitch. He threw again on Friday, working on his balance and form — it was said he might be trying to get back to what worked in Japan the first time around — while pitching coach Yoshinori Sato kept watch.

It was a small, but nonetheless important step for a player making a highly publicized return to Japanese baseball. It’s been eight years since Matsuzaka pitched in an NPB game. In the interim, he won a World Series and went through various highs and lows in the majors. Now he’s back, in Hawks colors rather than the Seibu Lions uniform he wore from 1999-2006. Matsuzaka will draw a lion’s share of attention in the early stages of the spring and the regular season because of his past, but fans would be wise not to set the bar too high on his future.

Matsuzaka may look similar to his younger self, but he’s not the kaibutsu of old, the monster molded in the fires of Koshien in 1998 who became a powerful presence in the Pacific League for eight seasons before leaving for the majors in 2006. He’s 34 years old now, with eight years of MLB mileage — where he faced a heavier and more grueling workload — on his arm, not to mention Tommy John surgery. He’s experienced a natural decline in his skills. Where his fastball averaged 149 kph (92.4 mph) when he broke into the majors in 2007, his velocity was down to 145 (90.3) last season according to data collected by Fangraphs. He may have to be craftier this year and rely a little more on the rest of his repertoire. In some ways, Matsuzaka is similar to a foreign pitcher. He’s an MLB player, and coming to Japan requires some level of adjustment.

A famous, or infamous depending on how long you like your half-innings, nibbler around the plate, Matsuzaka will come home to a slightly friendlier strike zone and fewer mashers littering opposing lineups. What he’ll have to adjust to is more hitters who are going to put the ball in play against him, which could be trouble if he’s putting a lot of runners on, as Dice-K is wont to do at times. He won’t escape home run hitters entirely either, with Takeya Nakamura, Ernesto Mejia, Sho Nakata and others roaming the Pacific League these days.

The group of pitchers returning to Japan after four or more seasons in the majors isn’t a large one, and they haven’t historically had much success back on home soil. The outlier is Kazuhisa Ishii, who returned in his age-32 season. Ishii had three double-digit win campaigns, a 65-57 record and 3.94 ERA for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Lions, where he was a important piece of a Japan Series winner in 2008, from 2006-13 after four years in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Mets.

Matsuzaka won more than he lost over the last eight years, going 56-43 in MLB, but went from winning 18 games for the 2008 Red Sox to having commentators qualify their assessments of subsequent prominent Japanese pitchers by assuring everyone, “he’s not Daisuke Matsuzaka.” As these things usually go, Matsuzaka wasn’t quite as bad as that. He didn’t live up to the $103 million the Red Sox sunk into him, but he’s hardly the only player to flame out during a big contract.

Matsuzaka was (way) overpaid during his final four seasons in Boston, but he was at least good for the first two, going 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA over his first 61 starts, while helping Boston win a World Series. Comparatively, Yu Darvish was 29-18 with a 3.34 ERA in his first 61 starts, though a 3.28 fielding independent pitching average, compared to Matsuzaka’s 4.14, bears out that Darvish was better over his first two seasons.

The difference is Darvish continued pitching well, while Matsuzaka was nicked by injuries, made an ill-fated decision to play hurt during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and saw his productivity take a sharp decline. After an unceremonious exit from Boston in 2012, Matsuzaka was briefly in the Cleveland Indians’ organization before latching on with the Mets in 2013. He pitched well enough for New York, where he was 6-6 with his only MLB save in 61 appearances over two seasons both starting and in the bullpen.

On Thursday, Matsuzaka allowed a sheepish grin to cross his face after his practice session and broke into a full laugh at something manager Kimiyasu Kudo said before chatting with former Hiroshima Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura.

Only time will tell if Matsuzaka can turn back the clock and keep the good times rolling into the regular season, but it might not be an easy road to walk.

  • Certainly it will be interesting to follow his progress this season. Is his pitching style just better suited to the Japanese game, or has his arm just slowly eroded over time? Will his decline continue in Japan or can he return to form?

    His first start in an exhibition game looks good on paper (three shutout innings) but he also allowed six base runners and needed 57 pitches to get 9 outs. Let’s see how he does in the regular season. Indeed a story to follow.