The only thing in recent memory less surprising than Gary Sheffield’s involvement in a contract dispute is the #1 player on this list, Seibu Lions ace Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Like as not, you’ve already heard of Matsuzaka. Just in case you haven’t, here’s the scoop: he’s probably the best baseball player in the world not on a major league roster (I can hear the Cubans griping already – calm down, will y’all?). He’s 26 years old and has been dominating Nippon Professional Baseball for eight seasons. 2007 is the final year of his contract with Seibu; rather than lose him to free agency for no return, they plan on using the posting system to sell his contract rights to a major league team.
Matsuzaka stands 6 feet tall and weighs about 185 pounds, so he’s a little smaller than you’d like for a right-handed pitcher, but he has proved fairly durable. The stories of him pitching in the Koshien Tournament are already legendary – he pitched 17 innings and threw 250 pitches one day for the victory, then came out in relief and picked up the save on the next. This year, he’s averaged around 140 pitches per start, albeit pitching on longer rest than he will in America.
Matsuzaka’s statistical record is excellent. He won the Sawamura award with a dominant season in 2001, although the heavy workload he endured that year might have caused him to miss time the following season. These days, he strikes out over a batter per inning, walks few, and doesn’t give up many homers. His statistics have been basically the same as those of Saitoh the past few seasons, but Saitoh came away with the hardware.
Matsuzaka throws a lot of pitches and throws them for strikes. He hit 94 on the gun many times during the World Baseball Classic as he spotted his fastball in and around the strike zone, although he usually sits in the 88-92 range. His slider has a very sharp break, like a yo-yo being snapped backward; he uses the pitch to make batters look foolish. And then there’s the gyroball. Right now, Will Carroll is hiking through the Japanese hinterlands with a crappy camcorder attempting to record footage of this mythical beast.
Buttercup: Westley, what about the G.O.U.S’s?
Westley: Gyroballs of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they exist.
In my opinion, Matsuzaka’s arsenal is exciting enough that it doesn’t need the added hype of a mystery pitch that Matsuzaka himself claims he doesn’t really throw. No, really – his stuff is great. Check the video if you don’t believe me.
Despite his obvious talent, Matsuzaka is anything but a sure thing. He has an awful lot of mileage on his young arm; as hard as it was to witness Francisco Liriano’s elbow pop, imagine if your team had just invested $90 million in him. Also, Matsuzaka might struggle under the microscope of a major media market like New York or Boston. Finally, the effects of culture shock, while probably minor, are still unpredictable at best.
Me? I’m optimistic. I expect 200 IP, 180 K, 45 BB, 25 HR, and a 3.40 ERA from Matsuzaka, and won’t be surprised if he beats that projection. He’s good enough to do it. Jeff Sackmann thinks that will earn him roughly $50 million in guaranteed salary, plus a posting fee of $25 million to Seibu. That seems reasonable enough to me, but again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number ended up even higher. We’ll know for sure in the next couple of weeks.
Daisuke Matsuzaka 2006 Stats:
W L ERA GP GS CG ShO Hld GF Sv IP H R ER HR BB SO 17 5 2.13 25 25 14 2 0 0 0 186.1 138 50 44 13 34 200