A Real TestThe Florida Marlins stood in the way of Daisuke Matsuzaka and his building reputation as a top flight Major League pitcher. Boston College was a test to some, who still doubted the ability of a Japanese pitcher to succeed in the US, but in general it was more of a warm up. Those players showed almost zero plate discipline and had to be both excited and intimidated to be on the same field with the Red Sox. The Marlins are a tough group of young players who made the NL East race very interesting for a while despite being made up of recently called up minor leaguers and promising prospects.
Before the game, NHK focused on Matsuzaka's warm ups on the sidelines and the announcers chatted about the ins and outs of life in the Majors, and such. Daisuke wore the navy blue version of the Spring Training uniform and worked up a healthy sweat in the bright Flordia sun. Heading back to the dugout to prepare for game time, the cameras followed the pitcher as he talked with teammates. We watched as Matsuzaka stripped off his sweat-soaked jersey and "under armor" shirt. I was surprised that the cameras chose to focus so long on him as he stood half nude and resplendent in his bulging love handles. We continued to watch as he put on his new clothing, but there they were for everyone to see. I have to say, as a long time Matsuzaka fan, his conditioning is very poor. He's always been a little on the round side, but I never had the impression that he was carrying around a spare tire like he is these days. All the time he was supposedly working out in California, I'm sure he was up to other things He certainly wasn't serious about his conditioning.
I read in the news that Daisuke threw a bullpen session just a day earlier. Throwing before game day is not common practice in the Major Leagues and the Sox have let him go about his usual routine. Terry Francona even remarked that the club was still trying to feel out how Matsuzaka works and I think it's clear that they are going to err on the side of Matsuzaka's comfort zone rather than their own. I don't see a problem with this, but there is certainly a big danger in playing the whole process down the middle.
Either you are going to let a pitcher do what he wants or you are going to control the routine. If you meet halfway, all you are doing is creating a recipe for the unknown. The unknown is death to pitchers. If Daisuke follows his own plan, then he needs to be given that freedom all year long and on game day as well. If the Sox want to take more control during the season, watching his pitch counts carefully and so on, they need to get him used to it now. What has worked for Daisuke in the past will work in the future if it continues unhindered. If you make adjustments to it, you enter the unknown. Only by taking total control of the situation and understanding all the methods and science behind your decision will allow you to understand what it happening. Anything in between is an experiment. as long as they are aware of it, best of luck. That's just my opinion.
As for the game, it was clear that Matsuzaka was overstriding and his failure to control the breaking stuff was the result. After the game, he commented that he'd pitched at around 40-50% effectiveness. If today's game was 40-50% of what he has, Red Sox Nation has it's new hero. He wasn't great, but he was almost unhittable at times. Here's a batter by batter breakdown of the start:
Hanley Ramirez: fastball (strike), fastball (hit back to pitcher, 1-3)
Dan Uggla: curve (strike), fastball (low, ball), fastball (foul), fastball (single to center) Tripling up on the fastball cost him a hit here.
Jeremy Hermida: fastball (strike), change (pop to short) The nice Matsuzaka change did it's job.
Jason Stokes: curve (foul), fastball (inside, ball), fastball (foul), slider (high, foul), slider (outside, ball), change (inside, ball), slider (strike out swinging)
Joe Borchard: curve (strike), change? (high and outside), change? (high and outside), slider (low and inside), fastball (swinging strike), Matsuzaka shakes off Varitek 3 times, slider (low, ball 4) It's clear that Matsuzaka trusts his slider a lot. He wanted it as an out pitch, and shook 3 times until he got it. The location today was bad and that pitch never had its normal bite.
Miguel Olivo: fastball (called strike on the outer part), fastball (foul), fastball (foul), NASTY slider (low and outside), fastball (swinging K) It appeared to me that Matsuzaka stopped overstriding from the stretch and located his pitches very well. He went heavy on the fastball which also tells me that he was being competitive. Using the slider and breaking stuff early it was clear that he was working on things. With a runner on he went straight heat and it worked. The slider he mixed in was of the Daisuke+ variety and Olivo did a good job of taking it. That pitch will be a huge out pitch in 2007 if he features it like he did in this at bat.
John Gall: fastball (low and outside), slider (outside), at this point the NHK announcer remarked that Matsuzaka still looked a bit "green" meaning "not in top form yet", FAT fastball (one bounce ground rule double) Runners on 2nd and 3rd, one out. Going repeatedly to the fastball will hurt any pitcher, no matter how good he is. A guy like Gall knows that a guy who is missing with all his breaking stuff will have to throw one in his zone sooner or later and he got it. Matsuzaka was super cool though. He never gets fazed. That's his gift.
Scott Seabol: slider (low and outside, called a strike), fastball (low, called strike), fastball (foul), slider (foul), fastball (inside, ball), Varitek and Matsuzaka talk it over. I read somewhere that Varitek asked him about the slider and Matsuzaka gave a thumbs up. slider (called strike 3). Tough.
Eric Reed: fastball (popped up bunt to 2B) Why on Earth would a player attempt a bunt with two outs and runners in scoring position? Take a few pitches. See you in the minors Reed-O. Matsuzaka got a break in this inning. I thought he looked good against Seabol, but he was able to get ahead on some close pitches. Reed took him off the hook with a stupid plate appearance. A squibber through the infield would have scored at least one run, and maybe two. Credit to Daisuke. He did his job and stayed very cool in his first Big League jam.
Hanley Ramirez: slider (low and outside), fastball? (over Ramirez' head), slider (outside part, strike), slider (high and inside), fastball (foul), fastball (scorching liner into Matsuzaka's waiting glove) I noted at the start of this at bat how big Ramirez looks this year. He seems to have put on some muscle and looks to be in great condition. I imagine we'll see some power to go with his speed in 2007. It could be a break out season if that's the case. Matsuzaka again got lucky here. Out of the full windup he couldn't locate his offspeed stuff again, and had to throw more fastballs. A guy like Ramirez will jump on that in his second or third at bat.
Dan Uggla: fastball (foul, good wood), He was looking for that, change (popped out to 3B) Matsuzaka saw that Uggla was looking fastball and went to his goofy change. Uggla had no chance and was WAY out in front. Along with the slider, the change will be very very important to Daisuke as he challenges MLB hitters in their 2nd and 3rd go arounds in the order.
Jeremy Hermida: change (low, called strike), slider (inside and low), change (popped out to 2B) Hermida was also looking for a fastball in there. Matsuzaka's adjustment in the 3rd inning to the change served him well, and should help him to get out to a fast start for the Sox.
He wasn't sharp, but the pitches he trusts will get him some wins while he's still working out the kinks. I'll be curious to see how he continues his workouts from here. I think the Sox are curious too. The line: 3 innings, 2 hits, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts, no runs. More soon....