Dealing with DaisukeFinally, we have liftoff on the recap of the Toronto outing here at Matsuzaka Watch. Before I get into some batter analysis, I thought I'd give my general sense of this performance from an overall perspective. This was Daisuke Matsuzaka as I saw him in Japan. This was about the best I've seen him pitch against Major League hitting to date, and the control that he showed with his entire arsenal was remarkable. I also liked the way he worked pitch combinations more in this game.
Matsuzaka worked primarily off a variety of fastballs and popped the radar gun at 94-95 on many occasions with the 4-seam version. The cutter has improved a lot since he arrived in the US, and I don't remember seeing him go to that pitch nearly as much for Seibu. It's almost as though he's feeling more comfortable with his control of the cutter than he is with the slider. That makes him all the more dangerous when he gets the killer slider back to full strength. It was very good, if not great, against the Jays at any rate.
The 4th inning was Matsuzaka's killer. I felt there were a few factors related to the poor showing in the 4th that need to be addressed. First, his fifth pitch to Vernon Wells was a vicious slider that bit Wells' in half at the knees, but Ed Montague called it a ball from behind the plate. That was a missed call and it frustrated and annoyed Daisuke. I've seen him get burned by bad calls in the past, but he doesn't usually flinch. He usually gets the next pitch in the same location and sits the batter down. Not against Toronto. The very next pitch was tapped to 3B, and Lowell made a nice barehanded throw to first, only to miss Wells by a step. Matsuzaka lost it.
He threw a 4 pitch walk to Frank Thomas, and nothing was close. He threw two nice pitches to Overbay, but a little flick of the bat on the second one produced an astroturf single past Lugo at short. Another bad break on a pitch by which Overbay was badly fooled. Matsuzaka started to work way too fast and lost that nice coiling-uncoiling motion that he has. He looked rushed and uncomfortable throwing a lot of fastballs to Hill. Hill stepped out very very late and Montague allowed him time out on the seventh pitch of that at bat. The final pitch was a badly bounced fastball for a walk. Finally, Greg Zaun drew a walk to force in a run on a lot of balls which missed by a mile. It was not vintage Matsuzaka, but I think the combination of Montague's missed call on Wells, the two weak hits, and Montague's time out for Hill threw him off. No excuses.
What you have to like, however, was the regrouping that he did to keep the game close. Matsuzaka struck out 5 of the last 8 batters he faced, including 4 in a row. Those at bats were dominated by the 2-seam, 4-seam, and cutter along with the slider and an occasional change. The variety of fastballs that he used was something I had hoped to see at some point. Playing around with the offspeed stuff is nice when you can fool batters, but Matsuzaka is too good to be primarily an offspeed guy. He is like Pedro or David Cone in that he can blast a fastball by you for strikes one and two, and he can place it on the black anytime he wants. That sets up the 20 other pitches that might come flying out of his hand and you have no hope. I like the fastball as the primary pitch, especially when it comes in 3 different flavors.
Now for a couple of batters. I decided to write up three of the Jays batters, rather than the complete roster. I have notes on the whole game, but at this point we see that Matsuzaka is going to dominate the league average and below guys by showing fastball and working the change and slider in locations that are just not fair. The big slugger types get a steady diet of high heat until the hammer is dropped with a final curve or slider for effect. I may go back to doing an entire lineup of hitters as we continue, particularly with the Yankees coming up the next two games, but I stuck with the three Jays hitters with career OPS of .800+. Those hitters are Vernon Wells (.827), Frank Thomas (.988), and Lyle Overbay (.835), hitting 3-4-5 in the Toronto lineup. None of them has been particularly hot to start the season, but there are who they are for a reason. Matsuzaka will show us the most in the way he deals with these hitters.
Vernon Wells (1-3 - 17 pitches: 10 fastballs, 7 offspeed)
#1 - fastball (center-foul), fastball (93mph-outside black-foul), cutter (outside-G4-3)
#2 - fastball (94mph-high-swinging strike), slider (high, swinging strike), fastball (center-foul), fastball (94mph-high and inside-ball), freaky slider (inside-strike 3...oh, wait....ball), slider (outside-infield single to 3B)
#3 - change (center-foul), curve (low-ball), cutter (inside-strike), fastball (high-foul), slider (high-foul), slider (low-ball), fastball (94mph-center-foul), fastball (94mph-rising-swinging K)
Wells was actually out all three times at the plate, including two strikeouts. The little cheap hit he managed after Ed Montague's blown call innocently opened the door for the poor 4th inning that ended up losing the game for the Sox. He went right after the Jays best hitter with a whole lot of heat. The threat of the slider was enough to have Wells defensive all night. Guarding against that pitch is what made Matsuzaka a monster in the Pacific League, and Wells fell victim to that style of pitching in this game.
Frank Thomas (0-2, 2 strikeouts, 1 BB - 11 pitches: 6 fastballs, 4 offspeed, 1 ?)
#1 - fastball (center-strike), curve (outside-strike), fastball (outside-swinging K)
#2 - pitch not televised (ball), fastball (high-ball), slider (outside-ball), fastball (high-ball 4)
#3 - curve (low-strike), fastball (high-foul), fastball (center-foul), change (outside-swinging K)
Thomas almost saw the minimum number of possible pitches for each of his 3 at bats. A three pitch strikeout, a four pitch walk, and a 4 pitch strikeout. Matsuzaka got the benefit of facing Thomas when he was clearly pressing. He has opened the 2007 season very cold, and is not living up to the comeback year he had in 2006. He seemed to be fooled very badly in both at bats when he struck out, and the walk was really a no contest. It came after the unfortunate Vernon Wells at bat in the 4th inning, and contributed to the Jays win in the end.
Lyle Overbay (1-3, RBI, strikeout - 11 pitches: 8 fastballs, 3 offspeed)
#1 - curve (center-strike), slider (inside, but close-ball), cutter (inside-foul), fastball (low/outside black - called strike three)
#2 - cutter (inside-strike), change (outside-excuse me RBI single past Lugo)
#3 - fastball (center-strike), cutter (inside-ball), fastball (low-ball), fastball (center-strike), 2-seam fastball (center-G4-3)
Against the left handed Overbay, Matsuzaka went with the cutter three different times. I'm guessing that the cutter is something he wants to add to his already impressive collection of pitches for just such occasions. Powerful Major Leaguers batting from the left will get the slider, but more than likely the cutter will take it's place until the Matsuzaka special has his full confidence.
This sets up the final part of this recap. The Toronto game was an unfortunate loss to a decent team that got a little lucky, and had Red Sox killer Gustavo Chacin on the hill, opposing Daisuke. The Yankees will prove to be the greatest test of Matsuzaka's pitching career, stacked from top to bottom, and probably the most common opponent he will face over the next 6 years. This is why he was brought to Boston, right? Here's my prediction on the Yankee batters.
Johnny Damon will get a hit of some kind, but he will be held to one good at bat. Derek Jeter will have a multi-hit game, as I think guys with compact swings, who wait on the ball well, do better against Matsuzaka. Abreu will be on base at some point, but a lot will be determined by how effective Daisuke is at throwing his pitches for strikes. If he isn't sharp, Abreu may beat him. A-Rod is hard to figure. Normally, I wouldn't give him much chance in this matchup. As good as he is, I think Matsuzaka can strike him out repeatedly with hard movement. This year A-Rod is inhuman, and his swing is much more compact. I can't accurately predict what you'll see, but it will be fun. Giambi is meat. I don't think he can hit Matsuzaka. He could draw a walk, but the 2007 version of the Giambino doesn't hit much. When he does, it goes a looooong way, but his average is evidence that he is not going to "hit" Daisuke. If Posada plays, he's also meat. Matsuzaka shouldn't throw him a single straight pitch. Posada will beat him if he throws a fastball close to the plate, but anything dropping down in the zone will provide more strikeout fodder for the Boston ace. Cano will also have a good night. He may look silly once or twice, but his swing is also compact enough and he waits well on pitches. I'm assuming that Doug Mientkiewicz will play first and hit ninth, so you can chalk up 3 or 4 strikeouts there. As a Yankee fan, I've given up on Minky doing anything but senselessly sac bunting for Torre this year.
Strap in people. This should be fun. (I will be rooting for the Yankees to score double digit runs against Matsuzaka, by the way. I know that's not a popular sentiment here, but I have warned you that I'm a Yankee fan all along. I'm guessing that the Sox will win the game 7-4.)