Dice-K helped deliver a World Series title in his first season and went 18–3 in his second, but he has hardly delivered fully on the more than $100 million the Red Sox invested in him. He’s been prone to injury, and even when healthy his nibbling pitching style has far too often resulted in him being pulled after five innings or less.
Matsuzaka is entering the final season of his six-year contract. Is there hope for the once ballyhooed Japanese import? The following five factors could make Dice-K’s sixth season in the Hub a productive one.
There is reason to believe that Terry Francona’s replacement could have a much better relationship with Dice-K than Tito ever had.
Bobby Valentine has extensive experience managing in Japan. And not just experience, but success. He led the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Japan Series and Asia Series championships in 2005 and endeared himself to fans. When Valentine was unceremoniously let go after the 2009 season, a petition to extend his contract was presented to Chiba Lotte with 112,000 signatures.
Right off the bat, Bobby V has said he will take the handcuffs off Dice-K. The reason Matsuzaka was such a hot prospect in 2006 was because of how many different pitches he could throw. In Boston he hasn’t been allowed to show off that full arsenal—which clearly made him uncomfortable and could explain his clashes with the team.
Yet the biggest reason Valentine could coax a comeback season out of Dice-K is also the simplest: His ability to speak Japanese. Fewer things will be lost in translation, and it could go a long way to making Matsuzaka more comfortable in the dugout and on the mound.
For perhaps the first time in his major league career, Dice-K will not be MLB’s most scrutinized Japanese player. In fact, he won’t even be the most scrutinized Japanese starting pitcher in the majors.
Both those honors now belong to 25-year-old Yu Darvish, for whom the Rangers posted a $51.7 million bid before signing to a six-year, $60 million contract. He is already being counted on to be the ace of the starting rotation for the two-time defending American League champs.
If any player will have to deal with an overpowering amount of Japanese media attention this season, it’s Darvish. Dice-K never seemed fully comfortable with being that guy in the past. He will gladly cede that position to someone else and devote all his attention to pitching.
When Matsuzaka returns following his recovery from Tommy John surgery, no fewer than three pitchers should be ahead of him in Boston’s starting rotation: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. In the last five seasons, each has proven capable of being a top-end starter who can carry the Sox.
At best, Dice-K will be the No. 4 starter. He doesn’t need to be a savior from that spot. If he can give Boston double-digit wins and at least 5-6 innings per start, the Sox brass will be ecstatic.
And it stands to reason that, from his spot in the rotation, Matsuzaka will match up against other teams’ second-tier starters more often than not. If that’s the case, Boston’s powerful offense will be able to provide run support for and take pressure off of Dice-K.
Perhaps no sport lends itself more to huge contract years than baseball. Particularly in Boston.
Consider the recent, impressive seasons that several key members of the Red Sox have had in the final years of their contract:
- Jonathan Papelbon (2011): 2.94 ERA, 31-of-34 save opportunities, 87 strikeouts in 64.1 IP
- David Ortiz (2011): .309 BA, 29 HR, 96 RBI
- Jacoby Ellsbury (2011): .321 BA, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 119 runs, 39 SB
- Adrian Beltre (2010): .321 BA, 28 HR, 102 RBI
Granted, not one of these players is a starting pitcher. But Beantown’s ability to generate solid walk years out of players angling for a new contract—either from the Red Sox or elsewhere—cannot be overlooked.
Team and fan confidence in Matsuzaka has been low for a long time. He hasn’t won more than nine games in the past three seasons, and he’ll be sidelined for the early part of the season while recovering from his shoulder surgery.
It is the perfect set of circumstances for Dice-K to make an unexpected, meaningful contribution to the Red Sox.
As camp opens, people are excited to just hear that Matsuzaka’s rehabilitation might be ahead of schedule. Imagine the good vibes Dice-K will generate if he puts together a solid string of starts when he returns. Bottom-of-the-rotation starters come out of nowhere to make their presence felt all the time. There’s no reason to think that Matsuzaka can’t do the same.