Despite a rotation that’s currently making a combined $55 million-- if you include the injured John Lackey-- Red Sox starting pitchers have a 4.94 overall ERA, the fourth worst mark in MLB. A staff that features Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz as their top three shouldn’t be in the bottom half of the league in any category, much less that close to last.
Buchholz has been pitching well of late, though, including having thrown a shutout against the Orioles in his last start. Lester and Beckett both have FIPs (Fielding Independent Pitching) much lower than their ERAs, a measure more indicative of future success. Over the last 30 days the starters have combined for a 4.01 ERA, which ranks 12th in MLB and is much more in line with where they belong.
There is, however, one glaring weakness in the rotation: the spot formerly held by Daniel Bard. The past, and possible future, reliever delivered a 5.30 ERA to begin the season. This wasn’t a case of Bard being unlucky; his .282 BABIP is actually lower than a .316 mark against Lester and .312 against Buchholz. Rather, his 6 BB/9, astronomical 1.62 WHIP, and much diminished 5.6 K/9 are to blame.
In spring training manager Bobby Valentine thought Bard should begin the season in the bullpen. After recently sending him down to Triple-A ball and having him relieve there, it seems the front office has now come to that conclusion as well. So who’s left to take Bard’s place? None other than one of the most frustrating pitchers in Boston's recent memory: Daisuke Matsusaka.
After his first two seasons in a Red Sox uniform during which he won 33 games, it seemed that even if Matsusaka didn’t live up to the hype or money spent on him, he would at least be a solid starter in the majors.
That has not been the case for four years now.
From 2009 through 2011, Matsusaka started 44 games, netting a 5.03 overall ERA. Never mind that he missed so many starts; when he pitched, he wasn’t successful. For a player the Red Sox spent over $100 million on-- including a record $51.1 million posting fee-- the team thought they’d be getting much better results than that.
Daisuke is now healthy for the first time since May of 2011, though, and the immense amount of pressure for him to perform is quite possibly at the lowest of his career. At this point, both Sox fans and the media covering the team don’t really expect anything out of him. For a player that hasn’t handled the difficulty of pitching in Boston too well over the years, this is as close to an ideal situation as he's had.
Matsusaka is still only 31, and pitchers, especially in today’s game, can perform well into their late 30s. He’s also going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and there's a correlation between better player performance and contract years, as proven in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers. While the increase is low, the fact is that without a solid year in 2012, Matsusaka will be looking at a salary much less than the $10 million he’s currently making.
In his first start back from the disabled list on June 9th, Daisuke gave up four runs in five frames and took the loss. But this was not the Matsusaka of old that labored through innings with control problems. He walked only one batter during his outing, continuing a trend he started in Triple-A ball, where he gave up just over two walks per nine innings.
He also struck out eight batters on a dazzling array of pitches that were moving all over, and out of, the strike zone, especially his slider. Sure, it was one start, but his accuracy and execution of pitches was the best we’ve seen from him in quite some time.
Additionally, Matsusaka changed up his pitch types from his previous years. In that first start, he threw his changeup at a 13.8 percent rate, much higher than his career mark of 5.2 percent. The same can be said for his cutter (20 percent, 15.1 percent). While these undoubtedly come from a small sample size, they could also mean that during the time he was out, Daisuke studied what worked for him as a pitcher and developed a different approach.
The Red Sox were giving the ball every five games to one of the worst starters in the league up until Matsusaka pitched Saturday against Washington. He can’t do much worse than Bard. And as evidenced by a career that’s included a 2.90 ERA in 167 innings in 2008, Matsusaka has the potential to succeed. In a year where the Sox rotation truly needs him to, Daisuke has the means to step up.