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Daisuke Matsuzaka Dazzles and Disappoints

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Daisuke Matsuzaka Dazzles and Disappoints
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Daisuke Matsuzaka is the proverbial box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get.

Last Saturday night, against the defending NL champion Phillies, Dice-K threw a one-hitter over eight innings, allowing no runs, walking four, and striking out five.

Then in his next start, Thursday night versus the Royals, this was his line: 4.2 innings, eight walks, one hit batsman, one strikeout, three earned runs, and just two hits. Plus, he threw a wild pitch that scored a run.  The eight walks matched his career high, and five of them came in the fifth, when he allowed all three runs.

The guy is both maddening and tantalizing. You never know what you're going to get from him on any given outing. At times he looks like an All Star, while at others he looks like a Double A pitcher. 

If Matsuzaka is defined as the Sox' No. 5 starter, then he's as good, or better, than most in the AL. This season he is 3-2 with a 5.77 ERA.

The problem is all the hype Matsuzaka came with. He came with a fine international pedigree and was supposed to be an ace, not a No. 5.

Matsuzaka's command and control problems are now the stuff of legend. Including hit batsmen, the 29-year-old righty has put 248 runners on base in his career without granting them a hit. And he's done that in just 466 innings. When his 427 career hits are added in, Matsuzaka has allowed a total of 675 base runners, for a 1.45 WHIP during his four-year career.

In short, the inability to consistently throw strikes severely limits Matsuzaka's effectiveness. 

For more than three years, Matsuzaka had been whistling his way through the graveyard and flirting with disaster. After holding opponents hitless in 24 consecutive bases-loaded at-bats, the inevitable finally occurred against the Yankees on May 17. It marked the first time Matsuzaka allowed a run in such a situation since April 8, 2007.  

Such a streak was pure luck, and it was simply amazing that he got away with it for so long.

But Matsuzaka has become accustomed to such situations. Though he has held batters to 1-29 with the bases loaded over the past few seasons, that doesn't mean it hasn't been costly. 

In his six bases-loaded plate situations against the Royals on Thursday night, Matsuzaka issued a walk, got four outs, and threw one costly wild pitch that resulted in a run.

The two runs brought Matsuzaka’s total with the bases loaded to 11 since 2008. Walks and wild pitches can kill a pitcher.

In his best season, 2008, Matsuzaka led the Majors by walking 13 percent of all batters he faced and he led the AL with 94 walks. Yet, he also led the AL by stranding 81 percent of the base runners he allowed. However, if a pitcher puts himself in those positions often enough, he will inevitably end up getting burned.

Despite Matsuzaka's success that year (18-3, 2.90 ERA), it's important to note that no pitcher had ever won at least 18 games in so few innings pitched. And Matsuzaka has never had another season in which his ERA was even close to 2008's, registering 4.40 in 2007, 5.76 in 2009, and 5.77 this year.

Which brings us to Matsuzaka's other significant limitation; innings pitched. Matsuzaka throws far too many balls, resulting in high pitch counts, early exits, and overtaxed bullpens.

In his first season (2007), Matsuzaka averaged 6.4 innings per start. That has dropped in each successive season, to 5.8 in 2008, and 4.9 in 2009. This season, Matsuzaka is averaging 5.7 innings per start. But that is largely based on his eight-inning outing against the Phillies. Excluding that start, Matsuzaka is averaging just 4.9 innings per start, much more in line with his history. 

Because he takes so long to warm up and get loose, Matsuzaka is not a candidate for the bullpen. So that is not an option for the Red Sox. For better or worse, he is a starting pitcher.

Many Sox fans surely feel that it is time to cut ties with Dice-K and just move on. The problem is, after this season, he still has two years left (2011 and 2012) on a contract that will pay him $10 million each season. Beyond that, he also has a full no-trade clause.

The question is whether Dice-K even has any value at this point. After all, he is a starting pitcher with serious command issues. His inability to throw strikes and eat up innings has undoubtedly hurt his value.

Clearly, the highly competitive AL East, with its high-output lineups, is not the best place for a pitcher like Matsuzaka. Perhaps he would be better off in the National League, especially on a West Coast team that would put him closer to his native Japan.

In recent years, the Red Sox have made deals with NL teams for pitchers who couldn't cut it on Boston; Jeff Suppan, Joel Piniero, Brad Penny, and John Smoltz all found some degree of success in the NL after flaming out in Boston.

Matsuzaka wouldn't make a playoff roster, considering the pitchers ahead of him. Yet a team with playoff hopes, such as the Red Sox, will need much better starts from the back of their rotation just to qualify for the playoffs. 

What Matsuzaka's current trade value is, and how much the longer the Red Sox will continue to roll the dice each time they send him out to the mound, is an unknown at this point. But we may have answers to those questions by the trade deadline. 

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