The trials and tribulations of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Matsuzaka and the Red Sox should have seen it coming. The answer was right there in front of them. It was obvious to me.
How did I know something that all of them didn’t?
Well, I saw the movie Mr. Baseball.
Am I joking?
Maybe a little bit, but not entirely.
In the movie, Jack Elliot (played by Tom Selleck), had trouble adjusting not only to Japanese culture, but also to the Japanese style of playing baseball.
(Granted, Elliot partially assimilates into the culture by the end of the movie, but that doesn’t fit my narrative, so I will blatantly ignore it.)
Baseball players in Japan and the United States play the same game, but see it through different prisms, shaped by their respective cultures.
For example, the way pitchers are handled in each culture is completely inverse.
In Japan, most rotations are set up so that a pitcher is scheduled to pitch once a week. But that doesn’t mean he only throws that often.
On the contrary, Japanese pitchers throw… and throw… and throw.
They throw before the game, during the game and after the game and at all the other times in between. They throw during dinner, in the shower, and on the bullet trains.
Pitch counts? The Japanese don’t need no stinkin’ pitch counts. Hell, most of them throw a complete game in the bullpen just before they take the mound for a game.
Compare that with the United States. In Major League Baseball, most pitchers are placed on a five-man rotation, which means that they pitch about twice a week. Then, when their turn on the mound comes, they are placed under intense scrutiny with their pitch counts monitored closely.
Another difference? The strike zone.
In Japan, the strike zone needs its own zip code because it’s so large. In the United States, particularly in MLB, there hasn’t been a chest-high strike called since the Carter Administration.
This is a difficult adjustment to make for anyone that is used to a large degree of latitude (and longitude) when pitching.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Matsuzaka’s struggles, however, is a talent discrepancy, one not only between him and his former competition in Japan, but also between him and MLB.
Maybe, just maybe, Matsuzaka isn’t as good as the scouts thought he was. Maybe his talent was overvalued because he played against weaker competition.
Yes, I know, the Japanese won the World Baseball Classic. Good for them. But it doesn’t mean that the level of competition is higher there. Other countries have won gold medals in Olympic basketball, but you can’t convince me that their overall talent is better than what’s displayed nightly in the NBA. Same thing applies to baseball.
Another harsh reality check is that Matsuzaka’s first experience playing professional baseball in the United States was in Boston. That is a lot different than what Ichiro faces in Seattle, or what any other ballplayer outside of New York has to face. Just ask Edgar Renteria.
When all of this is considered with the fact that Matsuzaka is dealing with the intense pressure of representing Japan and its people, a culture steep in pride and honor, it is easy to see that he was destined to underachieve.
Now, if Matsuzaka had only done his due diligence and watched Mr. Baseball before signing with the Red Sox, he might have seen the writing on the wall and decided to stay home.
But then I wouldn’t have been able to say that I told you so.
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