`Real deal' worth gamble

Gauging how Japanese players will fare in the majors is tough, but most scouts think Daisuke Matsuzaka will be an elite starter

December 14, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

Now that the Boston Red Sox and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka appear to have finished their contract brinkmanship, baseball fans want to know how the Japanese ace will affect next year's pennant race.

The consensus among scouts, statistical analysts and batters who've faced Matsuzaka is that he immediately would give the Red Sox an additional elite starter to pair with Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.

Though scouts have learned to be skeptical of numbers produced in the Japanese league, Matsuzaka, 26, wiped away most concerns with the stuff he showed in the World Baseball Classic in March and in other exhibitions against major league players.

"Without question he could pitch in the major leagues," then-San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy said after one exhibition. "He has four major league pitches, and has a good idea of what he's doing on the mound. It's hard to compare him to anybody because of his unique delivery."

One veteran National League West scout said that among previous Japanese imports, only Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui generated such universally positive reviews.

"There hasn't been one person I've talked to who doesn't think he's the real deal," the scout said. "He's a pretty special cat. I don't think there's any fluke involved."

Orioles director of professional scouting John Stockstill cautioned that projecting Japanese stars remains difficult.

"Most people think he's a good pitcher, if not necessarily a top-of-the-rotation guy," he said of Matsuzaka. "It's hard to gauge, because they're facing different hitters with a whole different approach over there. It's a tough job to figure out how they'll do over here."

Matsuzaka's pitches include a 95-mph fastball and a curve, slider and changeup all rated above average. He was a little wild as a young pitcher, but his control has been impeccable in recent years.

His Japanese statistics glimmer. He's 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA in eight seasons with the Seibu Lions and posted maybe his best season in 2006 with a 17-5 record, 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts against only 34 walks in 186 1/3 innings.

But what do those brilliant digits mean in American terms?

Clay Davenport of baseballprospectus.com has spent the past five years trying to determine the statistical relationship between Japanese and major league performance. His numbers suggest that Matsuzaka is ready to be an ace. The pitcher most comparable to him over the past four years happens to be maybe the greatest of all time, Roger Clemens.

"Beyond the Clemens comparison, the next most-comparable pitchers over the past four years include Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Josh Beckett, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy," wrote Davenport in a recent article. "In other words, a short list that includes most of the true right-handed rotation aces in the game over the past four seasons."

Several Japanese pitchers have transferred success from their home league to the majors.

Hideo Nomo was the first to arrive and maybe the best. With his mid-delivery hesitation, high leg kick and wicked forkball, he overwhelmed the National League as a 26-year-old rookie (236 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings) with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His spell wore off in ensuing seasons, but Nomo remained a workhorse, winning 123 games over 11 seasons. His Japanese numbers were less impressive than Matsuzaka's.

Kazuhiro Sasaki was already 32 when he joined the Seattle Mariners in 2000, but he was an excellent closer right away and saved 129 games with a 3.14 ERA in four seasons. Shigetoshi Hasegawa was a lesser talent but also had several solid seasons in a nine-year run as a reliever for the Angels and Mariners from 1997 to 2005.

With a burly 6-foot-4 frame and a 98-mph fastball, Hideki Irabu was supposed to be the best of the bunch when he joined the New York Yankees in 1997. But Irabu entered with questions about his personality and work habits, and those doubts dogged him throughout his six seasons. He finished with a 5.15 ERA.

The hype around Matsuzaka most resembles that given to Irabu. But the reports on him contain none of the same ambivalence about attitude or conditioning. The right-hander has been a hero in Japan since that country's 1998 national high school tournament, in which he threw a 17-inning gem in the quarterfinals and followed with a no-hitter in the finals.

The Red Sox are counting on him to be a major talent. They bid $51 million just for the right to negotiate with him (a price tag much too high for the Orioles and most other clubs), and his reported six-year, $52 million deal would bring their total bill to more than $100 million, the most they've ever paid for a pitcher.

Given the overall wealth of the Red Sox and the scarcity of outstanding starters, the investment is understandable if risky, said Stockstill and the NL scout.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Previous Japanese imports

Great payoffs

Hideo Nomo - Brilliant rookie season, solid career.

Ichiro Suzuki - MVP in his first season in Seattle.

Hideki Matsui - Key run producer for Yankees.

Good but not great

Tadahito Iguchi - All-around contributor for world champion White Sox in 2005.

Kenji Johjima - Catcher posted solid rookie season for Mariners this year.

Disappointments

Hideki Irabu - Power fastball couldn't overcome questions about attitude, work habits.

Kazuo Matsui - Has never become the power-hitting infielder some projected.

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