It’s hats-off time to Boston’s favorite failure, Daisuke Matsuzaka, for eclipsing the 100 IP mark in commendable fashion.
Perhaps the moniker “Boston’s favorite failure” is a bit harsh, but it’s difficult to separate his past four seasons from the other-worldly expectations following his acquisition prior to the 2007 season.
Failure, for not living up to expectations? Yes.
But, hats off for turning in a season which, by the rest of the league’s standards, was quite good.
19 GS, 118.0 IP, 4.19 ERA, 4.314 Expected ERA
Not too shabby.
And to add a bit of optimism to the mix, Daisuke has made considerable strides toward improving his walk rates this season — which raises him a rung or two in the Red Sox’ rotation.
Daisuke’s “Lack” of Control
For years, Daisuke’s lack of control has been the bugaboo of analysts nationwide — his career 4.26 BB/9 rate undermining otherwise excellent and occasionally brilliant stuff.
That “lack of control,” however, has been somewhat misleading given the classical interpretation of the term.
Most consider control and walk rate as interchangeable and synonymous: pitchers with good control will locate balls in the strike zone and have good walk rates.
Therefore, since Matsuzaka walks a large number of batters, he must not throw in the strike zone. Thus, he has poor control.
However, the relationship between walk rates and command is, in fact, far more complex than just throwing pitches in the zone. Rather, it is an interaction dominated by two factors: locating pitches in the strike zone, and, more clandestine, inducing swings when the balls are thrown outside of the zone.
Then you get a guy like Matsuzaka, who throws a monkey wrench into the classical definition of control (a pitcher’s zone percentage) and our interpretation of that skill (a pitcher’s walk rate).
And, the funny thing is, Daisuke happens to be quite adept at locating pitches in the strike zone — despite how much we bemoan his lack of “control.”
Walks and O-Swing Percentages
Back in ’08, Daisuke threw 51.2 percent of his offerings in the zone. A good mark by most all standards, the mark was around league average in ’08 — and would have ranked among the MLB’s Top 10 had it occurred this season.
That said, it’s funny that so many of us (myself included) consider Matsuzaka to have such bad command when, in fact, his “command” has never been particularly poor. In fact, locating balls in the zone has never been a problem. Until 2010, batters just hadn’t chased his offerings out of the zone — which led to more balls that would have been strikes for other pitches.
And it’s difficult to understate the effect of that deficiency.
To put in perspective the full effect of his improved O-Swing percentage (9.0 percent; 20.7 O-Swing in ’08, 29.7 O-Swing in ’10), an increase by 9.0 percent, on average, is just under a full walk per nine innings — 0.914 BB/9 to be exact. As for where it counts — runs scored — his expected ERA would drop 0.685 runs, from 4.799 to 4.314 with the prescribed change in O-Swing percentage.
While analysts the world over (rightfully) point to zone percentage as the primary mover in walk rates, O-Swing is just as important — albeit grossly underestimated.
But it shouldn’t come as any surprise. The effect of a swing on a pitch outside the zone is rather profound. Instead of the pitch resulting as ball, which it would have in the event of a no-swing, it instead becomes a strike or a ball-in-play — either ending or changing the complexion of the at-bat.
And the proof is in the pudding. Countless pitchers can sustain miniscule walk rates despite locating precious few pitches within the zone. Case in point: Hiroki Kuroda and Shaun Marcum have the third (42.0 percent) and fifth (42.5 percent) lowest zone percentages in the league, despite maintaining walk rates of 2.32 BB/9 and 2.06 BB/9, respectively. This is due in no small part to their exceptional O-Swing rates of 35.4 percent for Kuroda and 33.1 for Marcum.
Still, given his ability to throw balls in the zone, Daisuke himself may be his own worst enemy. Scouts and coaches have long espoused his persistence in nibbling the corners of the zone when he would be better suited attacking the zone. This deficiency has, no doubt, allowed plenty of batters to get ahead in the count or recover when behind — contributing to his large walk totals.
Not surprisingly, Matsuzaka has underperformed his expected walk totals in every season of his career.
2010: Expected BB/9, 3.142; Actual BB/9, 4.12
2009: Expected BB/9, 4.133; Actual BB/9, 4.55
2008: Expected BB/9, 3.902; Actual BB/9, 5.05
2007: Expected BB/9, 3.281; Actual BB/9, 3.52
And, since underperforming expected walk values seem to be an unrepeatable skill for the vast majority of Major League pitchers, there is much to be said for a pitcher who accomplishes this in four out of four seasons.
Stuff or Approach?
When it comes to answering the question “why have things changed?” we begin our search by examining Daisuke’s stuff.
At first glance, it would seem that his slider would be the logical place to look, as it is the only pitch in his repertoire whose movement has changed significantly from his 2009 offerings.
In the case of an increase in O-Swing, what we would expect to see is a change in break that would make it resemble a fastball. This would spike O-Swing because batters would chase the slider off the plate thinking that it was a fastball — increasing the number of O-Swings.
However, the opposite has happened, as this season the slider’s movement has differentiated further from the fastball, with a larger gap in both horizontal and vertical movement in 2010 than in years past. Therefore, with the new slider, it would seem that hitters would pick up the pitch’s movement earlier and lay off the pitch outside of the zone.
This suggests that a more deceptive slider is not the case.
Without a significant change in the movement in any of his other pitches, it is difficult to find evidence that would suggest that this has caused the O-Swing increase.
Ruling out this affect, we are left to believe that Matsuzaka must have altered the way in which he is setting up his pitches. He is probably locating and sequencing pitches differently than in the past, or has improved his communication and chemistry with Victor Martinez. However, without any source reliable information on this subject, it is difficult to further analyze this point.
Still, in Daisuke’s case, the “why” is less important than “what will happen next?” And, the good news is — if his 2010 success is indeed based on a change in approach — there is reason to believe Matsuzaka can sustain his improved O-Swing percentage into 2011.
And, with the team’s commitment to Daisuke and the Seibu Lions growing to approximately $18.5 million next year, the team can only hope that Daisuke will maintain his gains.
And he’ll have to, as Boston can’t afford another season of poor walk rates, inefficiency, and sub-par production.