Matthew Kory of Over the Monster posed a very interesting, albeit incredibly unpopular, question yesterday: Should the Red Sox extend Daisuke Matsuzaka?
“Oh, yeah. The idea of extending that contract may seem like crazy talk, but as difficult as it can be to take in a Matsusaka start, it’s important to separate the aesthetically displeasing nature of his starts from the production. As a famous GM once said in a book he wrote about himself according to a guy who never read it, we’re not selling jeans here. The way it’s done doesn’t matter. What matters is that it gets done. As much as we might not want to believe it, he’s not actually a bad player.
If you accept the idea that Matsuzaka was injured this past season, and it would be hard to argue that he wasn’t what with the whole Tommy John surgery thing, then the pertinent part of his career becomes his first four seasons with Boston. Surprisingly enough looking at the stats for those four seasons isn’t nearly as painful an exercise as you might expect. Despite his reputation for not going deep into games, from 2007 through 2010 he averaged six innings a start (OK, fine 5.97) while compiling an ERA ten percent above league average. That isn’t worth $21 million a year – his current salary including a pro-rated portion of the posting fee — but it is worth something. Fan Graphs says Shaun Marcum‘s 2011 season, in which he compiled an ERA+ of 110 in 200.2 innings of work, was worth $12.1 million.”
Given the relative disdain most Red Sox fans hold for Dice-K, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the mere suggestion of extending him was met with much hostility. (Seriously, check out the comments section.) I’ll be the first to admit that my initial reaction upon seeing the title of Matt’s article was, “Either he’s gone completely crazy, or he managed to get a hold of Jordan Schafer‘s magical peanut butter cups.” It sounds crazy, right? Sure, it sounds crazy, but maybe that’s just our emotional reaction. Kory’s suggesting we move beyond the personal biases clouding reality to see Matsuzaka’s potential value.
I don’t envy the task he’s taking on. Trying to convince people to get beyond their personal biases against Dice-K is like trying to convince Curt Schilling to keep his opinions to himself. Try as you might, you’re going to lose that fight 97% of the time. To be fair, it’s tough to blame anyone for their feelings on the subject. Although I don’t personally feel this way, many of us feel burned by the Japanese import. The Red Sox front office ponied up an impressive $51.1M posting fee just for the right to talk to him; signed him to a six year $52M contract; and performed well below the lofty expectations that had been set for him. All told, fans consider his 10.6 fWAR on an a $103M investment to be a pretty poor return.
While I could argue that our expectations were too high (they definitely were), the perception he was lazy and truculent is hard to dispute. During his five seasons in Boston, he frequently came into camp out of shape and overweight; was steadfast in his stubbornness to alter his style pitching and conditioning program; and put very little effort into learning English or communicating with his teammates. Add in his brilliant performance for his native Japan during the 2010 World Baseball Classic along with the occasional flashes of dominance he showed during the regular season, and you get a pretty broad view of why fans were so frustrated with his overall mediocre performance. He was an enigma: brilliant one start, and mindnumbingly frustrating for the next three.
Despite all of the negatives, Matsuzaka has been a fairly effective pitcher when he’s managed to stay healthy. As Matt pointed out in his article, Dice-K’s 4.26 career ERA was 10% above the league average, and his 4.54 xFIP hovered right around the league average. Furthermore, while he had an unhealthy 11.1% walk rate, his 21% strikeout rate and 8.1% HR/FB rate certainly helped make up for his wild inconsistencies. Lastly, although he rocked a less than optimal GB/FB ratio, his fly ball heavy batted repertoire actually worked in his favor; as he posted better than average BABIPs in four of his five seasons.
During his healthy seasons (2007, 2008, and 2010), he provided value consistent with a league average middle of the rotation starter (3.9, 3.3, and 2.6 fWAR respectively). That’s unbelievable production from someone we were expecting to serve as the team’s number five starter this season. Had he remained healthy all (or even most of the) season, it’s likely he would have provided enough production to help lift the Red Sox into the playoffs. Say what you will, but I would have rather seen Dice-K pitch every fifth day, rather than the green Kyle Weiland or the should-have-been LOOGY Andrew Miller.
Now, back to Matt’s original question: Should the Red Sox re-sign Matsuzaka? Currently, the Red Sox have their four starting pitchers locked up through 2014 and beyond. As for the number five slot in the rotation, the Red Sox don’t have a clear option waiting in the wings. Felix Doubront, Michael Bowden, and Kyle Weiland seem destined for bullpen duty; Tim Wakefield will likely be relegated to mop-up duty or emergency starter status (if he’s asked back at all); Alfredo Aceves is a wild card at best; and Anthony Ranaudo looks like a potentially overrated prospect. That essentially leaves the less than efficient free agent and trade markets as the best options for landing a starter.
As Matt details pretty effectively, the Red Sox won’t likely open up their coffers for another expensive free agent starting pitcher; at least not when they already have $50M+ on the books for 2013 their top four guys. The trade market is also unlikely to bear any fruit. After having emptied the farm system for Adrian Gonzalez and Erik Bedard, the Red Sox need to replenish their farm system. As such, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where Theo (or his successor) puts the team in the precarious position of creating a barren support system of cheap talent. This leaves the Red Sox with basically one option: sign a low-risk/reward pitcher, like Matsuzaka, and hope for the best.
So how much should the Red Sox offer Dice-K in a theoretical deal? Matt suggests offering him a $5M “make good” deal; similar to Adrian Beltre‘s 2010 contract. While I see his point, I feel $5M is far too rich for a pitcher who wouldn’t have thrown a pitch in almost two full seasons by that point. Brandon Webb‘s one year $3M deal (plus performance incentives) with the Rangers sets the precedent for pitchers who’ve seen a lengthy lapse in real-time appearances. Keep in mind that Webb is a former Cy Young Award winning pitcher that was among the game’s best pitchers for five season. Dice-K’s not even in the same realm. As such, it might be smarter to offer him a $2M deal plus a healthy bevy of incentives to entice him to return. He doesn’t have a tremendous upside, but he’s a known quantity. Plus, if it didn’t work out, the Red Sox could release him easily for minimal cost.
Should they re-sign him? I can’t say for sure. We’re still a long ways away from seeing how the market unfolds leading up to the 2012-2013 offseason. It’s possible other low-risk options appear on the scene; thus making Dice-K less attractive. At the very least, he’s certainly worth a long look to bring back for another season. At worst, they’d have a healthy, motivated pitcher looking to put together a strong season; in hopes of striking it rich on the free agent market the following season. I salute Matthew Kory for taking an unpopular position and running with it. He’s not alone as I stand there with him.