9/20 Online Seats Game Thread: A Different Kind of Fowl

Baltimore Orioles (59-90) @ Boston Red Sox (83-66)   Brian Matusz (8-12, 4.68) @ Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-5, 4.82) 7:10 PM EDT | Fenway Park (Boston, Mass) TV: NESN RADIO: WEEI 850, SBN 1150   GAME NOTES: After hosting one AL East bird team, the Boston Red Sox, will host yet another, as Daisuke Matsuzaka will […]

9/7 Online Seats Game Thread: Daisuke Looks to Rout Rays

Tampa Bay Rays (83-54) @ Boston Red Sox (77-61)   David Price (16-6, 2.92) @ Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-4, 4.29) 7:10 PM EDT | Fenway Park (Boston, Mass) TV: NESN RADIO: WEEI 850, SBN 1150   GAME NOTES: Daisuke Matsuzaka will have to reach down for something a little extra tonight, as the Boston Red Sox […]

9/2 Online Seats Game Thread: That’s How You Start September

Prev. Gm:  Boston Red Sox (75-58) @ Baltimore Orioles (49-84)  Daisuke Matsuzaka (8-4, 4.19) @ Brad Bergesen (6-9, 5.55) 7:05 PM EDT | Camden Yards (Baltimore, Maryland) TV: NESN RADIO: WEEI 850, SBN 1150   GAME NOTES: After the Boston Red Sox snapped a three game skid in dramatic fashion last night, Daisuke Matsuzaka will […]

Daisuke’s First 100 Innings

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka reacts after walking Toronto Blue Jays' Aaron Hill during the fourth inning of their MLB American League baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts August 21, 2010.  REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

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 leading up to the 2007 season.

Failure for not living up to expectations. 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 this season toward improving his walk rates — and stepping up 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 who can locate balls in the strike zone will have good walk rates. Therefore, since Matsuzaka walks a large number of batters, he must have 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.

-Mike Silver

Sox Catch Tampa Bay, Minor Additions: Ryan Shealy

June 19, 2010 - Boston, MA, USA - epa02212147 The Boston Red Sox Dustin Pedroia is carried by teammate Darnell McDonald as they celebrate Pedroia's game winning single against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, USA on 19 June 2010.

Sox Catch Tampa Bay

The Sox finally playing inspired baseball, the club has been rolling with a 14-5 record in June. Meanwhile, the Devil Rays have stagnated, posting just an 8-9 mark over that period.

It has been a long time coming, but the Red Sox have finally drawn even at second place with in-division foe Tampa Bay.

It’s difficult to do justice to how great of an accomplishment this is. A team that appeared dead in the water not one month ago has risen from the ashes back to contention — all the while combating debilitating injuries and emergency call ups.

Should Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett, especially, come back strong from their injuries, the club could once again have the MLB’s best rotation. A 1-2-3 of Beckett, Jon Lester, and a surging Clay Buchholz would rival that of any in the league. John Lackey and Matsuzaka at 4 and 5 would make the Rays and Yankees green with envy.

With Ellsbury in left and Hermida the fourth outfielder, the lineup will see a tremendous boost.

The best is yet to come.

Or is it?

Injuries Mounting, Boof Bonser to the Rotation? Nava Who?

Boston Red Sox Daniel Nava (R) is congratulated by teammates Jason Varitek, Adrian Beltre (29) and Darnell McDonald (54) in front of Philadelphia Phillies catcher Brian Schneider after hitting a grand slam during the second inning of their Interleague MLB baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts June 12, 2010.  REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Who is Daniel Nava?

The Sox have quite the interesting player on their hands.

With injuries to outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeremy Hermida, and Mike Cameron forcing the BoSox to dig deep into the minors once again, the Sox may have caught lightning in a bottle for the second time this season.

Darnell McDonald admirably filling in for Hermida and Cameron, the Sox promoted Daniel Nava to the bigs on Saturday to take over Josh Reddick’s fourth outfielder spot.

Like McDonald, Nava wasted no time endearing himself to fans — connecting for a grand slam on the first pitch of his MLB career Saturday, leading the Sox to a 10-2 win over Philadelphia.

Nava, 27, has had quite the journey to the Majors. Making his professional debut for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League in 2007, Nava impressed the scouts with a bit of speed (18 SBs in 20 attempts), pop (12 home runs in 314 plate appearances), and plate discipline (48 BB : 42 Ks) while with Chico. Signed by the Sox in 2008 at the age of 25, Nava kept rolling with hi-A Lancaster. Slugging 10 homers in 379 plate appearances to go along with a very impressive .341/.424/.523 line, the outfielder’s plate discipline (43 BB : 70 K) carried over to affliated ball as well.

Is Matsuzaka still injured?

Although his skills are not ever going to let him be anything more than a number five pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka can still be worth the value of his deal if he can just stay healthy. In 2007 and 2008 he posted WAR over 3.2 and was worth nearly $15 million in free agent dollars those years.

Daisuke Rolling, Ellsbury Back, Colorado Catchers

Red Sox' starting pitcher Matsuzaka walks to the dugout at the end of the first inning of their MLB American League baseball game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York

Daisuke Rolling

With all the issues the Red Sox rotation has faced this season, there is nothing better than to see Daisuke Matsuzaka stepping up into at the right time. Throwing a one-hitter in Philadelphia on Saturday, there has been some speculation that Daisuke may be taking that long-awaited leap to respectability.

However, other than two stellar starts sandwiching his New York meltdown, there has been a little to be excited about this year. Daisuke just hasn’t changed at all from years past to indicate that any sustainable change is in the works.

His zone percentage at a career low (46.4 percent), his first-strike percentage largely unchanged (56.6 percent in 2010 v 59.5 percent, career), and his zone contact percentage in line with his career line (84.9 percent, 2010 v 84.2 percent, career), it seems we are dealing with the Daisuke of old again this season.