Matsuzaka needs to shoot for Nomo's numbers

If Daisuke Matsuzaka can match the early big-league numbers put up by fellow Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo, the Red Sox should be happy.

Originally Published: January 17, 2007
By Rob Neyer | ESPN Insider

With all due respect to Greg Maddux, Barry Zito and Jose Mesa, there's really not much competition for the title Hottest Pitcher Acquisition of the Offseason. Clearly, that great honor goes to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston's $103.1 million man. Not only did the Red Sox vastly outbid their competitors merely for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka, but they're expecting him to immediately help them vault back into contention after finishing third in their division last season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Chitose Suzuki/AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract this offseason.
Now that the Sox have their man, the general feeling is that they've got themselves a good pitcher. But how good, exactly? Is he a potential Cy Young candidate? Or "just" a solid No. 2 or 3 starter with a team that desperately needs one? Few observers seem willing to commit themselves, for the simple reason that Matsuzaka has never thrown a single pitch in a major league baseball game.

But does that mean we don't have any evidence at all regarding his abilities? Not at all. We have our eyes, and most of our eyes tell us that Matsuzaka's an excellent pitcher. We also have a great deal of statistical evidence. No, "The Monster" hasn't pitched in the American League or National League. But there is a degree of cross-pollination between Japan's major leagues and ours, and through a complex series of statistical comparisons one can arrive at "translated" statistics for Japanese players (more on that in a moment). And finally, though most imported Japanese pitchers serve as poor analogies -- because upon arrival they lacked Matsuzaka's youth and track record -- we do have one interesting point of comparison: Hideo Nomo, who pitched brilliantly in Japan before joining the Dodgers when he was only 26.

How did Nomo come to arrive on these shores at so tender an age? In 1994, he suffered a relatively minor shoulder injury, and retired. Or rather, he "retired," because thanks to a loophole in the rules of the time, a "retired" player could become a free agent and sign with whomever he liked.

Nomo was only the second Japanese player in the majors, and the first starting pitcher. Nobody really knew what to expect, except nearly everybody expected him to face a tough adjustment while learning to pitch against (most of) the best hitters on Earth. What nearly nobody expected was for Nomo to pitch better in North America than he had in Japan … but that's exactly what he did. In his first season with the Dodgers he posted a 2.54 ERA that was better than anything he'd done in Japan. Here's what he did in his last three seasons in Japan's Pacific League and his first three in our National League:

              IP   ERA  BB/9   K/9
Pacific Lg.  574  3.63   5.5   9.9
National Lg  627  3.34   3.7  10.1

Somehow Nomo cut his walk rate significantly, which allowed him to lower his ERA as well. Does anybody want to explain how this particular pitcher improved upon facing tougher competition? We may theorize, of course. Perhaps Nomo benefited from better medical attention, or better instruction, or less strenuous workloads. Or perhaps he was, at 26 during his first season with the Dodgers, just hitting his stride.

Here again are Nomo's last three seasons (1992-94) in Japan, now accompanied by Matsuzaka's last three (2004-06):

Cold Plate Special: Miguel Batista, M's
Miguel Batista
Batista
Let's leave aside the easy pickings; plenty's already been written about the bizarre contracts that Gil Meche's and Jason Marquis' agents were somehow able to extract from presumably intelligent general managers. Here's one that's been mostly under the radar this winter ...

Miguel Batista turns 36 next month. Over the last three seasons, he started 64 games, and his ERA in those 64 starts was 4.73. He's a decent innings-eater, and of course there's some value in that quality alone. But a three-year deal for $25 million from the Mariners, who will be lucky to finish as high as third place at any point in those next three years? Mediocrity comes at a high price these days, and only contenders can justify that cost.

         IP   ERA  BB/9   K/9
Nomo    574  3.63   5.5   9.9
M'zaka  545  2.41   2.1   9.1

Obviously, Matsuzaka compares favorably to Nomo. He's slightly behind in both innings and strikeout rate, but has big edges in ERA and walks. Of course, we're considering neither ballpark nor league contexts, so all comparisons must be taken with a few grains of salt. And while Nomo and Matsuzaka were roughly the same age when they signed to play in the U.S. -- both of them rookies at 26 -- they're entirely different types. Nomo featured a devastating forkball/splitter, a passable fastball, and not much else. Matsuzaka is famous for his wide assortment of pitches: good fastball and splitter, yes, but also a changeup, slider, curveball, cutter and shuuto.

The point, though, is that we've seen exactly one top Japanese starting pitcher join our major leagues, and he was immediately outstanding; over Nomo's first three seasons (1995-97), he struck out 703 batters. Only John Smoltz (710) struck out more during those three seasons, and right behind Nomo were Pedro Martinez (701), Roger Clemens (681) and Randy Johnson (670).

Based purely on Matsuzaka's numbers in Japan, does he look like the next Nomo? Here are projections for 2007 from three respected outfits:

                        ERA   IP  BB  K
Baseball Forecaster    3.46  185  51 196
Baseball Prospectus    4.01  182  51 162
Baseball Primer (ZiPS) 3.44  186  34 131

If Matsuzaka nails the average of those projections, he'll finish in the top 10 in the American League's ERA rankings, and the Red Sox will have gotten their money's worth. Considering Nomo's early successes, there simply isn't any reason to believe that Matsuzaka will find his new opponents significantly more difficult than his old ones.

There is room for a note of skepticism here, though. In Nomo's first season he was an All-Star, he led the league in strikeouts while posting a 2.54 ERA, and he was named Rookie of the Year. In his second season he finished second in the league in strikeouts and pitched a no-hitter at Coors Field. But he never was a premier pitcher again (though he did show occasional flashes of greatness, in 2001 and 2003). The Red Sox signed Matsuzaka for six seasons, which was the only way they could justify sending a $51 million posting fee to his ex-employers in Japan. But no Japanese starting pitcher has been effective, let alone excellent, for more than a few consecutive seasons. Not even Nomo. And for a total investment of more than $100 million, the Red Sox are expecting at least four good (or better) seasons from the hottest acquisition of the winter. I think they'll be thrilled with him in 2007 and 2008; it's 2009 and beyond I'm not so sure about.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes for Insider three times most weeks during the season. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com, and his new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders," is available everywhere.