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December 28, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Matsuzaka's Fantasy Value

by Matthew Kleine

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In keeper leagues and AL-only leagues the fantasy arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka has been greeted with as much controversy as the $103.1 million dollar commitment the Red Sox made to the righthander over the next six years. With a high strikeout ratio and the likelihood that he won't be matching up as often with top starters of others team, Matsuzaka is likely going to be one of the top 30 starting pitchers in mixed leagues. But is he worth spending a top pick on?

Noting that "I don't think his previous numbers are all that relevant," ESPN's Eric Karabell guessed at a potential No. 3 starter, writing that "Matsuzaka finishes with a generous win total, like 15 or so, but an ERA of around 4, and 150 strikeouts" and cautioning fantasy players against his potential for injury. In contrast, Fox Sports fantasy analyst Roger Rotter sees Matsuzaka as a clear No. 1, suggesting that he will "be among the top two starting pitchers taken by teams in mixed leagues and a top pitcher taken by AL-only teams."

In an effort to gauge his worth, I compared Matzusaka's 2007 PECOTA projections to other American League starting pitchers' 2006 performances. The idea here is that if I can provide a means of comparison to more well-known fantasy commodities, then Matsuzaka's value will be much less of a crapshoot come draft day.

One way to answer this question is to look at his 2007 PECOTA projections. Thanks to Nate Silver, Matsuzaka's PECOTA has been leaked before the arrival of Baseball Prospectus 2007:

G  GS  IP    H   BB  SO  HR  ERA  VORP  WARP
29 29 187.3 188  52  167 19  4.01 35.8  5.6
At first glance, it would appear that PECOTA calls for an impressive season out of D-Mat, but when have we at BP ever stopped at first glance? By running linear regressions on the same statistical categories of the top thirty-five AL pitchers from 2006 and measuring those outcomes against Matsuzaka's 2007 projections, we can determine which AL pitchers best compare to his projected performance for the upcoming season.

After running the regressions the numbers suggest that he compares most favorably to the 2006 performances of Erik Bedard, Javier Vazquez, and Jeremy Bonderman - with C.C. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, and John Lackey also supplying very similar seasons. Fantasy managers would be happy to have any of those six pitchers on their squad.

SP        G    GS    IP     H    BB    SO    HR    ERA    VORP   R2
Matsuzaka 29   29    187.3  188  52    167   19    4.01   35.8   1
Bedard    33   33    196.1  196  69    171   16    3.76   40.2   0.995587
Vazquez   33   32    202.2  206  56    184   23    4.84   22.8   0.995569
Bonderman 34   34    202    214  64    202   18    4.08   39.8   0.995108
Sabathia  28   28    192.2  182  44    172   17    3.22   46.5   0.994562
K. Felix  31   31    191    195  60    176   23    4.52   22.1   0.994409
Lackey    33   33    217.2  203  72    190   14    3.56   47.1   0.993692
Escobar   30   30    189.1  192  50    147   17    3.61   33.9   0.991934
Mussina   32   32    197.1  184  35    172   22    3.51   44.9   0.989778
Haren     34   34    223    224  45    176   31    4.12   41.4   0.989513
Padilla   33   33    200    206  70    156   21    4.50   29.2   0.985368
I view the Bonderman comp as the most accurate long-term comparison at this point given their closeness of age and Matzusaka's likelihood to have very similar K/BB ratios with an ERA hovering around 4.00. The two pitchers also share the potential to dominate a game one night and get roughed up in their next start. This will be even more present in Matsuzaka's first season in the bigs, as he gets acclimated to American culture and pitching on a five-day schedule as opposed to his customary six-day routine in Japan.

Rounding out the top ten comps, Kelvim Escobar, Mike Mussina, Danny Haren, and Vicente Padilla all follow the trend of good fantasy pitchers. This lends further proof to the notion that we should expect a fine season out of the Red Sox's newest starting pitcher. A subsequent examination of the numbers reveal that even though every pitcher listed (with the possible exception of Padilla) is a solid fantasy starter, absent from the list is a true fantasy ace. Lackey supplied the highest VORP of the group, but even that was only good for eighteenth in the Major Leagues in 2006. Expecting much more than that out of Matsuzaka in 2007 would be risky. It is also clear that comparisons to upper-echelon starters such as Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt are exaggerations of D-Mat's expected performance - at least for this season.

While it is possible that he surpasses expectation, it is much more likely that he becomes a solid fantasy contributor rather than the anchor of your staff. Just look at the pitchers to whom he best compares. The numbers don't lie. For your typical 5 X 5 league, Matsuzaka's top ten comps ranged anywhere from the 10th to 50th best fantasy starting pitcher at the conclusion of the 2006 season. Those ten pitchers had an average weighted mean fantasy ranking of twenty-sixth.

Fantasy      SP       Comp     Wins        ERA        WHIP        K's
Ranking
10        M. Mussina    8        15        3.51        1.11        172
11        J. Lackey     6        13        3.56        1.26        190
13        C. Sabathia   4        12        3.22        1.17        172
14        J. Bonderman  3        14        4.08        1.30        202
15        D. Haren      9        14        4.12        1.21        176
17        E. Bedard     1        15        3.76        1.35        171
40        K. Escobar    7        11        3.61        1.28        147
45        V. Padilla    10       15        4.50        1.38        156
47        F. Hernandez  5        12        4.52        1.34        176
50        J. Vazquez    2        11        4.84        1.29        184
It is abundantly clear that Matsuzaka is not a top-ten fantasy pitcher. A top-twenty performance in 2007 could also be a stretch. It is much more likely that the man in whom the Red Sox invested over $100 million will end his first season in Boston as the 20th-30th best starting pitcher in your fantasy league. These criterion place Matsuzaka as a draft pick somewhere between the seventh and twelfth rounds, depending on league composition. If you trust PECOTA (and you should given its accuracy in the past) Matsuzaka will succeed in becoming a great #3 starter on your fantasy team or a good #2.

The fact that he has so much hype surrounding him will likely result in a manager reaching for him before the sixth round on draft day. D-Mat is likely to be this year's Felix Hernandez - phenomenally talented, but nearly impossible not to overvalue in the draft. While this wouldn't spell doom for a fantasy team, it would be much wiser to wait until at least the seventh round to select him. After all, the key to fantasy baseball is finding the highest marginal values in players as low in the draft as possible, and pitchers drafted between the seventh and twelfth rounds are generally very interchangeable, but that is a much broader discussion for another article.

Matsuzaka's fantasy value will prove to be higher in keeper leagues than it currently sits in one-year formats, at least for the first half of his deal with Boston. He is only twenty-six years old and under contract through 2012. This should provide him with all the offensive support he will need to be a consistent 15-game winner for the next three to five years, barring any health issues. The reports of 200+ pitch outings concern me a little, and might prove to take their toll on his arm soon after he hits thirty. But injury is an inherently elevated risk for all pitchers that shouldn't cause him to fall beyond the seventh or eighth round in any keeper draft. Due to the hype that surrounds him, this likely means that if you're smart, Matsuzaka won't be a member of your fantasy team, especially in a non-keeper league.

The main lesson you should take away from all this is to avoid buying into hype that comes with every player given the label of "the next best thing." Will Matsuzaka be a good starting pitcher for years to come? No doubt about it. Is he going to be the second coming of Roger Clemens? Doubtful. Don't be surprised if his numbers are great for the first half of the 2007 season before AL hitters all have a chance to gauge his stuff, but at the end of the year you'll be glad that you passed on him in the 6th round and picked up a sure-hitting outfielder instead.

Matthew Kleine is an outfielder at DePauw University and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus Radio. He can be reached here.

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