Five days into the regular season, and already one prediction gone horribly wrong. Daisuke Matsuzaka had an outstanding day, surpassing not only my expectations, but also those of pretty much everyone outside the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the country of Japan. The damage he inflicted on the Royals will look thusly in the record books:
IP H R ER BB SO NP W/L
7.0 6 1 1 1 10 108 W (1-0)
From an aesthetic standpoint, he wasn’t quite as impressive. His fastball was sitting in the 91-92 MPH range, and his off-speed stuff was good, but more notable for its location than its gnarly break. He was a bit fortunate in a couple of places; a few hard-hit balls went for outs, he had the benefit of a pretty big strike zone, and he saved himself a run as a result of a blown call on an Esteban German steal attempt.
Then again, maybe that’s the point: Daisuke Matsuzaka sneaks up on you. In watching him, I was reminded a bit of watching a very good poker player. To the untrained observer, a truly world-class poker player can sometimes look like a bad poker player, because he’ll make moves in certain spots that a merely decent poker player would never consider (but a bad player might make on “accident”). Matsuzaka was making use of a much wider array of pitches than most American-born pitchers do. He was throwing them across a wider range of counts, and he was placing them in different parts of the plate. Sometimes, you even got the sense that he was showing off a bit, perhaps recognizing that the rest of the league was watching him, and wanting them to understand that he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve.
I’ve been corresponding with a research assistant for Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics and University of Chicago fame), who has been doing some work with Steve on game theory and pitch selection. One of his findings is that pitchers tend to rely too heavily on their fastball; indeed, there are huge numbers of pitchers who will throw their fastball in excess of 90 percent of the time on certain counts. Matsuzaka, perhaps because he was exposed to Japanese coaching philosophies, appeared to be able to think outside that box, and the Royals were confused as a result. Of Matsuzaka’s strikes this afternoon, 35% were of the caught looking variety (the league average is 25%).
Referring to a pitcher as a poker player will naturally bring to mind comparisons to Greg Maddux, and that’s probably the right frame of reference for Matsuzaka. The approaches are slightly different; Matsuzaka works (deliberately, I think) outside of the strike zone a bit more often, and is going to accumulate higher pitch counts. But his stuff exceeds that of Maddux, and his smarts and command might not be far behind.