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The free-agent shopping season is beginning to heat up, but before it’s even really begun, we’re already witnessing a frenzied pursuit of a potential Japanese Leagues import, right-handed starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, pitching ace of the Seibu Lions.

Right now, we’re still bogged down in the chicanery of the posting process, as Matsuzaka isn’t a true free agent. (At least not yet, but we’ll get to that.) What that means is that teams have offered the Lions blind bids on what it’s worth to them to be able to subsequently sign and import Matsuzaka for their own use. Conversations with teams have led us to believe that eight teams entered the bidding, and while it was initially anticipated that these bids would run around $20 million or so, published reports are now suggesting that we might see the bidding top $30 million. The winning team would then have to negotiate a contract with Scott Boras (Matsuzaka’s agent) before having to pay off their bid to the Lions.

For the curious given to beancounting, since we’re still operating under the rules of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, it looks like that this money that gets spent to acquire the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka will not count against the Average Annual Value of his contract, and thus not count in calculating the team’s payroll for luxury tax purposes. I don’t know if this will be addressed in the new CBA, but as Joe Sheehan, Maury Brown, Neil deMause and I have all noted already, we could fill a room with how much we don’t know about the CBA to come.

As with any import, you might wonder whether a guy’s worth it, as we’ve had some pretty high-profile success stories (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi, for example), and some not-so-successful cross-Pacific leaps (Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kaz Matsui and Keiichi Yabu, among others). So, to start off with, thanks to the powers of Clay Davenport’s translations, let’s take a look at Matsuzaka’s performance for the last four years, as well as the closest line to it in baseball (again using just the last four years):

 IP      NRA    H/9  HR/9  BB/9 SO/9   PERA    dH   dR
736.1    3.37   7.5   0.6   2.5  7.4   3.41   -28   +2
765.0    3.11   7.1   0.6   2.5  7.6   3.30   -47    0

Some terminology to get out of the way: NRA is Normalized Runs Allowed, where the scale to compare a guy against is a world where an average pitcher allows 4.5 runs per nine innings. PERA is a pitcher’s ERA based on his peripheral statistics-his hits, homers, walks allowed, that sort of thing, also set to where 4.50 is the baseline. The two at the end might be particularly foreign to you, but “dH” describes how many (in this case) fewer hits a pitcher allowed than you might expect, and “dR” is how many fewer runs. Although BABIP rates fluctuate for most pitchers, there’s a level of quality at which it stops looking random and starts speaking to simple dominance, and this comparison indicates that Matsuzaka is one of those guys. The runs element is the sort of thing where a pitcher who induces a lot of double plays would wind up trending more negative (say, Greg Maddux), and somebody like Nolan Ryan–poor fielder, poor at holding runners, and all-time wild-pitch record-holder–does worse than your average hurler. In this instance, it says that there are no such surprises, for or against.

Further Comparables

Beyond the Clemens comparison, the next most-comparable pitchers over the last four years include Roy Halladay, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Josh Beckett, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy. In other words, a short list that includes most of the true right-handed rotation aces in the game over the past four seasons.

Starting pitchers with a better translated four-year NERA than Matsuzaka’s 3.37: Johan Santana 2.84, Roger Clemens 3.11, Roy Halladay 3.21, Roy Oswalt 3.29, Chris Carpenter 3.31, Pedro Martinez 3.35.

In PERA, Matsuzaka has a 3.41. Beaten by: Santana 3.02, Curt Schilling 3.23, Martinez 3.26, Clemens 3.30, Ben Sheets 3.32, Halladay 3.40, Oswalt 3.40.

The only pitcher I would say he seems to be clearly behind is Santana. I think Clemens has been ahead, but I’m not sure you can continue to project that at a coming age-44 season. It’s also safe to put Halladay and Oswalt ahead too, although the difference there is slim.

–Clay Davenport

The first line’s obviously pretty good, so it’s fair to say there’s data to support the suggestion that Matsuzaka can pitch in the major leagues. The question is, how well? Considering that the second line belongs to Roger Clemens 2003-2006, really well. That’s why teams are bidding so much for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. He’s not simply a really good pitcher, he’s arguably the best starting pitcher on the market this winter, eclipsing Jason Schmidt and Barry Zito.

Beyond the stathead-minded reasons for optimism, there’s also the basic scouting report. Matsuzaka throws heat into the mid-90s with good sinking action, outstanding placement and running it in at will. He supports those varied flavors of gas with a plus curve, a plus slider and a plus change. It’s the assortment of a pitcher who should be perfectly suited to step into a rotation as a true staff ace. Who couldn’t use one of those? There aren’t 30 “number ones” in baseball in the first place, so the question is who has the need and the wherewithal. Despite the cloak of secrecy with which the industry is trying to keep over this process, some teams have been publicly speculated to be willing to play these particular stakes, with the New Yorks, the Red Sox and the Rangers all likely to be involved, and others besides.

What sort of money can we reasonably expect the winning team to pay out from there? Considering last winter’s market rewarded Kevin Millwood with a contract with an Annual Average Value of $12 million over five years, and that Matsuzaka is potentially the much better pitcher, you get a sense of how much teams are investing in their pursuit of the Japanese ace. Given the ups and downs of the performance records of other top pitchers in the free-agent market, I wouldn’t blame them. If you gave me a choice between spending that sort of money or more on Zito or Schmidt, or instead paying it out for Matsuzaka, I’d take that chance too, because the drop-off is significant.

So, what if Scott Boras decides to be, well, Scott Boras, and an incomparable representative of a unique (and uniquely available) talent, to the point that the winning bidder on the posting process can’t agree to terms? Well, at that point, it’s Seibu that’s really out of luck, because Matsuzaka could simply become a true free agent after another year spent in Japan, and the money “posted” on Matsuzaka only gets paid if he then comes to terms with the poster. Given the amount of time and trouble invested already, I don’t think we’ll see that happen, but it might help explain why some teams are willing to get involved, and others aren’t. It seems a bit of a waste, but some teams have a hyper-developed allergy to all things Boras. As the fans of the winning bidder will have the opportunity to see next spring, it’s their loss.

Clay Davenport and Kevin Goldstein contributed mightily to this article.

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