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In Defense of Daisuke

On this site and across the web, there's been a lot of ire directed at the Phenom from Nippon, Daisuke Matsuzaka. People are so angry at his performance this season that they are talking about drastic moves: trade him, bench him, throw him on the disabled list with a phantom injury. But is this anger really justified?

Let's take a look at two players, seven starts into their respective seasons.

Player 1: 7 g, 2-5 record, 38.1 innings, 32 R, 6 HR, 18 BB, 37 K, 7.51 ERA
Player 2: 7 g, 1-4 record, 31 innings, 26 R, 7 HR, 14 BB, 32 K, 7.55 ERA

Not terribly impressive. If a callup from Pawtucket was throwing that poorly, he'd be sent down to AAA faster than you can say "There are two Hs in Buchholz." So who are these players?

Player 2 is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Player 1 is C C Sabathia, 7 games into 2008. As you may recall, Sabathia went on to pitch 253 innings for the season with a 2.70 ERA. He was so good in Milwaukee that some people suggested him for the Cy Young award.

Daisuke has had a disappointing start to the season, but we need to remember that his season is still in the early stages. While he is unlikely to have the sort of success that CC did, there is no reason that he cannot be better than he is now.

What is behind the ire towards Matsuzaka? Well, the sort of performances he gives are difficult to watch. Most baseball fans hate walks, frequent bases-loaded situations, and 5 or 6 inning starts. We prefer the Josh Becketts and Curt Schillings of the game, who barely walk anyone. Compared to them, Dice-BB Walksuwalka doesn't look so good.

But last year, at least, Dice-K was very reliable. You could count on him for 5-6 innings, 0-2 runs. I would take a 2008 start by Matsuzaka over a start by 2008 Beckett every time. With Beckett, who had a much better FIP and by many qualitative measures was the better player, the Red Sox had a losing record (13-14) while he was on the mound. Part of that was lousy run support, but he also was prone to giving up big home runs. His performance wasn't what you'd want out of the staff ace.

Getting back to Matsuzaka, three years into his MLB career, we don't really know what kind of pitcher he is. He excels in Japanese and WBC baseball, but something about the Major Leagues - perhaps the ball, maybe tougher competition, is holding him back. It's not too late for him to turn his season around, just ask Sabathia about bad starts. More importantly, it's not too late for him to turn his MLB career around.

Some people on OTM have said Dice-K's pitches are just bad and that he is not cut out for the majors. Fangraphs provides some insight on the relative strength of Dice-K's arsenal. Last year, his fastball was 3.1 runs above average, his cutter was 3.5 runs above average, and his slider was 15 runs above average. This year, all those values are down, although the slider, cutter and curve are close to league average. In 2007, his first year in MLB, Dice-K's best pitches were his slider (2.1 runs a.avg.) and cutter (8.9 runs a.avg.). Claiming Dice-K doesn't have major-league quality pitches, and is accordingly a bad pitcher, doesn't fit the evidence.

We should also consider that Dice-K is suffering, like the rest of the team, from atrocious defense behind him. Even with some improved performance lately (Green's #s at SS have gotten better) the team is still 4th worst in baseball in UZR and UZR/150.

All of Dice-K's stats are retrospective, and they incorporate recovering from the WBC as well as coming off the DL. In baseball, past isn't always prologue, especially with a unique pitcher like Dice-K. I have a lot of confidence that he'll get stronger and pitch better as the season progresses. There is no need for a panic move.

Furthermore, even if Dice-K isn't tearing through lineups, his presence on the team is valuable. He helps to draw Japanese talent in - Junichi Tazawa is an example. Yu Darvish, a 22-year-old starter from Japan, may be the next target, and having a Japanese superstar already on board may help convince him to sign on with the Sox.