"You've got to remember, I had Michael Jordan [in the Minor Leagues]. And this guy can't dunk," quipped Francona. "So I have seen it."
Francona managed Jordan at Double-A Birmingham in 1994, and remembers similar buzz to what he's seeing this spring in Fort Myers.
The quote above is from this Ian Browne piece written in the beginning of Spring Training in 2007. Of course, the buzz that Terry Francona is referring to is the buzz that surrounded Daisuke Matsuzaka in his first throwing session that spring. Fast forward five years and about seven months, and the Japanese pitcher has made his final start in a Red Sox uniform. For a player that came in with such promise and high expectations, the actual results were about as lack-luster as they could be. However, there were some good times, and he was one of the most memorable players in recent Red Sox history.
In the winter following the 2006 season, Matsuzaka was possibly the most talked about foreign import in baseball history. We were coming off the heels of the first ever World Baseball Classic, and the right hander blew everyone away, helping lead Japan to the title and taking home the tournament's most valuable player. If he wasn't already going to be in high-demand, he was now. That winter, the Red Sox won the bidding to negotiate with him, putting down $51.1 million just to talk to the right hander, then subsequently signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract. People were wary of the high price paid by the team, but his potential was undeniable.
The Dice-K era officially started on April 5th, 2007 in Kansas City, and he did not disappoint. In that game, he threw seven innings of one-run ball, while striking out ten batters and walking just one. Clearly, Red Sox fans were ecstatic about their new pickup. Things began to move downhill for him after that opening game, but that was to be expected. He finished his freshman season fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting, going 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA, good for a 108 ERA+. Of course, fans remember 2007 for a different reason, as the team won its second World Series championship in the decade. In that postseason, Dice-K struggled a bit, throwing 19-2/3 innings over four starts, compiling a 5.03 ERA and a 17/8 K/BB ratio.
His sophomore season was easily his best in a Red Sox uniform, and gave fans hope that their favorite team hadn't blown a huge chunk of money on a mediocre pitcher. Matsuzaka finished fourth in the Cy Young voting that year, his only time ever receiving votes for the award. Those votes were warranted, though, as he flashed tremendous run prevention over that season. Despite a putrid average of five walks per nine innings, Dice-K was still able to put up a 2.90 ERA in '08, which was good enough for a 160 ERA+. He did so with a low .258 batting average on balls in play, which helped lead to a league-leading 6.9 hits per nine innings.
The next season began the demise Daisuke Matsuzaka. Before the season began, he decided he wanted to pitch for his home country in that year's World Baseball Classic. While the team was hesitant, they eventually agreed to let him go and the pitcher didn't show up to spring training until 12 days prior to Opening Day. Injuries derailed his season that year, and he was only able to make 12 starts. Whether that was connected to his pitching in the WBC, we'll never know.
In 2010 he came back completely healthy, but he was never the same as he was in 2008. As fans, we had already delved into the hatred towards Matsuzaka's starts as we're at now. He nibbled around the strike zone, worked too many deep counts, which led to a ton of walks, and just plain took too long to pitch. After that 2008 season, he was never again able to put up an ERA that was better than the league average. Since Opening Day of 2009, he has a 5.53 ERA (20-percent below the league average) with a 1.7 K/BB ratio (The average K/BB ratio in that time span has been 2.3).
In the end, the Daisuke Matsuzaka era in Boston didn't really approach the expectations that were set when he signed. However, he was not a total failure. He had a great 2008 season, which helped propel the team into the playoffs, and he was a part of a World Series champion as a rookie the year before. It's possible that pitching in that 2009 WBC may have messed him up, but I think he just never got fully comfortable pitching in the States. Whichever way you slice it, though, Dice-K has been a big part of this Red Sox team over the past six years, for better and for worse. He's taken the mound 117 times over his career, and by Fangraphs' version of WAR, he's been worth 10.5wins. That puts him between pitchers like Mat Latos and Jair Jurrjens over that time period.
Did he ever live up to the monstrous amount of money the team paid to get him? No, of course not. However, he did give this fan-base a buzz that isn't seen very often in baseball. He's not a fan favorite by any means, so who knows if he'll ever willingly come back to this city or ballpark. If he did, though, I'd welcome him back. And maybe he'd finally be willing to show us one of those famous and mythical gyroballs.