Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 8/28/12
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On Monday, the Boston Red Sox activated Daisuke Matsuzaka and sent David Ortiz to the DL. The recent Dodgers-Red Sox super-trade has cleared the slate of expectations for Boston’s 2013 team, and seems unlike they would be interested in giving Dice-K another go around while their minor leagues brim with newfound pitching talent. And though it is unwise to call the recent trade a salary dump — given the talent they got in return — but at the same time, it appears all postseasons bets are on hold for now.

According to Paul Swydan, the Red Sox should have six open roster spots heading into next season, and one of those does not likely belong to Matsuzaka. So if this really is his farewell tour, he is riding a campaign train out of town.

Despite having TJ surgery last May, despite hitting the DL with a back strain last month and despite being less than a month away from his 32nd birthday, Matsuzaka has a career-low walk rate and his best strikeout rate since 2008.

If Matsuzaka really is a free agent in 2013, he would make for an excellent buy-low candidate.

It is important not to be excited about a soon-to-be 32-year-old who is averaging 12.5 starts per season over the last four years. Odds are, Matsuzaka will spend much of 2013 either in the minor leagues or bouncing back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation. Quite possibly, his continued injury concerns will result in a permanent trip to the bullpen.

But TJ surgery has rescued more than one career, and the numbers Daisuke has put up in 2012 suggest there is still hope for him as a starter. He showed some improvement before hitting the DL last month and continued that trend on Monday. In fact, he is pitching now better than he has in the previous three seasons. Monday’s start offers a microcosm of that improvement.

Facing the Royals — who sport the lowest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate in the league — Daisuke pitched 7.0 innings while allowing only 1 unearned run with 6 strikeouts and 2 walks. The 2 walks were not great, but eliciting 6 strikeouts from Kansas City is something to marvel. What struck me most about Daisuke’s performance, however, was not so much the results, but his process.

Many pitchers coming from Japan’s NPB league take to nibbling around the strikezone. Guys like Yu Darvish may have bat-breaking stuff, but when it gets to two-strikes, they become zone adverse. This method works great in the NPB, where hitters are prohibitively aggressive, but the post-Moneyball MLB hitter does not have the same reaction.

So when I saw Dice-K throwing pitches in the zone with two strikes, I began to suspect more than his elbow ligaments had changed. Take a look at where Dice-K threw in all his two-strike counts in 2011:

Compare that to what he has done so far in the 2012 MLB season:

Not only does Daisuke have a career-high zone rating this season, but he is also attacking hitters with two strikes in a very un-Daisuke way.

Let us take for example Daisuke’s 9-pitch strikeout of Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson. In that particular at bat, Daisuke threw 7 pitches in the zone and only 1 pitch — a well-placed slider down and in on the lefty Dyson — out of the zone:

This plate appearance is not typical of Daisuke — neither his old form or his seemingly new and improved form — but it shows a great, special example of how Daisuke is attacking the zone, even against a high-contact, low-walk guy like Dyson.

If we again look at two-strike pitches (meaning pitches thrown in an 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 and 3-2 counts) and then further limit our data to examine only pitches thrown in the textbook strike zone (which is smaller than the real-world strike zone), we find that Daisuke has thrown 43.0% (64 out of 149) of his 2-strike pitches in the zone. In 2011, that number — through almost the same amount of innings — was just 31.0% (57 out of 184).

In 2010, his last fullish season (wherein he had 153.2 IP), Daisuke had a two-strike zone rate of only 36.9% (275 out of 746). An improvement to 43.0% has resulted in a reduction of his walk rate to 7.8% — well beneath his 11% career numbers — while keeping his strikeout rate at a respectable 20.3%.

Daisuke’s numbers at first blush are not impressive. He has a 5.10 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 4.37 xFIP and a 4.07 SIERA. Of course, he also has a 1-inning start that ended with him on the DL with back stiffness. If we slice that one injured start from the ledger, we have a 3.72 ERA, 3.13 FIP and 3.96 xFIP.

Matsuzaka is earning $10 million in 2012 and is eligible for arbitration in 2013, but in all likelihood, he will be a free agent. For a team willing to take a $2 to $3 million flyer on him, they might be pleasantly surprised at what they will get.


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