Raw Japan

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Throwing good money after…

June 22, 2009


Daisuke Matsuzaka’s second trip to the disabled list this season is making some forget the Japanese pitcher’s heroics and wonder if he has been worth the investment of his Boston Red Sox team.

The “Dice-K” sweepstakes dominated Japanese baseball in late 2006, as the Boston Red Sox pursued the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka — who’s now sitting – by commiting over $51 million to his then team, the Seibu Lions, and another $52 million to the pitcher and agent Scott Boras to sign.

After winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic tournament MVP in 2006 with an arm that had dropped jaws since high school, Matsuzaka was more than just the best pitcher available in the country or arguably the world at that time.

He was Boston’s marketing passport to baseball-mad Japan and its talent pool, as well as a poke in the eye for the rival New York Yankees who were outbid and had to settle for pitcher Kei Igawa, who’s spent most of his career in the minors at a total cost of about $46 million in contract and posting fee.

Dice-K’s first year was rather underwhelming, but the Sox won their second World Series in three years and he pitched well in the post-season.  Not surprisingly, Boston raised its hand to begin the 2008 MLB season in Japan, with Matsuzaka and teammate Hideki Okajima helping “Red Sox Nation” literally to try to annex the archipelago.

I asked General Manager Theo Epstein in Tokyo then about the money paid to Seibu and whether the total investment in Matsuzaka had been worth it.  Clearly indicating that the bar would be higher in 2008, Epstein said he was happy with Dice-K’s big game efforts, adding that the signing was far better than Barry Zito’s $126 million deal with the San Francisco Giants, the largest pitcher’s contract ever and now widely seen as a disaster. 

But griping by media and Red Sox faithful started with gusto in Dice-K’s second year, despite an 18-3 record. After a second WBC tournament MVP in 2009 — or because of it as he basically skipped Boston spring training and ended with a tired arm, fan and team concern has reached fever pitch with a dismal effort so far this season and now a second trip to the disabled list.

Is Dice-K done? Almost certainly not, as too much money and player pride are at stake, but some reports on Japanese pitchers statistics show the third year for exports to MLB as usually when the wheels start to come off the cart, or at least the shoulder problems begin.

The brutal training and playing regimen in high school, followed by overuse in Japanese pro baseball, lead to breakdown and shorter careers, the numbers seem to say.

Have the returns for the Red Sox and MLB on and off the field matched the outlay?

In the regular season, Matsuzaka produced on average 16 wins yearly until this season, while sparking a Japanese following for Boston that arguably exceeds the Yankees or Ichiro Suzuki’s Seattle Mariners. Unscientific sampling of MLB broadcasts in Japan seems to show more Boston content than other teams, with the Beantown club now home to three local players.

Jim Small, head of MLB International in Japan, told me on Monday it’s hard to ascribe a specific number for Matsuzaka’s financial impact, or for any player, but Dice-K certainly had made the Red Sox more popular among his countrymen, while helping to secure three advertising deals for MLB, and indirectly Boston, because of his prominence and success.

At home, major Japanese sports dailies reported Matsuzaka’s DL trip rather deep in the newspapers, not indicative that the hero’s travails were a blow to national status or even career-threatening. But based on manager Terry Francona’s comments, it may be mid-July at the earliest before fans on either side of the Pacific see Dice-K play again.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Adam Hunger

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