What started as a throwaway line of speculation in Buster Olney’s blog on ESPN.com, has turned Daisuke Matsuzaka into the most buzzworthy name in baseball’s hot stove season.
“One bit of speculation heard yesterday - and it was nothing more than speculation - was that maybe Boston had made an enormous bid, in the range of $45 million.”
And the next thing you know, Matsuzaka Mania was on.
The blogosphere has been “buzzing” around the Japanese pitcher for a few weeks as it became clear that the Seibu Lions were in fact going to post for bids to negotiate with Matsuzaka for his services.
As the deadline for bids approached, Matsuzaka was being mentioned in nearly one hundred blog posts.
The most authoritative blog on the subject of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Matsuzaka Watch, (http://matsuzaka.blogspot.com) is authored by Mike Plugh, a New Yorker (and Yankee fan/blogger) living in Akita City, Japan.
A diehard baseball fan from the time his uncle gave him his first Yankees jersey as a toddle, he was hooked on the Bronx Bombers. His earliest baseball memory is Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in Game 6 of the 1978 World Series. Mike’s connection to Japanese culture has been built on a foundation of diverse interests, not the least of which is Japan’s mutual passion for the “Great American Pastime”.
Mike’s passion for baseball and local knowledge of Japanese baseball manifested itself in the Japanese baseball blog, Baseball Japan and specific player blogs focusing on up and coming Japanese players set to make an impact across the Pacific Ocean.
In June of 2006, with a stellar World Baseball Classic performance in the books for Matsuzaka where he went 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA while striking out 10 batters in 13 innings on an international stage, Plugh started Matsuzaka Watch. Plugh understood that he was watching a pitcher whose mark would be made on American shores.
“I am a Yankee fan who has been living in Japan for nearly 3 years. I’ve followed Daisuke Matsuzaka since the beginning of the 2004 season, when I moved to the Far East, and really latched on after his stellar outing against Australia in the 2004 Summer Games (more on that later). As it’s increasingly been speculated that Seibu would post him and allow him to pursue a career in the Major Leagues, I have become more and more interested in sharing what I know, and what I’ve seen of him over this time. There are many other players in Japan that would look nice in a Major League uniform, and perhaps we’ll see some of them in the near future. In the meantime, this player is the best of the lot and the most imminent schedule for the US. To that end, I started this blog to chronicle the 2006 season, and provide the best possible analysis a fan with an understanding of simple metrics and Japanese language can provide. I’ve seen him pitch for 3 years with my own two eyes and hope that what I’ve seen will help you to paint a picture of the young ace.” - Mike Plugh
While people inside baseball and fans up on international play knew Matsuzaka and the famed gyroball that he threw, the average baseball fan didn’t. Yet Plugh blogged on, recapping Matsuzaka outings and translating/forecasting his stats into MLB.
While his blog was trafficked regularly, even he must have been surprised and excited to see over two thousand readers come to Matsuzaka Watch in the beginning of November as Yankee, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox, and other fans whose teams were looking for pitching help this offseason began to hear about the Japanese star’s posting.
As the week went on, the legend of Matsuzaka grew to Sid Finch-ian proportions. Thanks to the eyewitness accounts of Plugh and the proliferation of internet video on sites like You Tube. People were able to seek out information and see for their own eyes what the hype was about. By the time Buster Olney’s speculation of the winning bid’s amount and identity hit the pages of ESPN.com, Matsuzaka Watch saw it’s readership grow past the 13,000 reader level.
This video has been watched on You Tube over 50,000 times.
Since Olney’s original piece, there have been a variety of reactions from reporters around the country ranging from doubt in New York to respect from our friends in Toronto at Batter’s Box. Olney followed up quickly with the following commentary should his multiple sources be correct:
“There are three reasons the deal would make sense for the Red Sox:
- Talent evaluators who have seen Matsuzaka say he’s a top of the rotation-quality pitcher who would improve the Red Sox staff.
- If Boston signs him it would effectively plant a Red Sox flag in the growing Far East market.
- By merely winning the bidding the Red Sox would block the Yankees from acquiring Matsuzaka. By signing him, they would gain the same kind of advantage the Yankees gained when they signed Johnny Damon away from Boston.”
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal adds that,
“The Sox think they can recoup a lot of the money through international marketing in the Far East, such as the televising of Matsuzaka’s starts in Japan via NESN.”
Clearly Red Sox ownership has a strategy against this bidding process in place that is in part business related and in part baseball related. And in this case, it would appear that the two are very much intertwined in getting to the ultimate value that they place on Matsuzaka. Lets first look at the baseball side of the equation.
There is no doubt that adding another starter to the mix and preferably a front line starter has been a priority for Theo Epstein and his baseball staff this offseason. Speaking about reliever/starter Julian Tavarez, Theo made his intentions known;
“It’s more than likely we’ll acquire another starting pitcher and Julian (Tavarez) will be back in the bullpen … but it’s too early to see how the offseason plays out.”
Not knowing how much, if any, time they will get out of Matt Clement next year, the Red Sox would love to add an arm to round out a rotation including Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathon Papelbon, and Tim Wakefield.
So the question remains about Matsuzaka, “how good is this guy?”.
Mike Plugh, who has seen him as much as anyone, thinks he can be pretty good;
“What are my predictions? I’ve done some rough numbers crunching, player comparison calculations, and plenty of video analysis. I don’t know much more than most enlightened fans, but I have my own idea. I believe you’ll see Matsuzaka break in with a 3.50ish ERA in his first season, with a handful of performances worthy of shock and awe. If he gets any offensive support 17-18 wins is not out of the question. He will have a Top Ten K/9 ratio and throw 200 innings. Outside of that, I can’t guess any better than anyone else. My predictions for future seasons are a bit stronger. I think he could eventually post a sub-3.00 ERA, win 20 games, take home a Cy Young, and put to rest a lot of myths about Japanese pitchers. I think he’s that good.”
His agent Scott Boras thinks that Matsuzaka will be a top 10-15 pitcher in baseball next year and pundits at the Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus tend to agree after having crunched the numbers. Baseball Prospectus goes as far as to compare Daisuke Matsuzaka’s potential to the number sput up by Roger Clemens over the past few years.
“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.”
That is some pretty glowing praise.
Assuming he is at the tail end of the top fifteen pitchers in baseball next year, how much value does that command? According to the Hardball Times, as much as $15 million dollars per year. Given that the free agent pitching crop is fairly weak behind Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, who both may command that much on the open market, Matsuzaka would command that much or more if a true free agent this offseason.
That’s where the business side of this scenario starts to make this interesting. Matsuzaka can only negotiate with one team this offseason. The team with the winning bid on his post. That bid amount, paid to his current team, does not count towards the luxury tax. If the Red Sox feel that they could make back 75% of that money in marketing NESN and the Red Sox in Japan and the rest of Asia over the life of the contract, suddenly the amount that you would be willing to bid increases as a separate value proposition to what he would be paid on the baseball field.
Remember, the bid amount is only handed over to Seibu should the Red Sox and Matsuzaka agree to a contract and if the Lions reject the bid, Matsuzaka will not be able to negotiate with any other MLB teams until he is a free agent next season. By winning the bid and paying a premium to be the only team able to negotiate with Matsuzaka this season, the Red Sox have accomplished a few things with very little risk.
First, they keep him out of the hands of any other team for the 2007 season and by any other team, I mean the Yankees. Second, they gain negotiating leverage with Scott Boras. Boras only makes money if Matsuzaka signs a new deal. According to the rules of the post, the Red Sox minimum contract offer must at least equal the value of the bid to Seibu. So lets use the high side of $45 million dollars and spread that as a contract over four years. At $11.25 million per year, he would be the highest paid pitcher on the staff over the length of the contract and reach free agency again at 30 years of age with another big payday ahead of him. By rejecting the contract and holding out for more money per year a year later in free agency, Boras looses out on his share of that initial $11.25 million.
If they were to sign Matsuzaka for four years and $45 million dollars, that will make the winner of the Zito auction at 7 years and $80 or $90 million dollars look pretty foolish. This is especially true if the Red Sox come close to breaking even on the posting fee through marketing revenue and whatever other business opportunities Dr. Charles Steinberg and Larry Lucchino can string together.
If Boras and Matsuzaka walk, the Red Sox would either get their money back or look to flip the rights to Matsuzaka to another interested party for players that they would not otherwise be able to acquire. Buster Olney lays out the following scenario;
“Say the Mets bid something in the range of $28 million for Matsuzaka, in their pursuit of a power pitcher. The Red Sox could ask the Mets for reliever Aaron Heilman and a prospect — maybe Lastings Milledge, maybe a pitcher like Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber, maybe a lesser player — in return for Matsuzaka. And the Red Sox could also ask the Mets to forward something close to the posting fee they bid.”
Suddenly, the Red Sox have created value for themselves out of nothing. By pushing all their chips into the middle of the table, and bidding an amount that they know they won’t lose, the Red Sox may have made the smartest move of the offseason, whether they get Matsuzaka or not.
Of course this scenario doesn’t help out Mike Plugh, our Yankee fan and Matsuzaka expert. But at least he will stick around no matter what the outcome;
“I’m a Yankees fan, as everyone who visits here knows, and it will be painful to see Matsuzaka in Boston, but I promise that I’ll write this blog with nothing but fair and dedicated analysis of Daisuke whatever the uniform. If it’s true, I congratulate the Sox on tremendous gamesmanship, despite the crazy money. You are the new Steinbrenners of baseball.”