Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dangan Ressha.

It started with a simple query to a colleague:

Has anybody had as much success as Daisuke Matsuzaka while walking as many people as he does?

Thanks to the Play Index, we found the answer: kinda.

It's hard to say that walks are Daisuke Matsuzaka's Achilles Heel, since the Red Sox hurler just finished an 18-3 season with substantially fewer hits than innings pitched (128 hits in 167.2 IP), nearly a strikeout per inning (8.27 K/9), a 2.90 earned-run average and -- most notably -- a 158 ERA+. Had Cliff Lee not spent the last year hurling cowhide with the combined glory of Thor, Leonardo Da Vinci, Alan Thicke, and Sandy Koufax, Matsuzaka would have led the league in ERA+ and would be the odds-on favorite for the AL Denton True Young Award.

Still, even my colleague (a Red Sox fan) had to concede that Matsuzaka's propensity to walk batters (5.05 BB/9) doesn't make his success appear sustainable. A few unlucky bounces or centered balls and his stats wouldn't be so sanguine. But back to the original question: How rare was Daisuke Matsuzaka's 2008 season?

Pretty damned rare. The list of pitchers (min. 162 innings) since 1901 with a BB/9 greater than 5 and an ERA+ greater than 150:

Daisuke Matsuzaka20081585.05
Hal Newhouser19421615.59

In other words, it hasn't happened since John McCain was a spry youngster. But maybe we set the parameters too high. Specifically, maybe we asked too much of ERA+. So we reset the study, this time using a BB/9 greater than 4.75, a H/9 less than 7 and an ERA less than 3.25.

Hal Newhouser19425.596.712.45161
King Cole19104.886.531.80159
Daisuke Matsuzaka20085.056.872.90158
Nolan Ryan19776.145.962.77141
Herb Score19556.106.262.85140
Al Leiter19964.976.392.93140
Johnny Vander Meer19415.016.842.82129
Tom Cheney19625.046.963.17128
Nolan Ryan19724.985.262.28128
Bob Turley19556.466.133.06123
Nolan Ryan19745.465.982.89118
Jim Shaw19144.806.932.70104
Allie Reynolds19434.946.342.99104

Of the selected seasons, only Hal Newhouser and Nat Cole dominated like Matsuzaka did in 2008. Al Leiter was the most recent to do so in 1996. Before that, it hadn't been done since Nolan Ryan did it thrice in the roaring '70s.

Notice that Ryan's name appears on that list more than anybody's. Is Daisuke Matsuzaka the second coming to Nolan Ryan? Time will tell.

It's important to note that after 2003, Matsuzaka's age-22 season, he was never plagued with a large walk total while playing in Japan. Perhaps by this point, he had acquired enough status there to get close calls on balls and strikes, status he lost when he traveled across the Pacific. Could it be that umpires are to blame for Daisuke Matsuzaka's high walk totals?

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