The Riddle (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 9:59AM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 2:15PM
As if to justify the $103.1 million expenditure, talk in the Boston front office quickly turned to the ancillary benefits of adding a foreign superstar. Lucchino spoke of "expanding the Red Sox' footprint in Asia." There would be new advertising partnerships with Japanese companies and more merchandise to sell. But outside of the sales made in shops owned by the Red Sox, Boston gets the same 1/30th cut of the profits on Matsuzaka merchandise as every other team, including the Yankees. Club sources put Matsuzaka's direct economic impact on the Red Sox at about $3 million annually. That figure includes the $900,000 sponsorship from a Japanese electronics company for a dedicated Matsuzaka interview area, in Fenway and on the road, with the company logo plastered on the background.
First and foremost, though, the Red Sox got Matsuzaka for his arm. They judged him to be far better than Barry Zito, the free-agent lefty who would sign with the Giants for a greater average annual salary ($18 million) over more years (seven) despite being two years older than Matsuzaka. Publicly, the Red Sox are trying to walk a precarious line between cashing in on the excitement of his arrival and tempering expectations. Privately, they believe he can have as big an impact as two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana has had in Minnesota. On those magic nights when Matsuzaka has all of his pitches working, the Sox envision 15-strikeout games. They even believe he'll have better movement and velocity than he did in Japan, because major league baseballs are slightly larger, with bigger seams.
Like Santana, Matsuzaka has a power pitcher's fastball (typically about 94 mph, though his four-seamer is relatively straight and will be prone to homers) but a finesse pitcher's touch and intellect. Sox pitching coach John Farrell estimates that only about 55% of Matsuzaka's pitches are fastballs, well below the major league average of about 66%. Matsuzaka talks of his "second nature" ability to change movement on pitches by varying the pressure of his fingertips on the baseball, in the manner of Greg Maddux.
By his own count, Matsuzaka throws a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a cut fastball, a shuuto (hard sinker with left to right cut), a curveball, a slider, a splitter and a changeup that the Red Sox regard as his nastiest pitch because he imparts a rare screwball action to it. "No gyroball," Matsuzaka volunteers, referring to the near-mythical pitch with a spiral spin that often has been attributed to him.
Asked what he enjoys most about pitching, Matsuzaka responds, "The ability to try to outthink and try new things against the batters."
"He has an excellent chance at winning at least 15 games, maybe 20," says veteran outfielder Karim Garcia, who played against Matsuzaka in Japan in 2005 and '06 and returned this spring to battle for a roster spot with Philadelphia. "He's going to be like Pedro [Martinez]: He throws every pitch for a strike. [But] he can throw 140 pitches [a game], no problem. After six or seven innings he's just getting warmed up. The closer he gets to the end of the game, the stronger he gets.
"Watching him pitch over there, it was like he wasn't challenged. It was like it was too easy for him."
Says Matsuzaka, "Ever since elementary school I realized this is where the top level of baseball is played, and that has been with me ever since: to play at the top level in the world."
Hub's opening day
In the Red Sox' signing of Matsuzaka, one moment was more anxious for Boston than the anticipation of the winning bid's announcement: the wait for the results of the MRI on his right arm. Just about every picture taken of a pitcher's shoulder and arm will reveal clues, however small, about the strain of pitching -- tiny tears, adhesions, loose bodies, the detritus of the craft. The Baltimore Orioles once backed out of a deal with Aaron Sele because they didn't like what they saw on his MRI. Sele has gone on to pitch more than 1,000 innings since then.
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