Daisuke Matsuzaka & Relative Value on the Free Agent Market
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s value as a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox has not been commensurate with the $103 million they doled out to acquire the player. Also, just like many other Red Sox fans who feel frustrated watching Daisuke perform, his pitching can drive me nuts at times, too. He works slowly and walks way too many batters. In his final four seasons for the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka averaged 2.3 walks issued per nine innings. For the Red Sox, his 162-game average BB/9 has jumped to 4.3. Combine the walks, his inefficiency and his unreliability from a health standpoint and it’s all just very maddening.
With all that said, I was taken aback yesterday morning when I read this Nick Cafardo headline from The Boston Globe. In a piece about Matsuzaka and another frustrating outing in St. Petersburg Monday night, the following headline appeared:
You wonder when it’ll start to pay off
This headline very much reflects conventional wisdom here in Boston. At my doctor's office yesterday, the nurse asked me "what are we gonna do about Daisuke?" I think we've reached a point where public perception on Daisuke is now far too negative. For perspective, I would like to look at his acquisition from a different angle.
The aim of this entry is not to defend the Matsuzaka signing like I did with J.D. Drew during the off-season. J.D. Drew is a terrific baseball player, one any team would be lucky to have. He is not overpaid at all, not by one cent. In fact, his signing has been one of the better free agent deals over the last five seasons or so. The aim of this entry is to showcase the sort of value teams are likely to receive when they turn to the free agent market. From this lens, compared to other free agent starting pitchers, Matsuzaka may not be the best signing of Theo Epstein’s time as Red Sox General Manager, but it’s important to keep in mind that the Japanese right-hander has also been a key contributor to some excellent Red Sox teams.
Since the 2006-2007 off-season, when Matsuzaka signed with the Red Sox, there have been 33 contracts handed out to starting pitchers whose total value met or exceeded $10 million. Of those 33, 9 have contributed no value at all, or even negative value. Jason Schmidt, Adam Eaton, Kei Igawa, Mark Mulder, Woody Williams, Oliver Perez, Aroldis Chapman, Randy Wolf and Jason Marquis (in his deal signed prior to this season) all have either added nothing to the Big League club or in some cases, actually altogether detracted from their teams’ winning efforts irrespective of money. That’s $254 million total doled out to pitchers who have just killed their teams or in Chapman’s case, not yet had a chance to contribute.
That leaves another 24 contracts for pitchers who have contributed to their teams’ winning efforts. Presented below are those 24, sorted by Millions of dollars spent per Win Above Replacement (thanks Fangraphs).
As you can see, Matsuzaka is far from a bargain. But at the same time, he's in the same neighborhood as players like John Lackey and A.J. Burnett, and that's WITH his lost season of 2009. Of those 33 contracts I alluded to earlier, Matsuzaka ranks 18th in terms of dollars spent per Win Above Replacement. That's not great value, but it is just about the median.
This brings me back to the Cafardo headline. "You wonder when it will start to pay off." I look at that and think to myself that IT IS paying off. Maybe it has not been an optimal allocation of resources, maybe Matsuzaka has not lived up to expectations, but he has had two very good seasons, one lost to injury and is on pace to have another decent year. That's not a terrible return.
The purpose of the free agent market is for teams to round out personnel where their farm systems could not supply the talent needed. By its nature, the free agent market offers less value than players in their cost-controlled years. The beauty of this is that so long as the Red Sox draft well and get ridiculous value from the likes of Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, they can afford to overspend on Matsuzaka. And this principle doesn't just apply to big market teams. Derek Lowe hasn't exactly supplied great value for Atlanta, but they sit in first place. Other expensive "under-performers" like Aaron Harang, Carlos Guillen and Rich Harden suit up for teams atop their respective divisions. Free agent "misses" come with the territory.
Two of the more maligned players in my time following the Boston Red Sox closely, J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka, both joined the team prior to the 2007 season. They will cost the Red Sox a combined $173 million when it is all said and done. Since their arrival, thanks in part to their considerable contributions, Boston is 99 games over .500, has won a World Series, lost in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and has qualified for the post-season in three consecutive years. Matsuzaka will probably never be the pitcher Boston fans hoped he would be, but Matsuzaka has also contributed greatly to some of the most successful Red Sox teams in franchise history. In this light, since all we root for is the Red Sox to win, maybe the nibbling, the DL stints, the posting fee and the big contract have been worth it after all?