Since Matsuzaka-mayhem has owned baseball headlines the last week I’ll spare the platitudes and give the principal reasons why I believe this is a good thing for Red Sox Nation (assuming of course, Theo Epstein and Scott Boras agree on a deal).1) Pitching and prowess: Indeed you can never have enough young, quality arms. With what free agency has become (read: Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are the best out there) it is vital to have a finger on baseball’s international pulse. Matsuzaka is a legitimate talent: good repertoire of pitches and velocity; healthy and young. Funny thing is everyone who has read about this guy and the Bill James statistical-spin on his relative abilities knows he has the stuff to excel in MLB.
Much more is being talked of his “transitional capabilities”. Like he’s going to wet himself the first time he steps onto the mound at Fenway or Yankee Stadium. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme but if you look at the truly marquee names to come out of Japan (Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui) , they all share similar traits: wealth of natural talent, distinct professionalism, and an understated swagger. The stage simply doesn’t get to these guys.
Which leads me to…
2) Track record: The only time I’ve ever seen Matsuzaka pitch live was during the World Baseball Classic. Granted it was in March and North American (and some Latin) players were clearly at a conditioning disadvantage, but the stage was the stage. And Japan’s opponent in the championship game was Cuba; a team in midseason form, uniquely inspired, and peaking (they knocked off the mighty Dominicans in the semifinals).
Matsuzaka pitched four innings, striking out five and giving up one run, as Japan won the tournament. Like all international sporting events, the WBC was bigger to our international adversaries than it was to us. It was epic for Cuba. Was pretty big to Japan as well. Matsuzaka’s final line: 3-0/1.38 era/MVP. How ya like them apples?
A cynic might argue that a max-contract and immersion into our culture might be the tipping point for a player like Matsuzaka. I’m here to tell you otherwise. With players like Nomo, Ichiro and Matsui as examples, trust me, the guy can handle big, bright America. As for the whole “stage” issue, check out the WBC again, and don’t be influenced by our tendency to under-care about the significance of worldwide sporting events.
3) The Pendulum: By virtue of blowing the Yankees out of the water in their bid for Matsuzaka the Red Sox front office (ie Larry Lucchino), via Theo Epstein, is sending a clear message. With the monumental gaffe that was the Johnny Damon-saga, coupled with Theo’s lack of deadline activity/Yanks acquisition of Bobby Abreu/the “new Boston Massacre”, the Sox front office has decided to finally draw its line in the sand. The limit for acceptable humiliation endured was reached, and surpassed last season.
As the Yankees didn’t win the World Series, Lucchino probably saw a golden opportunity to swing that pendulum back towards the center, and away from an increasingly tepid-George Steinbrenner. No more “evil empire”. For better or worse, the Sox are prepared to go at the jugular of the Yankee enterprise by beating them at their own game. But, as Steinbrenner has proven over the last five years, opening eyes with green during the offseason doesn’t lead to champagne at the conclusion of the postseason.
For the Red Sox Matsuzaka is a giant first step towards rebuilding a team that is still only two years removed from greatness. But it is a first step nonetheless.