Daisuke Matsuzaka has seen the best of times and the worst of times, and now he’s coming back to where it all started to try and recapture his former glory.
Matsuzaka recently became the talk of Nippon Professional Baseball’s offseason transactions when the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, fresh off their Nippon Series Championship in October, signed him to a multi-year contract. The move brings the 34-year-old former All Star pitcher back to his native Japan after a disappointing eight-year stint in North America.
During his career with the Seibu Lions from 1999-2006, Matsuzaka chalked up a sterling 108-60 record, led the Pacific League in strikeouts four times, earned seven Gold Gloves and had a sub-3.00 ERA five times. He helped the Lions claim two league pennants during that time, as well as a Japan Series title in 2004. It was his performances for Japan’s national team, however, that cemented his status as a nationwide hero. He helped Samurai Japan win the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and led them to the title of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, where he was named MVP. He repeated the feat in 2009, earning his second MVP crown while helping Japan successfully defend their WBC championship.
However, the man nicknamed “Monster of the Heisei Era” in his native Japan never quite earned the same admiration from American fans following his move to Major League Baseball prior to the 2007 season. He arrived in Boston with astronomical (and perhaps unfair) expectations on the heels of the Red Sox paying a staggering $51 million (¥6 billion) to win his negotiation rights, and then forking over a contract worth another $52 million over six years, plus incentives. With big salary figures comes big pressure.
His first-year numbers were merely decent in a season when his Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series. He fit in as the third or fourth pitcher in the rotation and he benefitted from playing with championship-caliber teammates (both his playoff wins came when his team scored 10 or more runs). He improved on his marks in 2008, which was perhaps his only very good season in the MLB. “Dice-K,” as he was called, compiled an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA for Boston, and finished fourth in voting for the American League’s Cy Young Award (awarded to the league’s best pitcher).
Then, however, things went downhill fast. His following seasons were a miserable mess of terrible play and injuries. Of his final six in the U.S., the righty had only one more winning season. He missed time with neck and hip joint injuries. He underwent Tommy John surgery for his elbow. In 2012, a season in which Matsuzaka collected $10 million in salary (¥1.2 billion), he put up a 1-7 record and 8.28 ERA in 11 starts for the Red Sox, and was not re-signed by the team when his contract finally expired.
He was relegated to playing in the minor league system for the Cleveland Indians and later moved onto the New York Mets, who found a spot for him in their bullpen: not exactly the expected career path of a $100 million man.
So, what are the Hawks seriously expecting from Matsuzaka in 2015? It would make sense if they signed him as an emotional leader, a trusted veteran who could help in the clubhouse and a national hero who is sure to sell more than his fair share of jerseys and game tickets. But that doesn’t seem to be the case: Dice-K’s contract is said to be worth ¥1.2 billion ($10 million) over three years. That’s not figurehead money. Plus, Matsuzaka indicated at the end of last season that his priority was to find a spot in a starting rotation for 2015.
It appears that Softbank is counting on a return to Japan as being exactly what Matsuzaka needs to provide a boost to the back end of their rotation. It’s true that he showed a vague glimmer of life in his final season with the Mets. If he’s able to expand on that, the Hawks will get the boost to their pitching staff they’ve been looking for in 2015.
Spring is a season of hope, after all.