Economy has not been Daisuke Matsuzaka's strong suit during his short major league career and last night was no exception in throwing 110 pitches over six innings in a 9-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
The rookie of the year candidate got his second half started with his 11th win, but his agent, Scott Boras, seems concerned about the number of pitches he's thrown this season.
"I'd rather see him throw closer to 100 pitches than 120 pitches," said Boras Friday. Boras said he spoke to Matsuzaka when the Red Sox were in San Diego three weeks ago to emphasize the importance of protecting his longevity, without compromising Matsuzaka's competitive nature.
There was no indication Boras had expressed his concern to the team, but the Red Sox are aware of it now.
Matsuzaka, who is 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA in his last six starts, didn't return after squandering a 4-1 lead but Jason Varitek bailed him out with a two-run homer in the sixth, when the Sox scored five times. Matsuzaka threw 110 pitches, precisely his average over 19 starts this season.
Matsuzaka was clearly down over his outing, calling it "disappointing from beginning to end today."
It's understandable what Boras is thinking. The man who negotiated Matsuzaka's six-year, $52 million deal wants to make certain his 26-year-old righthander is still at the top of his game when the pact runs out. He knows how Japanese pitchers have faded historically after their first two or three years in the major leagues.
"We spend a lot of time, thought, money, and energy trying to keep our pitchers healthy for the long term," wrote Sox general manager Theo Epstein in an e-mail last night.
The Red Sox have allowed Matsuzaka to pitch deeper into games than the rest of their starters, feeling his background shows he's able to handle a bigger workload. His demeanor on the mound, the ease of his delivery, and his arm and leg strength are factors as well.
Matsuzaka threw 171 pitches in a complete-game loss for the Seibu Lions in 2003. He's thrown between 130 and 160 pitches multiple times while throwing on five days' rest in Japan. Most seasons he made 27-29 starts and eclipsed 200 innings only twice. Now he's on course for about 35 starts and well over 200 innings.
Matsuzaka is a strikeout pitcher and racks up a lot of pitches. Roger Clemens threw a lot of pitches early in his career and there was concern Clemens would burn out. He's still pitching at 44, but in three of his last four seasons in Boston, high pitch counts took a toll as he suffered from leg injuries and shoulder tendinitis.
Matsuzaka welcomes the opportunity to pitch deep into games. Four times this season he's thrown more than 120 pitches, including 124 in his lone complete game, May 14 against Detroit.
That may not seem like a lot. But Matsuzaka is a throwback to a day when pitch counts were mostly insignificant. Luis Tiant never had a pitch count. For most of his career Nolan Ryan didn't either. They are perfect examples of the old-school mentality that the more you threw the stronger you got.
The Japanese League uses pitchers how the majors did before pitching coaches like Dave Duncan. But it can't be disputed that Matsuzaka is now throwing far more intense innings against far more intense hitters than he did for eight years in Japan. And he's doing it with one fewer day between starts.
Matsuzaka was asked whether the 110 pitches he throws in a game here feels like throwing 110 in Japan, and he said, "Within myself, it feels the same."
Boras is not pointing fingers at the Red Sox' handling of Matsuzaka, and feels that Epstein and his staff will handle their prize pitcher appropriately.
They also have an interest in making sure their $103 million investment remains healthy and dominant over the next five-plus years. But it's obvious Boras is trying to protect his client by pushing for a more stringent pitch count.
One Sox official wouldn't go near the topic, feeling the team has protected Matsuzaka very nicely, even giving him more time off after the All-Star break to reenergize for the second half.
Every staff needs a workhorse. The Sox also have Josh Beckett, but he's thrown more than 100 pitches in only seven of his 16 starts and his high is 117. Part of that is Beckett finding economy with his pitches.
Matsuzaka's game is still evolving, but the one thing surely stressed by pitching coach John Farrell is that economy over excess is best.
Last night Matsuzaka tried to find a balance point by pitching from the stretch in the fourth inning with nobody on base. He said it's something he does to help make adjustments, but he admitted that nothing he tried last night worked.
Asked whether the season has already taken a toll, Matsuzaka said, "Of course I feel a little fatigue. Not extreme. Par for the course of what I've experienced in previous seasons."
Only time will tell how Matsuzaka fares in the second half. Adjustments will likely be made. He is used to pitching deep into games. But how much will he have left for when it matters most?