Often maligned for taking an eternity between pitches, nibbling around the plate, and being flat-out inconsistent, Dice-K clearly was none of the above against the A's Monday night.
The game took just two hours, 40 minutes, and Matsuzaka threw 62 of 89 pitches for strikes. He also threw just five of 24 first pitches out of the zone. He never threw more than eighteen pitches in an inning and we walked just two Athletics batsmen. Additionally, his release point barely was almost perfectly stationary.
This doesn't sound like a pitcher who often frustrates fans, does it?
If you look at Dice-K's 2010 season as a whole, you see that he is not the same pitcher he was in 2007 and 2008, even if his WHIP is nearly the same (1.324 in 2007 and 2008 and 1.326 in 2010). In those years, he ranked in the top 10 in the AL in walks, sixth and first respectively, while he is not on the list this year (granted, he missed April).
Basically, his craftiness and control are paying off.
Batters are swinging at 29 percent of his bad pitches, a large spike from even his 24.7 percent mark in his previous high in 2007. Because of his reputation as a nibbler, hitters are also taking his strikes far more than before, 38.5 percent of the time, also even better than the 33.3 figure from 2007. He's also pitching to contact more than he used to, and opponents are batting only .276 on balls in play, a number well better than the .300 standard (his total BA against is a solid .228). The numbers indicate that he is truly frustrating batters.
Why the difference? Matsuzaka has moved away from his often wild breaking pitches towards a cut fastball, throwing it 21.5 percent of the time, more than sliders and curve balls combined. In 2008, he threw breaking balls three times as frequently as cutters.
The cutter, his most effective pitch when indexed against the league, moves much less than his other pitches, basically only six inches downwardly. This, surely, has helped his control and caused him to evolve into a contact pitcher.
Dice-K, though, has even begun to mix in a third kind of fastball, a two-seam, which he did not have in his first three seasons. Both the cutter and two-seam fastball have even gained velocity over the course of his career, an oddity for somebody of his age.
In terms of consistency, Dice-K allowed five runs in three of his first four starts, but has yet to reach that number in his nine starts since. For a guy who is normally a fifth starter, he really does almost always give the Sox a chance to win. To contrast, other fifth starter Tim Wakefield has given up five runs in seven of his 15 starts.
Still, the news is not all great for Dice-K. While he is getting more called strikes and striking more players out looking than ever before, his swinging strikeouts are down, as is his strikeouts per nine innings. That figure now sits at 7.5 when his previous low was 8.2 (his K/BB is the same though). His regular four-seam fastball is also less effective than it used to be.
It is also alarming that he is becoming a fly-ball pitcher, almost inducing such on 50 percent of balls in play. The good news is that he is only giving up home runs on 3.9 percent of balls hit in the air, about half of his career average.
All in all, Matsuzaka is nearly as effective as he was in his strong 2007 and 2008 seasons, even if the perception is not so. Like Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer, Matsuzaka is evolving with age, learning to get hitters out without overpowering or hurting his arm with breaking pitches.
Having a fifth starter with an ERA of 4.29 is a luxury, and Sox fans should appreciate such.
They should also expect his new found style to allow him to continue to be effective for years to come.