Tommy John surgery is no joke. It requires a lengthy rehabilitation process and can completely jeopardize a pitcher's career, which is why Daisuke Matsuzaka may have pitched his last Major League Baseball game.
Matsuzaka is set to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, an injury he sustained in his May 16 start. The surgery will force him to not only miss the rest of 2011, but it could keep him out a substantial portion of the 2012 season, the last year of his contract with the Red Sox.
The right-hander could return at some point next summer for a final farewell tour in Boston. There's not a chance in the world he dons a Sox uniform at any point beyond next season. But there also exists the possibility that Matsuzaka's major league career is over and he returns to Japan, where he enjoyed the great success that made him an intriguing international target for a number of major league teams prior to the 2007 season.
A return to his home land makes sense from a number of standpoints.
Matsuzaka will be 31 years old — almost 32– when he next steps foot on a mound. While it would generally be a point in a pitcher's career where his skills are only a few years away from deteriorating, there is evidence that suggests Matsuzaka's skills may already be declining.
He's clearly lost life on his fastball, which could be the result of the tender elbow.
His average fastball velocity this season was 90.3 mph, whereas his career average is 91.7 mph. In fact, Matsuzaka's average fastball was the fastest it's ever been in 2010 at 92 mph. While this season's dip in velocity could be the result of preliminary elbow soreness before the full injury came to fruition, it's still a bit startling that he experienced nearly a 2 mph drop between this season and last.
Sometimes a player will come back after Tommy John surgery and actually throw harder. It's hard to believe that there's any direct correlation between the surgery and an increase in velocity, though, and it's even harder to believe a 32-year-old Matsuzaka would experience that turnaround.
He also lost a bit of bite on his slider, which had been a solid out pitch for him in the past, and he completely abandoned the curveball this season. Matsuzka's curveball was never really a major weapon in his arsenal, but he's utilized it less and less each season in Boston, going mainly with his changeup when it comes to throwing off-speed stuff.
Perhaps this decrease in the curveball's use is the result of reluctance on the part of Matsuzaka because of the elbow issues.
A return to Japan also makes sense because Matsuzaka never fully embraced a typical major league starter throwing regimen. He often disagreed with the Red Sox organization on how much and how often he should throw between starts.
Matsuzaka was used to throwing long toss and bullpen sessions on the same day, a habit that the Red Sox altered. Perhaps there were some instances where the Sox should have let him have more freedom regarding how and when he throws, but nobody can fault an organization for trying to protect its $103 million investment.
Japan has often been a league that allows major leaguers to tack a few more years onto their professional careers, with some making the trip overseas when major league interest is low. In Matsuzaka's case, his workload prior to coming to the United States may be the reason he loses a few years.
Matsuzaka helped the Red Sox win a World Series in 2007 and put together a solid 2008 campaign, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. But given his unpredictability, both in terms of success and health, it's hard to imagine many major league franchises wanting to roll the dice on Dice following the surgery.
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