The difference three years makes

He didn’t end up getting posted in 2005–but his legend continued to grow. He helped pitch the Japanese to the WBC championship in 2006, and walked away with the MVP. By this time, any or SOSH regular knew exactly who this guy was. People started raising their expectations. High estimates had his posting fee at $25 million, and in some cases $30 million (unprecedented numbers).

Of course, the times had changed. People had figured out that his gyroball was in fact a shuuto, basically a screwball mated with a changeup* (see him throw a few during the WBC here). Some people started to question whether his later years would be as productive given how much abuse his arm had taken as a youngster. But the numbers were there, and those who questioned his transition to MLB couldn’t deny that he’d made a lot of very productive MLB hitters look downright foolish in the World Baseball Classic.

*How do changeups screw? Slowly.

I’ll be here all night.

And in late 2006, under the watchful eye of Scott Boras, the Dice-K bidding began. The major bidders were exactly who you’d expect–the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets–with the have-nots left out in the cold. The numbers being suggested around the forums buzzed up even a tick further–people started guessing above $40 million, while most media outlets (and myself, to be honest) guessed the winning bid would come in a bit above $30 million.

And when the clock ran out, it was the Red Sox squashing our dreams with an outrageous bid of $51,111,111.11. We’ll never really know where the other bids actually fell, but rumors had the Yankees falling far short (in the $30′s) and the Mets being the next closest at $40 million or so. A few weeks later, the process was entirely finished, and the BoSox had their young ace locked up for six years at a total cost of  $103 million (with incentives to pop it higher included). A princely sum for a pitcher who hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors, who some jaded skeptics suggested might need seasoning at the upper minors, who had thrown so many pitches in his yet young career. And yet, I was just about heartbroken. Heck, I think we nearly killed that day–the sheer volume of posting had the site crashing every few minutes as others like me vented their anger to the interwebs.

Three years later, it seems like we dodged a bullet. What’s the lesson here? No matter how much of a sure thing you think your favorite pitching prospect is, he’s not. Because while Dice-K has been good for some of his contract and awful for the other part, he’s never been the ace we all expected him to be. Remember that Boston is paying out nearly $18 million per season for him. His first season he won a full 15 games for his new employer, with a 4.40 ERA–which I’m sure they were happy with. He broke the 200 strikeout level, while giving up a few too many walks (3.5 per 9 innings), and a few more HR than the average starter. And expectations were that having gotten used to the differences between Japanese and American baseball, he would take a big step forward the following year. And, at least on the surface, he did. 2008 is the year most Sox fans will point to as his true potential, when he went 18-3 with an astounding 2.90 ERA. All appeared well in RS Nation, at least as concerned their young stud. Except, those numbers were a bit of a mirage.

Looking deeper that year, Matsuzaka had gone from a league average BABIP in 2007 to a significantly below average (.270) in 2008. His walk rate had risen to above 5 per nine innings, which wiped out the gains he’d made on his strikeout rate. Even aided by a significantly below average HR/9 rate, his FIP was at 4.00. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good pitcher–but it’s a far different animal than the monster with the 2.90 ERA and the 86% winning percentage. 2008 Matsuzaka was a good pitcher who’d gotten very lucky and ended up looking like a phenom. Given the expectations preceding him, it’s not that difficult to see how people glossed over the underlying issues and took the top line performance as validation of preseason rhetoric.

There were cracks in the facade, however. In May of 2008 Matsuzaka hit the DL with a tired shoulder–which is a fairly myopic diagnosis. In some cases, it’s a blip on the radar, in others it can be a symptom of longer term issues. The Red Sox had been very good at dealing with such injuries in recent years, and so the only fear here was linked to his early career pitch counts. Given how well he pitched after coming back, worries were quickly forgotten.

Then came 2009, and the second installment of the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka basically repeated his 2006 performance, walking away with his second consecutive WBC MVP award, and having pitched Japan to its second championship. When it came time for the regular season, though, Dice-K was a shell of his former self. His ERA ballooned to almost 9.00 and he shuttled back and forth between the minors, the majors and the DL. The only thing making him look good, of course, was the Yankees own Asian pitching import, Chien-Ming Wang, who was even worse. By the end of 2009, Matsuzaka had gotten his ERA back to a not quite seppuku-requiring 5.76, which was a chunk above his FIP of 5.09 (he’d gotten a bit unlucky this time around).

It turned out that he had withheld information from Red Sox management regarding an injury sustained while training for the WBC. This caused a bit of a stir–on one hand you had Red Sox fans clapping each other on the back happy that there was a reason for his poor performance in 2009 (that could theoretically be remedied medically). On the other hand, you had the Red Sox organization furious that their rather pricey investment had basically breached his contract and put the interests of his country above those of his employer. Combined with whispers that Matsuzaka’s conditioning had fallen from the wayside, and Matsuzaka’s sniping at the Red Sox front office regarding training methods via the Japanese press, things didn’t look good.

But nevertheless, the weeks leading up to Spring Training often bloom with optimism, and the news on Matsuzaka was just that, optimistic. He was quoted all over the place apologizing to Red Sox fans and predicting a killer 2010. Tito Francona and Theo Epstein both went on record praising his work ethic and attitude in the new year. Good vibes were flowing all around. Until Monday, when it came out that he’s gone and injured himself again–the diagnosis being a strained back. Early throwing sessions have been canceled, and the Matsuzaka is stuck in a holding period, uncertain as to when he’ll get to start throwing.

A year ago, I’d have figured this for nothing. Two years ago, I don’t know if it’d have even registered as news. But three years into the Sox’ $103 million dollar investment, the trends look rather ugly. Riddle me this: If Matsuzaka had worked out half as well as the Sox had expected him to up to this point, do you think that they’d have felt the need to throw $80+ million at John Lackey this past offseason, or would they have retained Jason Bay’s potent bat instead?

When you next hear a Sox fan chuckling at how much money the Yankees are spending on AJ Burnett, just remind them of the $17.6 million that Dice-K will cost them this year, and each of the following two years as well. And when you hear stories about the next Japanese wunderkind, Yu Darvish, or the next great unknown from the Dominican Republic or Cuba, remember to hold onto your expectations.

No one is a sure thing. Not Brien Taylor, not Bill Pulsipher, not Jose Contreras, not Yu Darvish, not Garrett Cole, not even Stephen Strasburg. Not Phil Hughes or Clay Buchholz.

And after reminding yourself of these stories, shoo objectivity away from its perch on your shoulder and give in to your subjective devil. Be a fan again, and choose your favorite prospect. Because the race is only fun if you’ve picked your horse.