Matsuzaka looked impressive in his MLB debut. He had 10 strikeouts in 7 innings and only threw 108 pitches. I’m still not convinced he’s worth $103.1 million, but the weak Kansas City lineup looked pretty dazed and confused.
Matsuzaka’s genius, I think, is to create as much batter uncertainty as possible. He’s one of the few pitchers who really uses psychology to his benefit. Take, for example, the much hyped gyroball. Such a pitch probably doesn’t even exist. But that doesn’t even matter: as long as batters think it might exist, they have to think about it, and batters don’t have time to think.
”I think it’s basically a myth, but it’s like a lot of myths in baseball — it can be useful,” said Robert Adair, who wrote ”The Physics of Baseball.” ”If you’re a batter and you think a guy occasionally throws this pitch, it is something extra to worry about.”
Matsuzaka’s other great talent is the diversity of his pitches. Most pitchers throw three of four basic pitches: a fastball, a changeup and some sort of breaking ball (curve or slider). Matsuzaka adds a few other pitches to the mix. More importantly, he is able to consistently throw his breaking balls for strikes, which means that when he’s behind in the count he isn’t forced to throw fastballs. The net effect is that batters don’t know what to expect.
This uncertainty is debilitating. Do the math. A ball thrown at ninety miles per hour takes about four hundred and fifty milliseconds to go from the pitcher’s hand to home plate. It takes a major-league batter about a hundred and sixty milliseconds to swing a bat. However, it takes somewhere between a hundred and ninety and four hundred and fifty milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing the bat. In other words, making the decision to swing is the time-consuming part of the batting experience. Anything a pitcher can do to make the swinging decision more difficult is bound to increase his success.
And then there’s this nifty experiment:
Arizona State’s Rob Gray has used a virtual hitting simulation — something he describes as a “purposefully simplified” video game — to help determine what cues help hitters make contact with the ball. In a 2002 study, he varied the speeds of the virtual ball randomly from about 70 to 80 m.p.h., and hitters failed miserably, with batting averages of about 0.030. That’ll get you cut from a T-ball team. But in the same simulation, hitters fared much better — with batting averages of 0.120 — when pitches were thrown at just two different speeds: slow (75 m.p.h.) or fast (85 m.p.h.). It’s the randomness, not an over-powering fastball, that fools hitters. Gray’s conclusion: “It is clear that successful batting is nearly impossible in the situation in which pitch speed is random and in which no auxiliary cues (e.g., pitcher’s arm motion or pitch count) are available to the batter.”
Matsuzaka is like the random pitching simulation. Because he can throw anything at anytime – he can throw a curve even when it’s a full count – batters never know what to expect. And when the other option is a 95 mph fastball, uncertain expectations are a recipe for a strikeout. As one Royal lamented yesterday:
”Any time you have that good of a fastball and the offspeed to go with it, it’s tough,” Shealy said. ”He mixes up speed on his pitches and moves it in and out. You can’t really get comfortable with him.”
The question, of course, is whether this batter uncertainty is temporary. As the season progresses, will players be able to adjust to Matsuzaka’s differences? Will they learn to hone their unconscious expectations? That’s the $103.1 million dollar question.