Dice-K a 'disappointment'? Consider the facts first

DENVER -- A man once described by his GM as "a national treasure" will start Game 3 of the 2007 World Series on Saturday night.

That man, of course, is Daisuke Matsuzaka. (Hey, you were expecting maybe Josh Fogg?) But even now -- all these months, all these starts, all these (ahem) gyroballs into his career on this side of the Pacific -- the ever-intriguing Dice-K remains more of a mystery than a treasure.

If most American baseball fans were asked to pick one word to describe Matsuzaka's rookie season in Boston, we're betting "treasure" wouldn't make it into the top 1,000 on the Pick Your Favorite Dice-K Adjective chart.

But "disappointment"? That one sure would. Might even win the whole derby, in fact.

So as Dice-K stands on the precipice of becoming the first Japanese-born pitcher ever to start a World Series game, let's contemplate that assessment for a few moments.

Disappointment, huh? Ya sure about that?

"I've said without qualification," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said this month, "that this first year for him was a success."

Well, that's his vote. And we'd second that motion. You might not believe us, but keep reading. We bet we can at least make you think about it long and hard.

What follows are true facts about Matsuzaka's rookie season. We're not making any of this up:

• He struck out 201 hitters in the regular season -- more than Josh Beckett, John Smoltz or Carlos Zambrano. For that matter, only five pitchers in the American League, and seven in the entire sport, piled up more whiffs than that.

• And Matsuzaka collected all those K's in 204 2/3 innings, which computes to a strikeout rate of 8.84 per nine innings. Want to know five guys with worse strikeout rates than that? How about C.C. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander and Beckett -- among many others.

• Speaking of those 204 2/3 innings, that's more innings than several noted "horses" you may have heard of, too. Such as: Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito and Carlos Silva.

• Finally, opposing hitters batted .246 against this guy. Here's a group of pitchers who were more "hittable" than that: Fausto Carmona, Sabathia, John Lackey, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay. Heard of any of them?

And Dice-K unfurled those numbers as a "rookie," remember. So if that's a season of major disappointment, then disappointment doesn't get much more upbeat than that.

On balance, it would be a similar kind of disappointment to, say, having to split a Powerball jackpot instead of raking it all in by yourself.

We dropped that Powerball analogy because it makes for a perfect segue for the rest of this piece -- since the money the Red Sox paid to reel in Matsuzaka is a number so gigundous, it's possible that the only other place you'd ever see one like it in your life is on a Powerball billboard.

Price tags create a context for all judgments in sports these days. But especially in the case of a mega-hyped player like this, who cost somewhere around the Gross National Product of Paraguay.

Did the Red Sox get all their $103 million -- or all 11,772,896,716 yen's -- worth out of Dice-K this season? Well, no. But they weren't supposed to, either.

This wasn't a one-year contract, remember. This was a six-year contract -- for a pitcher who's still only 27 years old. And he's younger than Rich Hill, Wandy Rodriguez or John Van Benschoten. Again, among many others.

Would you take Dice-K's future over the futures of those three guys? We would.

Would you take his future, for that matter, over this list of fellow 26-year-olds: John Maine, Daniel Cabrera, Joe Blanton, Noah Lowry and Brian Bannister? Again, we would.

I think Daisuke's year is pretty much, if you look back on it, probably not a surprise the way it went. Some ups and downs. Some learning.

-- Red Sox manager Terry Francona

Maybe you wouldn't. But if that's your vote, we're warning you: More powerful facts are on the way, starting in the very next sentence.

The Red Sox compiled a list this month of all the rookie pitchers since 1900 who wound up their first season with at least 15 wins, 200 strikeouts, 200 innings and 30 starts. There are only seven other names on it. Seven.

None of those names came along in the last 20 years. Only three (Dwight Gooden in 1984, Mark Langston in '84 and John Montefusco in 1975) did it in the last 50 years. And there's just one other addition (Herb Score in 1955) if you start the competition after 1911.

Among that distinguished group, only Langston failed to win a Rookie of the Year award. And he at least finished second, blowing away the next-closest pitcher (some nobody named Roger Clemens) in the voting.

But almost no one seems to view Matsuzaka's season as award-worthy anymore. It's a lock that Dice-K won't be winning this Rookie of the Year award. And it's close to a lock he won't even finish in the top two among rookies on his own team.

That relates, obviously, to the sensational seasons of Dustin Pedroia and Hideki Okajima. But it also relates to the way Matsuzaka sputtered to the finish line, with his 5.19 ERA after the All-Star break and his alarming 7.62 ERA in September.

Nevertheless, the Red Sox brain trust says often these days that it didn't shock them in the least that Dice-K wore down along the backstretch. It all added up. The workload. The culture shock. The never-ending scrutinization circus.

"I think Daisuke's year is pretty much, if you look back on it, probably not a surprise the way it went," said manager Terry Francona. "Some ups and downs. Some learning."

Epstein frequently compares Matsuzaka's first New England summer to the 2006 adventures of Beckett in his Boston debut. They didn't share the language barrier. But when you think about it, how much more of a common thread is there, really, between life as a Seibu Lion and life inside the Red Sox volcano than there is between life as a Marlin and life in Boston?

So just as Beckett needed to absorb all his new experiences and adjust, baseball people who know Dice-K expect him to make exactly the same pole vault upward next year. The arm, the repertoire and the brain power are all there. It's just fusing them all together that's the challenge.

But before we get to next year's chapter of The Life and Times of Dice-K, the man still has to finish up this year. Remember?

With his team up 2-0 on the Rockies in the World Series, Matsuzaka has a chance to lock down the Series, showcase his mound genius and make history, all on one epic evening. Talk about your big nights.

But what does it say about how he has slid off the national radar screen that Francona took 17 questions in the interview room on Friday's off day -- and the only one that had to do with Matsuzaka zeroed in on whether his team ever got annoyed by his gargantuan media entourage?

It says, we guess, that many people think Dice-K Fever is now yesterday's news. But if he wins Game 3 of his very first World Series, that'll change fast. One win on this stage, and he'll be remembered forever. On two continents.

And the No. 1 adjective of the day won't be "disappointing," either.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.