Stuff tends to fall by the wayside during the holidays, even for baseball blogs. Still, Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui‘s retirement deserves a some attention. Even for Christmas Week, it seemed to pass quietly. So, about two weeks after the fact, here are some briefs thoughts on Matsui’s MLB career and some of his biggest moments at the plate.
Aside from the timing, Matsui’s retirement probably also got less attention (at least in the North American press) than one might have expected because of the way his career tailed off. After a memorable, World-Series-MVP farewell to the Yankees in 2009, Matsui finished by getting three one-year deals with three different teams. He actually hit well for the 2010 Angels (.274/.361/.459, 126 wRC+), but his 2011 and 2012 seasons with the As and Rays, respectively, where pretty miserable. The storybook ending in New York Matsui turned into what looked like another old guy fading away.
Of course, Matsui was more than just “another old guy,” especially if one looks at his career as a whole. He was was 29 when he first came to MLB, but he had, as is well-known, a monster career in Japan. I will leave it to the real fans and followers of NPB to give the details and highlights of Matsui’s great Japanese career. Others can fill details of how he dealt with the huge numbers or reporters that followed him around when he played for the Yankees and other stuff about his personality and hobbies. One little story that has stuck with me over the years was that, at least at one time, Ichiro reportedly resented the amount of attention Matsui received in Japan relative to that which he (Ichiro) received. That relationship may seem odd to us now, given that Ichiro, whatever his current skills, arguably has had near Hall-of-Fame major-league career, even without considering his seasons in Japan. As for Matsui’s MLB career, well…
Actually, I have to confess that when I think about Matsui and his MLB numbers, I have a hard time deciding how good he was. Part of that is because of the ambiguity of defensive evaluations, whether by advanced metrics or by subjective measures. I would guess that not many people every thought of Matsui as even average in the outfield while he played in the MLB, and those years during which Matsui lined up in left with Zombie Bernie Williams in center were not exactly a highlight reel of great outfield defense.
Placing too much emphasis on defense sort of misses the point when looking at Matsui in the wake of his retirement. Matsui’s selling point was always acknowledged to be his bat. His first season with the Yankees, was, despite his second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year Voting to Angel Berroa (so many entertaining and irritating stories around this) and the Yankees’ American League Pennant, a disappointment on an individual level. A line of .287/.353/.435 (109 wRC+) might have been okay for a left fielder, even back then, but not for one with questionable fielding skills, and certainly not for one brought in for the Yankees with a reputation as a power hitter (Matsui hit just 16 home runs in 2003). Matsui showed an impressive ability to make contact, but it was much less impressive without the power.
Any concerns that he might not adjust were quelled in 2004, when he hit .298/.390/.522 (140 wRC+). His walk rate rose and, more significantly, so did his power (31 homers, .224 ISO). While it turned out to be Matsui’s best season in the MLB, it did show that he was not just a contact hitter. While his numbers dropped off in 2005 and an injury cut short his 2006 season (and a longstanding streak of games played), his time at the plate during his Yankees tenure was characterized by an overall good plate approach that resulted in above-average numbers walks while also putting the ball in play more often than one would expect, even for a player with above-average (if not awesome) power. He may never have been the power-hitting superstar in MLB that he was in Japan, but he was a good, if not great hitter.
Let’s finish as we often do in these farewell posts, by looking at some of Matsui’s biggest in-game hits as measured by Win Probability Added (WPA), a fun little “story stat.”
Biggest Playoff Hit
October 21, 2003. Matsui’s first season in the majors may not have been all that impressive individually, but the Yankees did make it to the World Series after their dramatic victory over the Red Sox in the ALCS, which probably no one remembers, right? Was anything ever written about that? Anyway, the Yankees ended up losing the World Series to America’s Team, also known as the Marlins. The Marlins were big underdogs, but came through due to their awesome pitching that year, especially that of Josh Beckett in the playoffs. Beckett pitched brilliantly in Game Three, going seven and a third and striking out 10 while allowing only two runs.
This was not to be Beckett’s night in the end. With one out in the eight, Derek Jeter doubled, and Beckett was pulled for Dontrelle Willis. Willis walked Jason Giambi, and after getting Bernie Williams to fly out, gave up a single to Matsui in what turned out to be the game-winning run. The ninth inning turned the game into a 6-1 rout for New York, but at the time it happened, Matsui’s hit was huge. It seems strange that Matsui’s biggest playoff hit according to WPA (.250) came in the 2003 Series rather than in 2009, but hey, I’m not just making this stuff up.
Biggest Home Run
Even before his World Series heroics, Matsui had his best year since 2004 in his final season in New York. As the team’s primary DH, he hit .274/.367/.509 (127 wRC+) with 28 home runs. On September 16, the Yankees were matched up with the Blue Jays the day after the two teams had cleared the benches in the Bronx. It was a wonderful late-season pitching duel between Yankees Legend Chad Gaudin and Blue Jays hero Brian Tallet. In the bottom of the eighth, with one out and Alex Rodriguez on first, Matsui came to the plate with southpaw reliever Scott Downs on the mound. Godzilla launched a Downs curveball into the seats to tie the game up. While Lovable Catcher Francisco Cervelli actually ended up with the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth, Matsui’s homer was the bigger swing in Win Probability (.375) due to the situation.
Biggest Overall Hit
On July 30, 2005, the Yankees found themselves in another titanic match between pitchers, as they sent Shawn Chacon to the Yankee Stadium mound to face the Angels Paul Byrd. Chacon actually got through six, and Byrd through seven, but by the bottom of the ninth, New York was down 7-5. Mike Scioscia sent in Proven Closer Francisco Rodriguez, who proceeded to walk Tony Womack and Derek Jeter. Then he struck out Robinson Cano before returning to his bread and butter, walking Future Jason Grilli Agent Gary Sheffield. A-Rod came up and totally choked, failing to hit a grand slam by just walking in a run to make the score 6-7. Up came Matsui, who doubled in Jeter and Sheffield to win the game for the Yankees, 8-7 (.443 WPA).