Hideki Matsui: Predicting 2012 For The Great Godzilla

Let us know what you think Hideki Matsui can do in 2012! Add your prediction here!

It’s time to ask ourselves:

Last year, in Hideki Matsui‘s offense went from good with the Angels (120 wRC+) to woof with the Athletics (93 wRC+).

Is Hideki Matsui done? Could the 38-year-old be worth another 550 PAs?

I say: uh, yes. Exactly: “Uh, yes.” Because I’m not so sure. And neither should you be.

Here’s the deal: Next June, Matsui will be 38 years old. And though he’s been the picture of late-30s health for several years now, he has a history knee injury problems. And given that his fielding actually looks like a proper Godzilla movie, he’s a DH or bust at this point.

Over the last ten years (2001 through 2011), there have been only 66 DHs to accumulate 2.0 WAR or more. In other words, each of the thirty 14 AL franchises gets an average two wins from their DH only 0.5 times per seasons. Oh. And David Ortiz makes up 7 of those 66 double-win seasons. Take him and the Red Sox out, and we have 59 seasons split betwixt 13 teams — or about 0.45 decent DHs per season — so less than half the AL has a 2.0 DH in any given year. Also, 23 of the 37 DHs who had 2.0 win seasons made only one appearance on that leader board.

In other words: DHs are not the win factories we oft wish them to be. Without fielding, it’s rather tough to make a huge impact with just a bat — then tack on The Book‘s hitting penalty for playing DH, and suddenly it starts to make sense why the market for designated hitters has so many zeros in it — it’s plain hard to find production there.

So Matsui is old (for a baseball player). He’s coming off a bad season (for a potential DH). And he’s got a skill set that typically does not age well (though his patience is more important than his power).

Well, what went wrong in 2011? The awesome, Gozilla-filled chart at the top demonstrates the violent swings in BABIP during the 2011 season. He started the season low. He got hot after the All Star break. He got cold at the end of the season.

A quick look at his batted-type BABIP shows both his fly ball BABIP was down about 50 points, as well as his fly ball ISO, which was down about 140 points (wow).

The BABIP on fly balls? That might should improve. He’s a career .300 BABIP guy, and matched that number as recently as 2010. I personally think the BABIP can bounce back.

But BABIP is only part of Matsui’s struggles in 2011. His career low slugging percentage and unimpressive walk rate (9.6%) helped top the BABIP-nut split of fail.

Chad Young of Rotographs completed some insightful research last October which examined the relationship between first-pitch strikes and offensive production (in the form of wRC+). In general, the more first-pitch strikes a player sees, the worse their offensive production is.

This, of course, creates a chicken-egg sort of quandary: Does the great hitter scare the pitcher into shying away from the zone consistently enough to effect the f-strike rate considerably? Or does the rate act as a proxy for plate discipline? Or does rate indicate the veteran sluggers re-sized zone, courtesy of the verifiable veteran-biased umpires?

I’m not sure, but one thing is sure: F-strike rates and offensive production had been closely tied for Matsui. Until 2011:

NOTE: I’ve flipped the F-strike scale see we can see the similar movements of these two measures more clearly. In other words, 0% on the left side is reaching towards the heavens, while 100% is at the bottom.

In 2011, pitchers actually threw Matsui less first pitch strikes than they had in 2010, but his offense went crapper-wise. The 55.9% F-Strike rate in 2011 was still high for Matsui.

Here’s what looks like was happening to Matsui in 2011: Pitchers were tossing that first pitch in for a strike, then leaving the zone entirely as Matsui went swing crazy. According to the plate discipline numbers (from Baseball Info Solution, BIS) for Matsui, he had a career low Zone% — and, most importantly, career highs in O-Swing% and O-Contact%.

Could Matsui be loosing his feel for the zone? Yes. Very possibly.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Matsui’s PITCHf/x plate discipline numbers disagree with his observed, BIS plate discipline numbers. In other words, the zone he was playing with 2011 was not the one the PITCHf/x cameras were observing.

According to Matsui’s PITCHf/x plate discipline numbers, his O-Swing and O-Zone rates weren’t nearly as far out of line with his recent years (when he was a perfectly productive hitter). He was expanding his zone, but not beyond what he had in his short 2008 season. Also, his Zone%, a career low according to the called-data, was actually in line with his averages.

This makes us turn a raised eyebrow to the umpires. A discrepancy of this sort can come from either mis-classified data (occasional problem) or umpire error (known problem).

So what does this mean for Matsui in 2012?

There are a lot of moving parts in Matsui’s data; it’s hard to tell which parts are aging (if there is any aging going on) and which parts are good old fashioned fluctuation.

If the BIS “Plate Discipline” numbers are most accurate, then Matsui was getting gamed by pitchers. If the “PITCHf/x Plate Discipline” numbers are true, then Matsui was just stretching his zone. Interestingly, this is kind of what happened when Pat Burrell became a full-time DH — and it’s even mildly similar to Adam Dunn last year after going DH.

Either way, the problem appears to come from his spiked O-Swing rate — a rate that tends to be rather stable.

Last year, Matsui earned $4.25M with the Athletics. The year before, with the Angels, he earned $6M. If that depreciation continues (and it should, if anything, increase its pace), then Matsui would be in the market for a $2.5M, 1-yr contract.

If I’m a team looking for a cheap DH, my first target might not be Matsui, but he might be my second. Because, despite all the curious signs and troubling data, at that price, and given how difficult it is find a capable DH, it’s worth trying to find out if there’s a little more Godzilla left in his bat.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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