Darrin Jackson on a Young Kaz Matsui

Kaz Matsui’s big-league career was fairly unremarkable. From 2004-2010, he logged a .701 OPS, and compiled 5.4 WAR, playing second base and shortstop for the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies, and Houston Astros. His best season came in 2007, when he was the starting second baseman on the “Rocktober” Rockies.

That season, he was worth 2.7 WAR, and formed an incredible double-play combination with a rookie across the second-base bag by the name of Troy Tulowitzki. While Matsui was never much of a hitter in MLB — NPB was another story — no self-respecting Rockies fan will ever forget his Game 2 performance in the 2007 NLDS, when he came a single shy of the cycle; his fourth-inning home run was the biggest play of that game, and kept the Rockies’ famous run chugging along.

Kaz Matsui’s best season stateside came with the 2007 Colorado Rockies. (Photo: Onetwo1)

Matsui’s seven American seasons were bookended by stints in his homeland, where he’s starred for the Seibu Lions (1995-2003) and Rakuten Golden Eagles (2011-2017). Yes, Matsui — now 41 years old — is still active.

Darrin Jackson knew him when he was just breaking into NPB. The Chicago White Sox broadcaster — at the time a veteran of nine MLB seasons — spent 1995 and 1996 in Japan, as Matsui’s teammate. To say he was impressed with the switch-hitting infielder’s raw talent would be an understatement.

I recently asked Jackson if he could share his memories of Matsui. Here is what he had to say.

Darrin Jackson: “I can tell you a couple of things about a young Kaz Matsui. First of all, he was 19 years old when I got there. He had an unbelievable arm. He was also just learning how to switch-hit. He’d only batted right-handed, and they were teaching him how to bat left-handed.

“Every day, for his training, the coaches would be out there by the mound with a basket of balls. They put padding on his right side — his legs, his hips, his shoulder. They would wrap him up, and he’d stand there in the left-hander’s batter’s box. They’d throw balls at him, literally at him, and have him turn into them, turn into them, turn into them. They were getting him used to having balls come at him — seeing the balls that way, and not flying open. They put padding on him to teach him how to stay on the ball, hitting left-handed. I thought that was amazing. And there was more.

“Every day, they would roll out a shopping cart of baseballs. A shopping cart — that’s maybe 500 baseballs. They would unload that basket, hitting him ground balls at shortstop. Again, every day. They felt you had to train more and more. I used to look at him and think, ‘They’re going to kill him. He’s playing tonight.’

“It didn’t faze him. The kid was so strong. Kaz Matsui, in every aspect of strength and conditioning, speed training… he blew everybody away. Everybody. He was the best athlete out there. Period.

“One day, he and I were running before a game, getting loose — our pre-game sprints, right? Kaz was standing there next to me, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Boom! We take off. I’m running as hard as I can, and he’s in front, looking over his shoulder back at me. That tells me was basically jogging. I was like, ‘Kid, don’t ever (bleeping) do that again!’ He was embarrassing the old man, and I wasn’t even an old man. I was 31 years old, and at the time, still a really good athlete. He was 19, and a far superior athlete.

“He had an arm like Ichiro, if not better. If the ball was hit out to right-center field… he was the cutoff man, no matter what. I would go get the ball, turn around to throw it to him, and he’d be waaay out in the outfield. They told him to be there. They told me to just throw it to him, and he’d throw it home, because his arm is so strong. Well, if he’s 50 feet away from me, I’m not throwing it to him.

“I told them, ‘Tell him to move back toward the infield, because I’m throwing it over his head. My arm isn’t that bad, and you’re making me look bad. Let him show off his arm from another distance.’ Of course, he’d do what the coaches told him to do, so the coaches and I would get into it a little bit about where he needed to be. They moved him back a little bit.

“So, Kaz Matsui had the best arm, he was the fastest, he could hit — he could line rockets everywhere. Eventually, he learned to hit for power, too. From that perspective, I was surprised he didn’t succeed over here.

“When he came to the United States, he was (28) and had become a big star in Japan. There was a lot of pressure on him. Not only that, of anybody who was a teammate of mine over there, he was the last guy I would have expected to come to the United States to play. He was very shy, a very quiet kid. Now, I know he was only 19, and that he was minding his place, but he also didn’t like to try to speak English. He was embarrassed to try to speak English. He was not outgoing in that way.

“Because he had become a star, and other Japanese players were coming to the United States, the natural evolution for him was to come over as well. But I don’t think he could handle the actual pressure. That was not his makeup. I think that’s why he didn’t succeed over here.”

We hoped you liked reading Darrin Jackson on a Young Kaz Matsui by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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London Yank
Member
London Yank

If I recall correctly, the Mets originally tried Matsui at shortstop but had to move him to second base because they didn’t think he had the arm for the position. Jackson’s perspective is very interesting because it doesn’t sound like the Kaz Matsui we got to see in MLB at all.

Blastings! Thrilledge
Member

They also had a guy named Jose Reyes. But yea, this Kazuo does not sound like the one who played in the MLB.

London Yank
Member
London Yank

Yeah, but they initially moved Reyes off short to accommodate Matsui. That is how good they expected Matsui to be when they signed him.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
Member
Roger McDowell Hot Foot

It wasn’t just the arm, it was the range and how he fielded the position. He was always running around balls to his right, staying back on grounders, he couldn’t barehand the ball, he just never looked like a major-league shortstop. It quickly seemed bizarre that they chose to move Reyes for him — must’ve been because they heard too many stories like this.

Double J
Member

I also remember Reyes looking lost at 2nd, and since he was the home-grown team savior, the Mets figured the veteran Matsui could adjust. I don’t remember how good David Wright’s arm was back in 2004, but I wonder if the Mets could have moved Matsui to 3rd, Wright at 1st with Reyes at SS.

Also I think Kaz Matsui had the added pressure of being in NY a year after Hideki Matsui was an all-star and RoY runner-up.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
Member
Roger McDowell Hot Foot

The organization was also in the process of “tinkering” with Reyes in other weird ways, like having him adopt a whole new running gait, to try to keep his legs healthy. It wasn’t a great moment for the Mets in terms of getting out of their own way. Matsui always seemed to have a great sense of fun and occasion — those Opening Day home runs! — but the club didn’t know what to do with him, and the club and the press did him no favors by billing him as a superstar who wouldn’t need any minor-league time or MLB adjustment period. If he’d gotten the low-expectation, move-slow handling of, say, Jung-Ho Kang, I think he might’ve done better.