March 23, 2004
The View from Florida
What we believe about the level of play in the Japanese professional leagues may have changed more in the past five years than any other commonly accepted wisdom in the game. Thanks to a remarkable rookie season by Ichiro Suzuki, and the moderately successful first year enjoyed by Hideki Matsui, the stigma against hitters from Japan has largely been erased.
The New York Mets became the most recent team to invest heavily in this market, giving Kazuo Matsui a three-year, $20 million contract to lure him to Queens. However, no one is really quite sure what to expect from the Mets' new shortstop, and even general manager Jim Duquette referred to the signing as a "calculated risk." That is not the usual propaganda being thrown about at press conferences, and serves to illustrate that some of the concern about the move from Japan to MLB still lingers, even in the minds of those with millions invested in a player's success.
Matsui's impressive career across the Pacific has people comparing him to Barry Larkin in his prime, and there is no doubt that he had a phenomenal season in 2002, and a pretty good one in 2003. According to Clay Davenport's translations--Clay wrote an in-depth essay on translations ranging from Japan to the Mexican leagues in BP 2004--Matsui posted a line equivalent to a .291 EqA in 2002, putting him near Derek Jeter offensively among shortstops, clearly among the best in the game. He slipped to .267 last year, approximately the same production Angel Berroa gave the Royals in his debut season. PECOTA pegs Matsui as a rebound candidate in 2004, projecting a weighted-mean EqA of .279 with a VORP of 39.0, again putting him in the upper tier of major league shortstops. However, a significantly large portion of his value is tied directly to his power, and the translation of power numbers from Japan to MLB may be the area we know the least about.
After watching the other Matsui lose 34 home runs and 257 points off his slugging percentage between his 2002 and 2003 seasons, questions about how much power the Mets can expect from "Little Matsui" appear legitimate. At 5'8" and 183 pounds, he isn't a picturesque slugger with a chiseled frame, and would need to maximize his swing mechanics to create the necessary power to continue driving the ball over the wall. After watching him take several hundred swings over a two-day period last week, I struggle to see him maintaining his power against major league pitchers.
The main obstacle to overcome will be balance at the plate. Matsui, like Ichiro, tends to transfer his weight forward far earlier than most major league hitters. By the time the bat catches up to his body, he's leaning forward on his front foot, and has eliminated the power that comes from the lower half of the body on contact. His wrists are quick enough to get the bat through the zone and his bat speed still allows him to pull the ball. However, with the weight already leading him toward the mound, he compensates by swinging down on the ball, creating a large number of worm-burning grounders and low line drives.
Occasionally, he keeps his weight back in a more orthodox approach, but adds an uppercut loop to his swing, ostensibly to create more power. Whether this is something the Mets have been working with him on or something he brought from Japan, it does not look natural, and it creates a hole in his swing that can easily be exploited by good breaking balls down in the zone. It is clear that he prefers his hack-and-slash method that improves bat control but robs him of any real power. Hideki Matsui's lofty GB/FB ratio after coming over from Japan billed as a power hitter overseas make you wonder if there are unique instruction methods in play in Japan, if Japanese hitters adapt to North American baseball in similar ways, or if we're dealing with a small sample-size fluke. Kazuo should provide another data point to look at.
Not all is bad when it comes to KazMat's hitting abilities, and I was impressed by his ability to cover the plate. Despite a tendency to guess on some pitches, clearly deciding to swing before the ball was out of the pitcher's hand, he has the flexibility to adjust and go the other way. Facing all-castoff first-team starter Tanyon Sturtze, he was provided a steady diet of pitches down in the zone that he could not pull. He managed to inside-out the ball and push it foul several times, causing Sturtze to come with a fastball a tee-ball player could love. The result was predictable, if not attractive, as Matsui knocked a gale-force wind-aided home run to left field. At a park not playing like a wind tunnel, it would have been a 270-foot F-7 on the scorecard, but his ability to adjust until he got a hittable pitch was impressive.
He also has good bat speed and a decent idea of the strike zone. While it's impossible to say with certainty what caused the high strikeout totals in Japan, I would speculate that it has more to do with his willingness to guess at a particular pitch than any inability to discern ball from strike. When he goes into a pitch with an open mind, for the most part, he comes out OK. The hope is that good coaching and some early-season struggles may convince him that guessing is not the way to approach major league pitching.
His best assets are still his legs, and he runs a legitimate 3.9 seconds from home to first. Anything in the gap has a chance to be an extra-base hit, and if it gets past an outfielder, a triple is a good bet. He makes enough hard contact that it is reasonable to expect a solid total in the doubles and triples department, though that will be as much a factor of his legs as his abilities with the bat. While I've spent the past few hundred words discussing the problems with Matsui's approach as it relates to home run power, there is a significant difference between him and a truly limited slap-hitter like Luis Castillo.
The Mets seem to have recognized that Matsui's strength is not going to be the three-run homer, as they handed him the leadoff spot in the order. Despite his prodigious home run totals in Japan, he has the appearance of a Johnny Damon-like hitter, able to slash enough extra-base hits to be useful while playing a premium defensive position, but not someone you think of as any kind of slugger. Whether the Mets get their $20 million worth out of him the next three years will depend more on how well he adapts to using his strengths as a force at the top of the lineup--getting on base for those truly able to send the ball into a distant area code--as well as any potential Ichiro-like dollars he might lure in off-field benefits for the Mets.
Matsui has the skills to be an asset for the Mets, but likely not in the same way most fans imagined after looking at his numbers from Japan. Those expecting Miguel Tejada will be disappointed. However, when all is said and done, there is nothing wrong with having Rafael Furcal, either.
David Cameron spent enough time in minor league ballparks last year that the South Atlantic League claimed him as a dependant on their tax returns. He can be reached at email@example.com.