Classic Yankees: Hideki Matsui

In a week when the Yankees unexpectedly picked up one Japanese superstar player, another Japanese superstar player who once played for the Yankees was designated for assignment and could see his career officially ending. This past winter, Hideki Matsui, affectionately known as “Godzilla,” was searching for a job. He didn’t find one until late this spring with Tampa Bay, and after a horrible near-100 at bats, it appears that his career, at age 38, is over. He was designated for assignment a few days before I started to write this “Classic Yankees” piece.

If the Hall of Fame counted one’s stats in Japan before coming to play major league baseball, and combined the statistics, then Matsui would be a Hall-of-Famer, for between the two, he has over 500 HR.  (Using the same comparison, Ichiro Suzuki, the new Yankee, who is a Hall of Famer with over 2500 MLB hits alone, would have over 3800 hits right now). From 1993-2002 Matsui played in the Japanese “major leagues.”   He won three MVP awards in the Japanese “Central League,” in years 1996, 2000 and 2002 (Wikipedia). His teams won four pennants and three Japanese World Series titles (1994, 2000 and 2002).

 From Wikipedia: He (Matsui) also made nine consecutive all-star games and led the league in home runs and RBIs three times (1998, 2000, and 2002). His single season mark for home runs was 50 in 2002, his final season in Japan. In the ten seasons he played in Japan, Matsui totaled 1268 games played, 4572 AB, 1390 hits, 901 runs, 332 home runs, 889 RBIs, a .304 batting average, and a .582 slugging percentage. His streak of 1,250 consecutive games played was the second longest in Japan.

In 2003, Matsui joined the New York Yankees. In his first MLB at bat, Matsui got an RBI single. In his first game at Yankee Stadium, he hit a grand slam, becoming the first Yankee rookie to hit a grand slam in his first game at the Stadium. The much-heralded rookie hit .287-16-106, OPS+ 109, while being an All-Star and finishing second in the ROY balloting. Frankly, he was ripped off in that very close voting (88 to 84).

Some sportswriters didn’t consider Matsui a true rookie. Two left him off their ballots completely due to Matsui’s age (he turned 29 in the middle of that season) and prior Japanese experience. Fair enough, but that didn’t stop either of the two from voting the Rookie of the Year award to Kaz Sasaki in 2000 or Ichiro in 2001. I wonder if these writers would have excluded Jackie Robinson in 1947 (after all, Jackie, the first winner of the ROY award, was 28 and had Negro Leagues experience) or Satchel Paige in 1948 (Satch didn’t win, but was 42 with plenty of Negro League experience).  Angel Berroa, who did win the award, never approached his ROY year again (and actually played in 21 games for the 2009 Yankees, going 3 for 22), but Matsui continued being productive.

Matsui continued his success into the postseason. In the division series vs. the Twins, he was 4 for 15 (.267), 1 HR and 3 RBI. He was 8 for 26 (.308), 3 doubles and 4 RBI vs. Boston in the ALCS, with his biggest hit coming in the midst of the Yanks Game Seven eighth-inning three-run game-tying comeback. His one-out ground-rule double with the Yanks down 5-3 put men on second and third and set the table for Jorge Posada’s game-tying double.

In the WS, Matsui became the first player from Japan to hit a WS HR when he did so in Game 2. He was 6 for 23 (.261) with a HR and 4 RBI in that WS.

Matsui was an All-Star again in 2004 (his second and last time), when he hit his MLB career-high of 31 HR. He hit .298, drove in 108 runs and had an OPS+ of 137—also his MLB career-high—that year. He finished 24th in the MVP balloting. He then had a torrid postseason.

Against the Twins in the ALDS, Godzilla went 7 for 17 (.412), a HR and 3 RBI. He then proceeded to tear apart the Red Sox, and in my opinion would have won the ALCS MVP award if not for the Yankees collapsing and blowing a three games to none series lead. In Game One, Matsui went 3 for 5 and drove in 5 runs. He had two doubles. In Game Two, he was just 1 for 4, but in Game Three he was 5 for 6, two homers, two doubles and once again drove in 5 runs. With the Yanks up three games to none, Matsui was 9 for 15 with 10 RBI in just three games. After that, the Yanks collapsed. Matsui wasn’t terrible over those four games, going 5 for 19, but he didn’t have any more RBI. For the series, Matsui was 14 for 34 (.412) with 6 doubles, a triple, 2 HR and 10 RBI. Lost in the Boston comeback was the great series Matsui had.

In 2005, Matsui finished 14th in the MVP balloting after a .305-23-116 season. This season marked his career highs in BA and RBI. His OPS+ was a 130. He was 4 for 20 (.200), with 1 HR and 1 RBI in the ALDS.

In those years, 2003-2005, Matsui led the majors each year in games played, never missing a game while playing mostly LF. He did play a little CF, RF and DH in that time.

In May 2006, Matsui’s consecutive game streak, which at that time was up to 1768 (including his years in Japan), came to an end when he fractured his wrist in trying to make a diving catch in a home game versus Boston. Somehow, while in obvious pain, Matsui was able to lob the ball back to the infield before grabbing his wrist. The injury cost Matsui 2/3 of the season. He hit .302-8-29 in the limited time he played that year, OPS+ 128. He was 4 for 16 (.250) with one RBI in the postseason.

After the injury, Matsui showed his true class. He actually apologized to his teammates and fans for letting them down. It was something he didn’t have to do. He didn’t injure himself doing something stupid by punching the dugout wall or maybe by getting into a drunken fight with someone at a bar. He injured himself by hustling in the course of a ballgame. It was an example of the class that Matsui showed throughout his career; class that made him beloved by his teammates and the fans who watched him.

Matsui was his old self in 2007, hitting .285-25-103, OPS+ 123. He was just 2 for 11 in the playoffs (.182) with no RBI.

Matsui’s knees started to be a problem at this time, and he missed 60 or so games in 2008 because of it. His numbers dropped to .294-9-45, OPS+ 108. The decision was made to get him out of the outfield for 2009.

Matsui’s contract was up after 2009, and the general consensus was that he wouldn’t be re-signed, because of his defensive limitations. He didn’t play one inning in the field in 2009.

He hit .274-28-90, OPS+ 123, and once again showed how clutch he was, especially in the postseason. In the ALDS, he was just 2 for 9 (.222) but had a HR and 2 RBI. He went 5 for 21 (.238) with 3 RBI vs. the Angels in the ALCS.

But then came the WS and the last games Matsui would ever play in as a Yankee. He went 1 for 3 in Game One. But in the bottom of the sixth in Game Two, in a game the Yankees had to win to even up the Series before heading down to Philadelphia, Matsui  broke a 1-1 tie with a solo HR. The Yanks won the game 3-1, Matsui going 2 for 3, a walk, and that RBI.

He was just heating up.

The next three games were in Philadelphia, meaning no DH. Matsui had to sit on the bench. Nonetheless, Matsui PH in the top of the 8th of Game Three with the Yanks leading 7-4, and he hit a HR to put them up 8-4 in a game they would win 8-5.

He pinch-hit and made an out in Game Four, and got a pinch-hit single in Game Five.

Then came his last game as a Yankee, which was Game Six of the 2009 WS at Yankee Stadium. Matsui led the Yankees to the World Championship with a six-RBI night, tying the record held by Bobby Richardson and since tied by Albert Pujols. He had a two-run HR in the bottom of the second, his second HR off of Pedro Martinez in the Series, a bases-loaded single for two more runs in the third inning, and a two-run double in the fifth. Matsui was 3 for 4 with 6 RBI in a game the Yanks won 7-3. He personally destroyed the Phils.

Matsui was named the MVP of the 2009 World Series after hitting 8 for 13 (.615), 3 HR and 8 RBI.

He went to the Angels, and wouldn’t you know it, the Angels were the Yanks’ opponents for the Yanks’ home Opener of the 2010 season. After the Yankees got their rings, Matsui, now an Angel, was introduced so that he could get his ring. The reception by the fans and his ex-teammates was heartwarming. His ex-teammates mobbed him (and played a trick on him by substituting a fake ring for the real one…they gave him the real one a few minutes later), and the love shown for him was genuine.

Matsui hit .274-21-84 for the 2010 Angels, OPS+ 126. It would be his last great season.

Matsui went to the A’s for 2011, hitting .251-12-72, OPS+ dropping to 93.

He had trouble finding work for 2012, and when the season started, he was without a job. Finally the Tampa Bay Rays signed him and Matsui joined the Rays after some rehab and conditioning games in the minors.  However once he was called up, he only hit .147-2-7, OPS+ 24 in 95 MLB at bats before being DFA’d.

So it appears as if the career of Godzilla is over. If so, his MLB career ends with a .282 lifetime batting average, 175 HR and an OPS+ of 118. His 162 game average is .282-23-100.

He won’t make the Hall, unless they consider his Japanese achievements, which, as I stated, put him over 500 HR between Japan and the majors.

Matsui, who wore #55, was a clutch hitter, as shown in various postseasons. In 56 postseason games, he hit .312 with 10 HR and 39 RBI.

I don’t know if Matsui will stay in baseball in some capacity, and I don’t know whether it would be here in the United States or in Japan. I do know that Matsui is beloved, both my myself and by other Yankees fans for his talent, his clutch play, and for his class in how he represented himself and the organization. He was one of Derek Jeter’s favorite teammates and anyone can understand why. I believe that other fans will agree with me that we hope to see Godzilla at many Yankees Old-Timer’s Days in the future.

The reception he will receive will be loud, warm, and genuine.

Matsui turned 38 this past June.

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3 Responses to Classic Yankees: Hideki Matsui

  1. Fred says:

    I always enjoy these Classic Yankees articles, but this is definitely one of my favorites. To me, Matsui defines what it means to be a Yankee with his play, his postseason triumphs, and classy behavior on and off the field. He's the guy I'm going to tell my kids about, just an absolute pleasure to watch.

    I'll never forget him going out from the Yankees by tying the WS record for RBIs and lifting the WSMVP trophy. Just a great, great moment.

  2. Mike Sommer says:

    On December 27, 2012, Matsui announced his retirement.

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