There were plenty of reasons for skepticism when Hideki Matsui made the jump from Japan to the Major Leagues a decade ago. Matsui seemed to be the latest in a line of non-Ichiro Suzuki Japanese players doomed to fail when it came to living up to the expectations set for him. As baseball fans, it was already getting easy for us to dismiss hitters coming from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), as they had never really found a way to translate their skill sets even as successfully as some pitchers making the transition had (Hideo Nomocomes to mind).
Fortunately for both Matsui and the Yankees, who were willing to take a chance on the player holding up well in the United States, things turned out about as well as anyone could have expected. In the wake of the recent news that the 38-year-old outfielder and designated hitter is hanging up his cleats for good, it’s worth remembering the many things Matsui did well that others before and after him never managed to accomplish. Even the legendary Ichiro never found a way to put up the surprisingly solid power numbers he did in Japan, but this wasn’t the case for Matsui. Armed with a sweeping left-handed swing and a compact stance, Matsui’s home run power far from disappeared when he reached the Yankees.
The transition wasn’t immediately successful for Matsui, as his first season in a Yankee uniform featured a pedestrian .287/.353/.435 line that didn’t pair well with his ineptitude in the outfield. Despite hitting 16 home runs and providing surface stat fans with 106 RBI to salivate over, Matsui’s first season amounted to nothing more than 0.2 WAR per FanGraphs thanks to limited initial power and an iron glove. Things got better right away at the plate for Matsui, as he enjoyed his best overall season on his second attempt. Matsui hit a robust .298/.390/.522 with 31 homers, and he was worth 3.0 WAR in spite of his continually bad defensive work.
That second season marked an important change in Matsui’s American game, as he was becoming increasingly patient at the dish. While the outfielder’s 9.1% walk rate in his debut season was nothing to sneeze at, he worked hard to boost that number to 12.9% in 2004. The trend would stick for Matsui, as he went on to clear the 11% mark four more times in the next six seasons. An improved approach led to improved results, as Matsui posted a .369 wOBA in 2005, pounded the ball when healthy in 2006 (.302/.393/.494 in 201 PA), and bashed 28 home runs in 2009.
The 2009 season was the last one in which Matsui was truly effective without having to really qualify his performance. After departing to the Angels in 2010 when the Yankees needed to go another direction, Matsui took on a DH role that he performed admirably enough in thanks to a 12% walk rate, but he once again found himself without a team when the season ended. Stints with the Athletics and Rays in 2011 and 2012 proved fruitless, and Matsui has now announced his retirement gracefully.
There’s no way Hideki Matsui ends up with his image enshrined in Cooperstown or anything that extravagant, but that doesn’t mean his accomplishments aren’t worth remembering. All in all, the Japanese slugger finished his career with a respectable .282/.360/.462 line, a .357 wOBA, and 175 career long balls. That’s miles better than his fellow NPB stars managed in terms of translated power, and that counts for something. Let’s hope Matsui’s success inspires more Japanese sluggers to employ his patient approach and join our favorite Major League teams with the same degree of value.