The New York Yankees made their share of questionable off-season signings and trades during the decade of the 2000s, but there were a few silver linings in the dark clouds littered by the Kei Igawas and Jaret Wrights. One such bright spot was Hideki Matsui, the first Japanese-born position player to ever put on a Yankees uniform. He spent seven years as a Yankee and won his teammates and fans over with his quiet confidence and excellence that fit in perfectly with his similarly superb teammates like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. Matsui bookended his Yankee career with American League pennants, and his quest for stateside success culminated with his only championship in a terrific 2009 World Series that earned him MVP honors. His career wound down over the previous three years after the Yankees let the 35-year-old go following their 27th title, and today, Japan's Sankei Sports reported that he would announce his retirement tonight where his American career started nine years ago--New York.
It's a strange time for me, as Matsui is probably the first player I grew up with to retire from professional sports. As some of you might know, I didn't start following baseball until the '01 season, when the famous group of Jeter, Bernie, Mo, and more had already been champions in the bigs for years. I thought Alfonso Soriano might become that player to grow up with since his Rookie of the Year run was in '01 and he became a superstar in '02, but that ended when he was traded to the Texas Rangers in the Alex Rodriguez deal (a worthy blow). I liked Jason Giambi when the Yanks brought him prior to '02, but not nearly to the degree that I would like Matsui when the Yankees signed him for '03. Although Matsui had acclaimed previous professional experience, it wasn't in MLB, so he was a curious new addition to the team for me. I thought that his skills would translate from Japan to the States, and I was very happy to be correct. He always hit well and gave his all, so it was hard to get frustrated with him, even during his slumps of constant dribblers to second base. It was tough to see him go after reaching the pinnacle of his career in '09, but I understood it since he was no longer a viable outfielder (he was never great on defense anyway). I'm not going to remember those last three years bouncing around LA, Oakland, and Tampa in decline. I'll recall those happy days when he scooted around the third with the tying run in Game 7 of the '03 ALCS and his exuberance upon scoring. I'll recall the funny stories about him with his secret marriage and his infamous collection. And of course, I'll recall those memorable playoff blasts, especially in '09 against the Phils, when my sister, my future brother-in-law, and I exchanged messages of "RUN HOME DEKI" after each blast (a "Hook" reference). What a player. Literally, I suppose as well.
Matsui was a precocious young star growing up in Japan, a Seiryo High School wunderkind whose baseball talents were so well-respected that he was once intentionally walked five consecutive times at a High School Baseball Tournament (a national event that continues to be wildly popular in the baseball-crazed country). Nippon Professional Baseball's most prestigious team, the Yomiuri Giants, selected the phenom nicknamed "Godzilla" to join them. The 19-year-old struggled in his first season to a .223/.296/.451 triple slash in 57 games, but he began a Cal Ripken-like streak of consistency that would stretch to 1,250 consecutive games by the time he left Japan (second-longest in NPB history behind Sachio Kinugasa's 2,215). Matsui became internationally known when he followed up his rookie campaign with a stellar 1994. He hit .294/.368/.475 with 20 homers that helped the Giants win their 18th Japan Series title as he was named a NPB All-Star for the first of nine consecutive seasons. Since there was no MLB World Series that year due to the Player's Strike, the '94 Japan Series was broadcast on tape delay on some U.S. stations, and Sports Illustrated declared it "the World's Series." American scouts knew to keep an eye on the 20-year-old as he further developed into the top player in his league.
After a similar season to his '94 in '95 (sans championship), Matsui broke out with .314/.401/.622, 38-homer '96 campaign that earned him the first of three Central League MVP honors. Four years later, Matsui led the Giants back to the top of the league with a .316/.438/.654, 42-homer 2000 season that led to both his second MVP award and more importantly, his second Japan Series title (Matsui also won the Japan Series MVP award). The centerfielder had another strong season in '01, but it became apparent that "Godzilla" would soon depart after the incredible Major League Baseball MVP rookie season of his countryman, Ichiro Suzuki (the first Japanese-born position player in MLB history). He declined the biggest contract offer in NPB history from the Giants (six years, $64 million), then went out with a flourish in '02, making his closest run at NPB's all-time home run record of 55 set by Sadaharu Oh. The record was the reason he wore number 55 with the Giants, but he fell just a few short at a career-best 50 in his CL MVP .334/.463/.692 finale. After one more championship and an exhibition series against a U.S. team led by American slugger counterpart Barry Bonds, Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Yankees in December.
Matsui came to the Yankees with much fanfare, and many fans thought that his 332 NPB homers meant that the lefty would be become a Jason Giambi-like threat in the batting order. However, that wasn't really taking into account the smaller sizes of NPB ballparks, varying standards of the actual NPB baseball size and composition, and the lesser overall pitching talent in Japan. Regardless, Matsui turned in a hell of a rookie season in New York, and he made a splash in his first game at Yankee Stadium with a grand slam against the defending AL Central champion Minnesota Twins. He hit .299/.356/.449 with 30 doubles in the first half and his already-established popularity led to him being voted onto the AL All-Star team. Matsui continued his consistent play through the second half as the Yankees beat out the Boston Red Sox for their sixth straight AL East title and Matsui's first October appearance. A fun bonus for Matsui in '03 was that he set the Yankees' all-time record for most games played in a season when a Hurricane Isabel-shortened tie led to them playing 163 games. Since Matsui appeared in all of them to preserve his playing streak, he got the record.
The Yankees made a long run deep into October bidding for their 27th title, but despite a thrilling ALCS triumph over the Red Sox aided by Matsui's tying run and crucial ground-rule double in the memorable eighth inning of Game 7 against ace Pedro Martinez, the Yankees fell in a six-game World Series to the upstart Florida Marlins. Matsui hit .281/.347/.438 in the playoffs, and also became the first Japanese player to homer in the World Series when he slugged a three-run homer on a 3-0 pitch in the first inning of Game 2 (a lead the Yankees did not relinquish). His rookie season ended with an impressive .287/.353/.435 triple slash with 42 doubles and a 109 wRC+, but his shoddy defense in left field led to only a 1.9 rWAR and 0.2 fWAR. Many of us fans (including a 13-year-old yours truly) complained to the high-heavens when the BBWAA writers voted Kansas City Royals shortstop Angel Berroa the AL Rookie of the Year, but it looks like they got that ruling correct (or at least the Berroa over Matsui part since Indians outfielder Jody Gerut might have had an even better case than Berroa). I doubt they were thinking of the right reasons to vote for Berroa though, since I remember several cited the fact that Matsui wasn't really a rookie due to his NPB experience all while voting the similarly-experienced Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro the 2000 and 2001 AL Rookie of the Year winners only a couple years prior. Like Jim Green in the linked article, I do not give the writers credit for the choosing Berroa over Matsui since they were almost definitely not thinking of statistics like WARP3.
In his prime at age 30, Matsui turned in his best season as a big leaguer in '04. Now established as a legitimate threat in the Yankee order, he hit .298/.390/.522 with career-highs in slugging percentage, homers (31), wOBA (.389), wRC+ (140), OPS+ (137), fWAR (3.0), and rWAR (4.6) as the Yankees won the AL East. He started the season hot in his homecoming at the Opening Day series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Japan, but it took the Final Vote to get him onto his second All-Star team. Matsui was even better in his '04 postseason, demolishing Twins pitching with a .412/.476/.647 triple slash in the four-game ALDS, then continuing his onslaught against the Red Sox in the ALCS. By the time the Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the series and a 4-3 advantage into the ninth inning of Game 4, Matsui was a near-lock for ALCS MVP honors thanks to his incredible .550/.550/1.200 ALCS performance with 24 total bases to that point. Alas, some weird stuff happened that no Yankee fan wants to revisit, and the Yankees did not go to the World Series in '04. Regardless, it was the best overall season of Matsui's MLB career.
'05 was another solid season from Godzilla, who hit .305/.367/.496 with a 128 wRC+, 4.1 rWAR, 23 homers and 45 doubles, second-highest in the league. The Yankees won another AL East title, but suffered a five-game loss to the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. Pleased with his three years in the Bronx, the Yankees re-signed Matsui to a four-year, $52 million extension in November to keep him a Yankee through '09. The contract did not get off to a good start though, as his playing streak ended thanks to a gruesome wrist injury on May 11th. He had played in 518 consecutive games to start his MLB career, a record, and 1,718 straight overall, fourth-longest in global baseball history. More importantly, Matsui did not appear in a game again until September 12th. He returned with a flourish though, going 4-for-5 against the Devil Rays and hitting .396/.477/.585 in 19 games down the stretch. Unfortunately, Matsui's was one of many potent bats shut down by the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, and the nine-time defending AL East champions were eliminated in just four games. The next year was Matsui's last as a full-time outfielder, as nagging knee injuries resulting from years of playing on crappy turf surfaces in Japan emerged turned him into a near-full-time DH. It was a fine comeback season from injury (.285/.367/.488 with 25 homers and a 124 wRC+), but the Yankees needed a terrific second half to even make the playoffs as the Wild Card. In Joe Torre's final season as the team's manager, Matsui and the Yankees again suffered a four-game ALDS loss, this time to the Cleveland Indians.
Matsui missed 63 games with knee injuries in '08, and his frequent absence from the lineup between June 23rd and August 19th was one of many reasons why the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. He was fine when healthy, but it was clear that he could no longer play outfield on a full-time basis anymore. Matsui underwent knee surgery on September 22nd, and his legs would need constant attention even as the Yankees limited him to exclusive DH duty in '09. It was another comeback season for Godzilla in the last year of his four-year deal, as he fell in love with the confines of the new Yankee Stadium, belting 28 homers with a .380 wOBA and a 127 wRC+. Charged by Matsui's renaissance and the contributions of both old guard players and new acquisitions, the Yankees returned to the top of the AL East in '09 with 103 victories, the most of any Matsui team. The Twins and Angels kept Matsui relatively quiet as the Yankees won their 40th AL pennant, but he exploded in the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and his old friend, Pedro.
The Yankees lost the first game and were tied at one in the sixth inning of the second when Matsui stepped to the plate against Pedro, now donning a different shade of red. "Godzilla" slugged a 1-2 pitch down and in toward the short porch in right field, and it sailed over the wall for a go-ahead solo shot. The Yankees won the game 3-1 and headed to Philly with the series evened up, although their DH was limited to pinch-hit duty since manager Joe Girardi decided he could not afford to risk playing Matsui in the outfield, where he had not appeared since the previous season. Matsui took it professionally, and came through with pinch hits in two of three appearances, most notably with a Game 3 pinch-hit homer off Brett Myers. The rest of the team did its job and the Yankees returned to the DH-friendly Bronx up 3-2 in the Fall Classic. Back in the lineup as DH against Pedro, Matsui personally ensured that he would be celebrating his first World Series title with a thrilling 3-for-4, six RBI performance in Game 6. He homered again off Pedro to give the Yankees the lead in the second inning, and Mariano Rivera closed out the 27th title. Matsui's .615/.643/1.385 series in 14 plate appearances deservedly made him the first Japanese-born World Series MVP.
It was a bittersweet time for Matsui in Game 6, as it was almost a certainty that he would be moving on from the Yankees after that great game. Despite Matsui's accomplishments, GM Brian Cashman understandably did not see much of a purpose for a declining DH. Matsui signed with the Angels on December 16th, officially moving on from the Yankees. Fortunately, he was at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees received their World Series rings in the home opener against the Halos, and he received a roaring ovation from the Stadium crowd when he came out of the visiting dugout to get his ring. Matsui had a good season in Anaheim despite a slight dip in power, and he appeared to be in good shape going into his '11 season now with the Oakland Athletics. This time, the now-37-year-old's hitting declined from a 126 wRC+ to a 93 and only 12 homers. He did achieve a personal milestone though, as he hit his 500th combined homer between MLB and the NPB with a shot down the right-field line in Detroit against Duane Below. It looked like Matsui was finished when no one signed him during the 2011-12 offseason, but the Rays picked him up on April 30th for one more go-around in the bigs beginning on May 29th. He had two homers in his first three games, and it was a disaster from thereon out. He was released on August 1st after just 34 games and a .147/.214/.221 showing in 103 plate appearances.
That was all she wrote for Matsui, who retires after a fine 10-year MLB career to go with his already-great 10-year NPB career. He hit .282/.360/.462 with a 119 wRC+ and 175 homers in the majors (507 overall). Matsui was almost always a great playoff performer and a consummate professional during his team as a Yankee, and he will always be fondly remembered by fans of the game. Well, maybe not Pedro, Red Sox/Phillies fans, and people bothered by his special collection, but that's quite alright. Matsui was the man, and I look forward to his hopeful future appearances at Old-Timer's Games.