It’s that time of year again—Hall of Fame election season. I don’t know what compels baseball fans to put such an emphasis on something fans of different sports could not care less about, but the history of baseball means just as much as the present. Baseball is nostalgia, and that generates future interest to create new memories.
There are a lot of names of merit, and I’m sure we’ll spend time talking about all of them. Of course there will be a ton of discussion regarding the nature of performance-enhancing drugs and the Hall of Fame, and who deserves to be included and excluded. There will also be talk of those who will be cut because of the ballot limit, and talk of who will get in through the Veterans Committee. There’s one player who probably won’t get that much attention and deserves more—Hideki Matsui.
Matsui’s major league career was nothing spectacular or even out of the ordinary for a player in the mid-2000’s; he was a poor defensive corner outfielder with a great bat, one good for a collective 119 wRC+ over 5066 major league plate appearances. What distinguishes him from just another pedestrian slugger was that he had one of the best international careers in the sport’s history.
When Matsui came stateside before the 2003 season, it was actually maligned a bit in Japan. He was a behemoth of a personality, playing for Japan’s Yankees equivalent. Here’s what a Japanese reporter, Jun Ikushima, said in 2002:
"If Hideki leaves, it's a tragedy... Hideki's the best player in Japan now, and the Giants are the symbol of Japanese baseball. It's bigger than Ichiro leaving. We depend on Hideki for so much—his popularity, his dynamism—that if he goes, I can't imagine what will happen. I will feel emptiness. It will be the beginning of the destruction of Japanese baseball."
He had the numbers to prove it. I used Jim Albright, an NPB statistician who worked on Major League Equivalencies (MLE) when that type of crossover was in its infancy, as a resource. According to a Bill James-style Win Shares/Game Score model — this was an old website, when sabermetrics was new — Matsui ranked as the best active player in NPB in 2002. He also stood out as the 19th best NPB player of all time by a metric he called Excellence Points.
Albright rolled out an MLE for Matsui from 1996 to 2002, to model what he would look like when going to the United States. According to his model, here is what those seasons “would” have looked in MLB:
Considering what we know now, this actually makes sense. He was about a 25 to 30-home run hitter on the Yankees, and that’s about what the MLE says he is. If you do a little back-of-the-napkin math to measure his OPS from 1996 to 2012, combining this MLE and his actual major league numbers, it would be .856. That is about the same as the career number for George Brett, Scott Rolen, Al Kaline, and Jeff Kent.
Of course, his defense was a bit of a mystery and bordered on the dreadful later in his career. We don’t know what it looked like in Japan, but we can make an educated guess that between NPB and MLB, he was something like a 130 wRC+ over a 20-year period. That’s something like 40 WAR instead of his 21 rWAR, and that’s closer to the Hall then you’d think.
My point isn’t to argue he’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t think he is based on his stateside performance. It’s actually really close, though. When you consider his contribution to the sport, it was similar to Ichiro Suzuki in changing the attitudes of local scouts that power hitters from Asia are viable here. Overcoming that subtle racism that only pitchers and contact hitters could transition paved the way for the KBO and NPB sluggers we’re starting to see today.
It also forces you to reckon with the totality of his professional career, and appreciating that for what it was. I think that the goal of baseball shouldn’t be to bring foreign players here; if they want, let them define their greatness in their own country. Yet, when a player competes in both leagues, there comes a conundrum. What happens when each individual career does not look like a Hall of Fame career, but the sum of its parts does?
In addition, how much should the Hall of Fame try to incorporate foreign players even if their stateside careers don’t stack up? I’d argue that Matsui leans on the side of NPB Hall of Fame but not MLB Hall of Fame. Considering his legacy, however, forces you into the frame of mind that one day there will be more players like that in the future.
Matsui finished his career with 508 professional home runs, defined the sport in one country, and then found success in another. It’s also important that he won a World Series, and he was one of the great clutch hitters of the last era. He was a 128 wRC+ hitter in high leverage situations, and that jumps to a 143 wRC+ in the postseason. He won’t get the love he deserves, but this column is a start. Baseball isn’t just what happens in the fifty states, and when considering the history of the sport worldwide, Matsui is right around that inner circle.