The 2002 New York Yankees won 103 games. They were good at baseball. But that year marked the first time since 1997 that the team didn’t advance to the World Series, as they fell to the Anaheim Angels in a brutal four-game ALDS. Those were the post-dynasty Yanks, without Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, or Chuck Knoblauch.
Besides Bernie Williams, that Yankees team had Raul Mondesí and Rondell White as starting outfielders — the former had a 96 wRC+ with the team in 71 games, and the latter slumped all the way to a 76 wRC+ in 494 plate appearances. After an early postseason exit, The Boss, George Steinbrenner, wanted to make a statement.
By then, Hideki Matsui was an established star in Japan. He had played in the Central League for 10 seasons, won the MVP award three times, and slashed .304/.413/.583 with a .996 OPS there. His nickname, “Godzilla,” was on par with the fear he instilled on opposing team’s pitchers. He rejected a more lucrative offer from his team, the Yomiuri Giants, and signed a multi-year pact with the Bombers.
Contract details: Signed to three-year, $21 million contract
Transaction Date: December 19th, 2002
NYY stats during first contract (2003-05): 487 G, .297/.370/.484, 121 2B, 70 HR, 330 RBI, 125 OPS+, 11.7 rWAR, 2-time All-Star
“I was nervous for a while because it hadn’t been decided what team I would play for,’’ Matsui said back then at a news conference in Tokyo, per a ESPN report. “Now, I’m relieved and ready to give my best.”
“The Yankees have a great baseball tradition and great players. It’s the ballclub that would most challenge me. That’s where I wanted to show my abilities.’’
Current general manager Brian Cashman also had some words about the signing:
“The Yankees are very fortunate to come to an understanding with one of the world’s premier players. This demonstrates our organization’s commitment to identify and secure talent on a global scale.”
In 2003, Matsui became the first Japanese player on the Yankees since Hideki Irabu played with the Bombers between 1997-99. And it’s safe to say that, while he wasn’t quite as dominant in the States, Matsui was a much better signing than Irabu.
Matsui had a solid debut season in 2003, even if it wasn’t quite the 50 homers he hit with Yomiuri in 2002. He crushed a grand slam in his Yankee Stadium debut before slashing .287/.353/.435 with 16 bombs, 106 RBI, and a 109 wRC+ in an all-time franchise-best 163 games (a tie created an extra game). Although the BBWAA granted Rookie of the Year honors to both Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro in 2000 and 2001, this time, enough voters held Matsui’s NPB experience against him to prevent him from winning the award — instead, it went to Angel Berroa of the Royals.
In Matsui’s October debut, he played just as well, batting .281/.347/.438 in 17 games as the Yankees won the AL pennant before falling short against the Marlins in the World Series. Matsui still made history though, becoming the first Japanese player to go deep in the Fall Classic.
Matsui was much better in 2004, with a .298/.390/.522 line, 31 home runs, 109 runs, 108 RBI, and a 140 wRC+, good for his second straight All-Star season. He was red-hot in the playoffs too, OPSing 1.465 in his first seven games and was well on his way to ALCS MVP honors before, well, other unfortunate events transpired.
During Matsui’s first three seasons in the Bronx, he appeared in every single game, maintaining his reputation as a durable player. Matsui actually played 518 straight and 1,768 combined with his NPB streak before a 2006 injury ended it.
There was a clause that said the Yankees needed to re-sign Matsui before November 15th, 2005, or he would become a free agent. After he recorded another strong campaign in an AL East-winning season, they did just that (barely beating the deadline) and agreed to extend the slugger’s stay in New York for four more years and $52 million.
Matsui remained a valuable piece of the Yankees’ lineup until 2009, his last campaign in New York. He hit .274/.367/.509 with 28 homers and a 127 wRC+ during the regular season, and was a key cog for that year’s championship team by winning the World Series MVP.
Matsui’s lousy defense held his fWAR output back, which finished at 13.3 over 10 seasons with the Yankees, the Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Tampa Bay Rays. Overall, however, he was a very good hitter with a 20-homer floor and plenty of doubles power. His ability to get on base (career .360 OBP in the majors) and avoid strikeouts were both underrated, too. Fans remember him with a smile, and that’s all that matters: “Godzilla” had a hell of a career, and is loved and respected all around baseball, especially in New York.