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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #56 Hideki Matsui

Godzilla won over fans early, and ended his tenure as a World Series hero.

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Japan All-Star Series: Workout Day

Name: Hideki Matsui
Position: Left field/Designated hitter
Born: June 12, 1974 (Neagari, Ishikawa, Japan)
Yankee Years: 2003-09
Primary number: 55
Yankee statistics: 916 G, 3820 PA, .292/.370/.482, 196 2B, 11 3B, 140 HR, 119 wRC+, 20.4 rWAR, 13.3 fWAR

Biography

There’s skepticism in today’s MLB about international players crossing over stateside, much less 20 years ago. The information we had about leagues like NPB was just so lacking, it was easy to be swayed one way or another by any one report. Being nicknamed Godzilla would sure help build the American hype, though, and on top of a great callsign Hideki Matsui did everything right in his early Yankee days. In his MLB debut in Toronto, Matsui drove in a run in his very first at-bat, and in his first game in the Bronx, he introduced himself to the hometown faithful in the biggest way.

Of course Godzilla bookended his Yankee years with that debut and a World Series MVP, and is still helping the Yankees win, reportedly aiding in the current push for NPB ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The Natural

Matsui’s dominance was identified early, in the baseball-mad 1970s of his native Japan. As national icon Sadaharu Oh was approaching his all-time records in Yomiuri, Matsui, a natural right-hander, was so outhitting his brothers and friends in sandlot baseball they asked him to start batting left-handed. In his final year of high school, at Japan’s national high school championship, Matsui was intentionally walked five consecutive times, becoming a national name overnight.

A first round pick of Oh’s own Yomiuri Giants, Hideki received his No. 55, which he would wear for his entire career save a brief stint with the Rays almost 20 years later. Not only was Matsui now on Oh’s former squad, his back was emblazoned with the NPB home run king’s single season record. Expectations were high for the outfielder, to put it lightly.

His rookie campaign for the Giants was a little bit of a disappointment, albeit one with a healthy caveat given Matsui was eight years younger than the average NPB ballplayer. A sub-.300 OBP would be the low point of his career again save for the very end, and while the 1993 season was the first time whispers of “Godzilla” began to swirl around the youngster, it wasn’t initially meant as a compliment.

Like most teenagers, Matsui’s complexion wasn’t the smoothest, with the nickname originally meant to compare Hideki’s acne to the king lizard’s skin texture. Two seasons of offensive improvement would begin to distance critiques of the phenom’s blemishes, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Matsui truly broke out, with an OPS north of 1.000 and 38 home runs, capturing his first of three NPB MVPs. Much more like a monster killer death lizard now.

BASEBALL-JAN-US-MATSUI Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

From that year on he would simply be one of the greatest hitters in NPB history, topping 1.000 OPS four more times, and making one great chase of Oh’s 55 home run record in his final year. Oh, managing in NPB, famously threatened pitchers with fines of $1,000 per strike for every strike thrown to a foreign-born player approaching his magical 55, and the 2002 home run chase between Matsui and Venezuelan Alex Cabrera was as heated as the famed 1998 MLB race.

By then, Oh had supposedly rescinded the historical order to pitch around foreign challengers, but his staff avoided Cabrera of their own accord, giving Matsui an opening down the stretch. Godzilla fell just short, with an even 50 long balls, his third MVP, and third Japan Series championship. Having conquered all there was in NPB, Matsui turned his attention to the States.

The Splash

As the 1990s dynasty began to wane, there was added pressure on the Yankees directly from ownership to continue the seeming perpetual winning machine into the new millennium. After the final title in 2000, Mike Mussina came to town to form a co-ace combo with Roger Clemens. Following the heartbreak of 2001, Jason Giambi switched coasts and ran up a 1.034 OPS in his debut campaign.

2002 was, on a relative basis, a failure as the team was dumped in the ALDS, ending their streak of four straight World Series appearances. In true Steinbrennian fashion, it was time to bring in an international phenom. It was also my first exposure to Matsui, with his followthrough stark on the cover of SI Kids in my elementary school library.

New York Yankees’ outfielder Hideki Matsui runs to Photo credit should read J.P. MOCZULSKI/AFP via Getty Images

We talked above about how Godzilla had about as strong a debut for the Yankees as any newcomer could, but as the season wore on we didn’t quite see the legendary power you’d think a man named after a death lizard would have. All players need to adjust for the MLB level, and while Matsui batted .287, he registered just a .148 ISO, almost 30 points lower than his previous NPB lowest.

Voted a starter on the AL All-Star team and the runner-up in the Rookie of the Year race, Matsui was still widely regarded by those covering and watching the game. This despite leading the league in outfield errors — perhaps proof positive that we shouldn’t care about outfield defense when you have a left-handed slugger at Yankee Stadium.

Eerily, Hideki’s first taste of the MLB postseason was a virtual mirror to his regular season output. Slashing .287/.353/.435 across 163 games in 2003, he matched with a .281/.347/.438 line in 17 October contests, including making a little bit of history for Japan’s greatest MLB star:

The “Depth Piece”

Those 2000s era Yankees teams were a funny group. You were never going to be THE star, that was always Derek Jeter’s spot. Once Alex Rodriguez came over — add another to the list of Steinbrenner moves to keep the perpetual motion machine going — you were never going to command the headlines in the same way. No matter how good you were, if you weren’t part of those four World Series championship teams, it was going to be really hard to be beloved.

Thus, despite a successful debut season, Hideki Matsui was already the fourth- or fifth-most talked about member of the team. Maybe after all those years in the white-hot spotlight of Japan, that was exactly what Godzilla needed. All those adjustments had been made, and Matsui went off in his best season of his MLB career. 31 home runs and a 140 wRC+ made him the best depth bat in the sport, while he appeared in every game that season yet again.

A-Rod was better on total value because he played a strong third base and Matsui was, at best, an aspirational outfielder. Despite that, Matsui outhit the reigning AL MVP in his first season in the Bronx, and the Japanese star even became a source of inspiration for Alex, who yearned to be able to find the stoicism and emotional control that Matsui and captain Jeter had made trademarks.

The less said about the 2004 postseason the better, but if we grade Yankees on their postseason success, maybe Matsui should be higher on this list. A 1.221 OPS in the 2004 playoffs came off the back of a 7-for-17 ALDS and 14-for-34 with a pair of home runs in that dark, dark ALCS, and two of the team’s five total hits in the fateful Game 7. The player who was never part of the dynasty was the team’s best hitter in the dynasty’s twilight.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Matsui actually needed a day off. His ironman streak to begin his career included a game played twice, making him the only Yankee to ever be credited with 163 games played in a season. This came on the heels of 1,250 consecutive games in NPB, a record that stands to this day. If the best ability is availability, once again maybe we should think about Godzilla’s ranking in this whole thing.

By 2006 Matsui was on the other side of 30, and never was a great fielder. You could never fault his hustle, although the season may have worked out better for him if he had just fielded this on the hop:

Those 2006-08 seasons are such a blur of injuries, dreadful defense, questionable management, and ending with disappointment. As we approach the end of Godzilla’s tenure, at least there’s some dawn breaking.

Winning the Whole Damn Thing

Remember what we talked about earlier, where no matter how talented Matsui was he was always going to be the fourth or fifth guy you talked about? By 2009, that was more true than ever, after the famous offseason spending spree that landed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Nick Swisher. Still, at 35 he was a formidable hitter, and with Alex Rodriguez starting the year on the IL with a labrum problem, Matsui was hitting cleanup on Opening Day.

A 127 wRC+ on the campaign fueled by a more power-centric approach made the guy who hit between fifth and seventh in the lineup one of the game’s best depth bats once again. The stacked outfield also allowed Matsui to stay in the DH role all year long, helping him stay healthy and prepared for the already-inevitable playoff run. The season was highlighted by a home run on his birthday for the second straight year, and a preview of what he would do in October, driving in seven runs in a ludicrous game at Fenway Park.

Of course what we all remember about Hideki in 2009 comes in October. He was actually a net negative, by cWPA, in that first round sweep of the Twins despite a home run, and had a below-average, both by his standards and simple math, series against the Angels. For those watching in real time, including the 15-year-old author of this piece, it was starting to look like Godzilla was running out of gas after a long season.

How wrong we were.

Small aside — it’s interesting that the “well they hit a lot of home runs but they strike out too much” discourse was happening the last time the team won something too.

Nothing was getting in Cliff Lee’s way in the first game of the Fall Classic. I can still see in my mind’s eye the nonchalant underhanded catch of a popup where Lee didn’t even come off the mound. After that, it was pretty much the Yankees’ series, thanks in good part to Matsui’s contribution. That home run in Game 2 off Pedro ended up being the game winning run in the 3-1 victory, the first of the four the Yanks needed.

Coming off the bench in Philly for Game 3, Godzilla continued to terrorize the boys in red.

And, back at home for Game 6, Matsui etched his name into Yankees history. Opening the scoring with a two-run shot in the second inning, Hideki continued his Fall Classic dominance of “old goat” Pedro Martínez. The Yankee DH tagged Pedro for two more runs an inning later, adding a bases-loaded single that included the eventual Series-winning run.

Up four runs in the fifth, with anticipation building about a 27th world championship, ‘zilla iced the whole thing.

The Yankees were back on top, and the crowning achievement of Matsui’s tenure was a World Series MVP and ticker tape parade.

Loving the Yankees the Best

Despite that World Series performance, the Yankees are a business and didn’t even prepare an offer for the new free agent. Matsui switched coasts, spending a productive, 126 wRC+ season as the Angels’ primary DH. That summer would be the last positive one of his career, as brief stints in Oakland and Tampa ended up as the terminus points for Japan’s great slugger. Matsui’s final true highlight on the field was the combined 500th career homer he’d hit between NPB and MLB, which on July 20, 2011 for Oakland against Detroit.

Matsui’s last contract was of the one-day variety, signed July 28, 2013 with the Yankees. He’s stuck around with the organization ever since, a frequent guest at the Stadium and always greeted warmly.

Hideki Matsui was a star on opposite ends of the globe, and widely considered to be one of the best “friends” you can have in the game. In doing the research for these pieces, you want to present as complete a picture of the man as possible, and sometimes that means talking about the less savory sides of someone’s life.

The worst thing I could find written about Matsui was that he was a subpar outfielder. It’s a nice thing when a player you like seems to be an all-around good person, and Godzilla falls squarely into that category. His ongoing ties with the Yankees are the cherry on top of a 20-year career, and if he helps the club land Yoshinobu Yamamoto, that legacy is only going to grow.

Staff rank: 54
Community rank: 61
Stats rank: 83
2013 rank: 87

References

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

“Matsui just keeps on causing chaos” Jim Allen’s The Hot Corner

“Equaling Oh’s HR record proved difficult”, Japan Times

Hideki Matsui’s 163rd Game”, Bleacher Report

“A broken wrist ends Matsui’s streak” The New York Times

Previously on the Top 100

57. Roger Peckinpaugh
Full list to date