June 11, 2003
Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui signing to play with the Yankees after years of dominating Japanese competition was one of the bigger stories of the off-season. I read a lot of analysis and studies of the "conversation rate" of Japanese League performances to Major League performances and I felt as though Hideki Matsui would be a star outfielder for the Yankees.
Here is what I said about it way back on the day after he signed with the Yanks:
"It wouldn't surprise me to see Matsui hit about .290 with 35 homers, 90 walks and solid corner outfield defense, which would make him one of the better outfielders in baseball."
Then, when I was making my pre-season predictions, I made the following regarding Matsui's 2003 numbers:
"I'll officially say .290/.390/.525, with some pretty good defense in left field."
I even went so far as to ridicule those who predicted Matsui would struggle in America and not hit for significant power in the major leagues:
"Hideki Matsui will prove all of the idiots that say he won't hit for power in the United States completely wrong. The idiocy behind the 'logic' used regarding Japanese players is incredible. When Ichiro! got here, all the experts were saying that he wouldn't succeed because he was too small and weak to hit major league pitching. Now, after he has established himself as one of the best players in baseball, those same experts are saying that Hideki Matsui won't succeed here because his power won't translate well in the states.
Let me get this straight? Ichiro! was too small and weak, but Hideki Matsui relies too much on power? Yeah, that makes sense. A great player is a great player, whether he is born in Nebraska, Tokyo or Santo Domingo. You have to wonder how many more players have to come over here from Japan and have success before guys like Dan Gladden and Rob Dibble will realize we don't have some special potion that makes American ballplayers superior to everyone else."
Well, now it is June 12th and Hideki Matsui is hitting .275/.329/.415 with 5 homers and 22 doubles in 64 games. He is on pace to hit 56 doubles, but just 13 home runs.
It is still early in the season, but it is definitely time for me to eat some crow. I still believe Matsui will end up having a very good season, but it is clear he is not going to hit for as much home run power as I anticipated he would. I make a lot of predictions and statements on my blog and I am wrong my fair share of times, so I want to be "man enough" to admit it in this instance.
I still believe in everything I said. I believe he will hit for power in the major leagues and I believe the people who dismissed his chances of doing so were stupid and their logic flawed. However, the actual results thus far speak much louder than what I believe.
That said, the most interesting thing regarding Hideki Matsui is not that I was wrong about his power production, but why I was wrong, or more accurately, why he is not hitting for power in the major leagues.
I have watched a lot of Yankee games this year, thanks to the life-changing innovation known as MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV and, like any person who has watched Matsui for any significant amount of time this season can tell you, he is hitting a ton of ground balls. Hard grounders to first base, soft grounders to second, one-hoppers to third - everything has been on the ground.
The actual numbers certainly back up the personal observation. Matsui has hit 134 ground balls this year and just 54 fly balls. That works out to a GB/FB ratio of 2.48, meaning he has 2.48 ground balls for every fly ball.
Quite frankly, there doesn't need to be a whole lot of additional analysis here to come to the conclusion that you simply cannot hit a lot of home runs when everything is being hit on the ground. I mean, how many balls have you seen go over the outfield fence after rolling on the infield grass?
Take a look at this year's most ground ball-oriented hitters:
Jacque Jones 2.80
Mark Grudzielanek 2.68
Cesar Izturis 2.58
Hideki Matsui 2.48
Luis Castillo 2.35
Jose Hernandez 2.33
Endy Chavez 2.27
Juan Pierre 2.23
Chris Stynes 2.19
Roberto Alomar 2.10
There just isn't a whole lot of power on that list. Jacque Jones is on pace to hit 21 homers in 608 at bats and he is the power leader among those 10 players.
Current pace, projected to a full-season:
Player HR AB
Jacque Jones 21 609
Jose Hernandez 17 583
Hideki Matsui 13 671
Chris Stynes 12 434
Endy Chavez 8 587
Luis Castillo 7 618
Roberto Alomar 5 525
Mark Grudzielanek 3 591
Juan Pierre 0 685
Cesar Izturis 0 543
Jones currently ranks tied for 71st in home runs and Jose Hernandez is tied for 83rd. None of the other GB-hitters are in the top 100. And it's not just this season.
Here are the top 5 GB/FB guys from 2002:
Player GB/FB HR AB
Luis Castillo 3.39 2 606
Juan Pierre 3.20 1 592
Ichiro Suzuki 2.48 8 647
Derek Jeter 2.23 18 644
Ben Grieve 2.08 19 482
And the top 5 GB/FB guys from 2001:
Player GB/FB HR AB
Rey Sanchez 2.81 0 544
Juan Pierre 2.77 2 617
Ichiro Suzuki 2.63 8 692
Luis Castillo 2.59 2 537
Roger Cedeno 2.52 6 523
And from 2000:
Player GB/FB HR AB
Luis Castillo 4.74 2 539
Rey Sanchez 3.35 1 509
Eric Owens 2.82 6 583
Rafael Furcal 2.24 4 455
Peter Bergeron 2.23 5 518
There are some very good players on those lists. Players who make all-star teams and routinely hit .300 and score tons of runs. But there aren't any home run hitters.
The other end of the GB/FB spectrum is where the sluggers can usually be found. This year's leaders in fly ball ratio include guys like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton and Alfonso Soriano. Even the guys among the FB leaders that aren't thought of as sluggers are having big power years. Alex Gonzalez (of the Marlins) is on pace to hit 25 homers. Mike Lowell is on pace to hit 45 homers. Carl Everett is on track to hit 42 homers.
In fact, not a single player among the top 10 FB ratio leaders is on pace to hit fewer than 25 homers and 6 of them are on pace to hit 35+ long balls. 2002's top 10 FB hitters included Bonds (46 HRs), Rafael Palmeiro (43), Brian Giles (38), Thomas (28), Tony Batista (31), Lowell (24), Carlos Lee (26) and Giambi (41).
So, it's pretty obvious that, if Matsui is going to be a home run hitter, he's at the wrong end of the GB/FB ratio list. In looking at his numbers from Japan and the reports of his play over there, I find it very hard to believe that he was this much of a ground ball hitter while in Japan.
Look at his homer-totals in Japan:
Year HR AB
1996 38 487
1997 37 484
1998 34 487
1999 42 471
2000 42 474
2001 36 481
2002 50 500
It is almost impossible that someone could consistently hit 35-50 homers a season while hitting two-and-a-half ground balls for every fly ball they hit, whether they played in Japan or America, Yankee Stadium or a smaller park like the Tokyo Dome.
So, if that is the case, then it is very likely that Matsui has either been overmatched by American pitching to the point that he simply cannot elevate balls into the air, or he has changed his approach at the plate. While he has certainly been more overmatched than he ever was in Japan, I don't think he is any more overmatched than hundreds of other hitters who manage to hit lots of fly balls. I think the more likely scenario is that he has adjusted his hitting style, whether purposely or accidentally.
I actually think it is a little of both. I think he has seen the success Ichiro! has had in America by being a "slap hitter" and he decided to focus on making good contact at the plate and slapping balls all over the field at first, instead of trying to drive balls. In addition to that, I think maybe whatever overmatching that has taken place has caused him to adjust his style to even further become a slap hitter.
I'm obviously far from the first guy to think about this. The Yankees have been talking about Matsui's lack of power and possible adjustments he has made at the plate and adjustments he can make to begin hitting for more power.
To Matsui credit, he has been willing to make adjustments:
"My plan was to come here, to the majors, and experience what it's like," Matsui said through a translator. "And then adjust accordingly."
"I don't feel pressure," he said. "My approach is to do things to the best of my ability. And right now I want to get used to things ... and make adjustments as I go."
And it appears as though he has begun to make those adjustments.
2 homers (1 HR / 53 ABs)
6 doubles (1 2B / 18 ABs)
1 homer (1 HR / 119 ABs)
9 doubles (1 2B / 13 ABs)
2 homers (1 HR / 18 ABs)
7 doubles (1 2B / 5 ABs)
Since the start of June (which is right about the time stuff about Matsui changing his approach started appearing in print), Matsui has not only been hitting .389, he has been hitting for a lot more power. He has a double every 5 at bats this month and has already hit 2 homers in 36 at bats, after hitting just 3 in his first 229 at bats.
But 2 homers (and 7 doubles) is not enough of a power-surge to draw conclusions from. He could still be beating balls into the ground and maybe he'll go the next 90 at bats in June without hitting another one.
The bigger question is whether or not he is beginning to hit more balls into the air, to at least give himself a chance to hit more homers.
April - 2.55 (51/20)
May - 2.29 (64/28)
June - 3.20 (16/5)
Well, the obvious answer here is a resounding no.
However, I think this is a case where the numbers (or at least those numbers) don't tell the whole story. According to STATS Inc., ESPN.com's statistics provider:
Ground/Fly Ratio (Grd/Fly)
Simply a hitter's ground balls divided by his fly balls. All batted balls except line drives and bunts are included.
This is interesting to me, because I always assumed every ball a player hit was being counted in his GB/FB ratio, but now I know that is not the case. I suppose it makes some sense. I mean, if someone hits a screaming line drive over the first base bag and into the outfield corner for a standup double, should that hit be counted as a ground ball or a fly ball?
According to ESPN.com, Matsui has hit 134 GBs and 54 FBs this year. According to my quick-and-dirty math, he has hit a total of 228 balls into play this year, meaning he has 40 balls that were not counted as GBs or FBs. I would assume, and I definitely could be wrong, that those 40 would be his line drives.
Breaking it down even further, here Matsui's ground ball (GB), fly ball (FB) and line drive (LD) percentages on "balls in play" (ie non-strikeouts):
Month GB% FB% LD%
April 56.7 22.2 21.1
May 61.0 26.7 12.3
June 55.2 17.2 27.6
SEASON 58.8 23.7 17.5
As long as I am looking at outcome percentages on balls in play, I might as well look at outcome percentages on balls not in play. Here are the percentage of ABs Matsui strikes out in and the percentage of plate appearances he walks in:
Month SO% BB%
April 15.1 9.4
May 11.8 4.9
June 19.4 9.8
SEASON 14.0 7.3
Just by looking at those numbers, here is what I think may be happening...
Matsui began his first season in the majors and focused on getting good pitches to hit and simply making good contact. He walked quite a bit, hit a lot of ground balls, his fair share of line drives and very few fly balls. For the first month he hit .255/.322/.368.
His struggles in the first month, particularly his lack of power production, caused Matsui (either accidentally or purposely) to change his approach at the plate. He started swinging at more pitches and stopped working long counts. His K rate dipped, his walk rate dropped in half and he was hitting almost zero line drives and everything on the ground. In other words, he was turning into Ichiro! (without the amazing speed). Matsui struggled even more than he did in April.
Then, about two weeks ago, he and the Yankees coaching staff made a real effort to again change his approach at the plate and Matsui has begun doing the things that made him such a great player in Japan. He is being much more selective at the plate, working long counts and walking (and K'ing) a lot. He is still hitting a significant amount of ground balls, but it is the lowest percentage of his 3 months and, unlike previous months, he is hitting a ton of line drives. Still, his home run production has not been great, because he is actually hitting fewer fly balls than he did in April and May.
So, what does all of this mean for the rest of Matsui's season? To be honest, I have no idea. As I have already said, I still believe he will end up having a good season and, for that to happen, he needs to be very good for the rest of the season. But who knows if that will happen. Ichiro! suceeded almost immediately in the major leagues and, because of that, I think some of the expectations for Matsui (including my own) were too high and the timetables for his expected success were too fast.
Matsui has struggled thus far and, like any struggling player in his first taste of the major leagues, he needs to make adjustments to be successful. There are signs that he is doing just that - more walks, more line drives, fewer ground balls - but he is still hitting way too many balls on the ground for someone who wants to be hitting them over the fence and, until he can adjust his game to change that, I don't think 35 home runs are even a possibility.
Perhaps sensing I was writing a blog entry devoted to his many ground outs, Hideki Matsui came up in the bottom of the 9th inning last night and grounded out to first base for the final out of what has to be the strangest no-hitter in baseball history. And I watched it. MLB Extra Innings on DirecTV - gotta love it.
Milwaukee (Kinney) +105 over Florida (Pavano)
New York (Wells) -175 over Houston (Robertson)
San Diego (Peavy) +120 over Cleveland (Davis)
Toronto (Hendrickson) -145 over Pittsburgh (Suppan)
Detroit (Bonderman) +180 over Los Angeles (Ishii)
Arizona (Patterson) +130 over Kansas City (Wilson)
Total to date: + $1,055
W/L record: 125-124 (1-3 yesterday for for -200)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****