New York Yankees
Position: OF Bats Left Throws: Right Height: 6-1 Weight: 210 Born: 6/12/74
Godzilla has arrived. One of the best players in the illustrious history of Japanese baseball, Hideki Matsui signed as a free agent with the Yankees this past winter, inking a three-year contract. It seems odd to compare him to other rookies, given his history of excellent performance against high-level competition in Japan, yet he could very well be the Rookie of the Year due to the way the Major League Baseball rules are set up. Matsui is a legend in Japan, outclassing his competition since his high school days. A three-time Central League MVP, he is likely to be one of baseball's biggest sensations in 2003.
Throughout spring training, John Sickels provides in-depth reports on 10 of the hottest rookies to watch. Here's the complete schedule of when each report will appear:
2/27: 1B, Travis Hafner, Cle.
3/5: 2B, Joe Thurston, L.A.
3/7: SS, Angel Berroa, K.C.
3/11: 3B, Brandon Larson, Cin.
3/13: C, Miguel Olivo, ChW
3/18: SP, John Patterson, Ari.
3/20: RP, Frankie Rodriguez, Ana.
3/25: OF, Hideki Matsui, NYY
3/27: OF, Rocco Baldelli, T.B.
4/1: OF, Marlon Byrd, Phi.
Matsui is a genuine power hitter; his home runs are not simply an illusion caused by small Japanese parks. He has plus bat speed, excellent command of the strike zone, and a relaxed but professional approach. His hand-eye coordination is excellent. He can pull the ball or spray to the opposite field, and has no particular weakness as a hitter. Some scouts say he can be tied up inside, but this is true for many American sluggers as well.
The main problem for him will be adjusting to American style pitching, which has different pitch sequences than in Japan. He's shown the ability to turn on good fastballs already, and the main thing he'll need to do is learn the pitchers. Defensively, Matsui is reliable but not spectacular. His range is said to be good, while his arm is rated as average but accurate. He is fundamentally sound, a reflection of his Japanese baseball training. He doesn't have great speed, but that's not his game.
Translating Japanese numbers into American equivalents is something more and more people have worked with over the last few years. In 1,286 games, Matsui hit .304 with 332 homers. As you can see from his '01 and '02 numbers, Matsui hits for power and average, and draws tons of walks. Depending on what method you want to pick, Matsui's numbers over the last few years are equivalent to about a .300-.320 average in the majors, with a slugging percentage well in excess of .500 and an OBP in excess of .400. He is hitting very well this spring, further confirmation of his ability to adjust.
Matsui has had no significant injury problems.
What to expect
Matsui is hitting .314 and is leading the Yankees with three homers this spring. His slugging percentage is .569. Yes, these are spring training numbers, and yes the sample is small, but this is exactly what he should be expected to do once the regular season starts. Matsui turns 29 in June, so he's still at his peak and may even get a bit better. Scouts love him, and the numbers are great. He will be a definite Rookie of the Year candidate in '03, perhaps the frontrunner, and could be an MVP contender sooner than people expect.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered through his website, Johnsickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this spring by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, son and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.