A farewell to Kaz Matsui

Recently news came down that Kaz Matsui was leaving this country to return to Japan to play baseball. Matsui was a disappointment in the United States and serves as a reminder that not every highly-touted player from Japan will come over and find success in MLB. While Mets fans basically booed Matsui out of town, it was more because reality did not match expectations, rather than he was a player not worthy of playing in the majors.

Matsui joined the Mets in 2004 after playing nine seasons for the Seibu Lions. He hit over .300 his last seven years in Japan and in his final four seasons he combined to hit 116 home runs. Additionally, he had a reputation as a fine defensive shortstop and was a three-time Gold Glove winner. At the time the Mets signed him, he was considered one of the top shortstops in the world.

Meanwhile, the Mets in 2003 limped to a 66-95 record. Things were so bad that season, the Mets reached into their farm system to call up top prospect Jose Reyes, who made his Major League debut one day prior to his 20th birthday. Reyes made an immediate impact and finished eighth in the Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 69 games for the Mets.

Since Reyes was but a rookie and Matsui the heralded free agent signee, the Mets kept Matsui at shortstop and moved Reyes to second bas. To put it kindly, that move did not work out too well. Reyes was hampered by back and hamstring injuries while Matsui was nowhere near as good as advertised in the field. Eventually, the Mets flip-flopped their middle infield duo, as Matsui played second base the final three games of the 2004 season.

Just as big of a story as Matsui’s defensive woes was his work with the bat. As if the preseason hype was not enough, Matsui homered in his first at-bat with the Mets. He went 3-for-3 with two doubles, a homer and two walks in his Major League debut. But that was the high point of not only the 2004 season, but his entire tenure with the Mets. Matsui finished 2004 with a .272/.331/.396 line.

That was far less than what was expected, but basically middle of the road for his position. He placed 16th in OPS among qualified shortstops in 2004.

For the 2005 season, Matsui was at second base and Reyes was back at shortstop. Once again, Matsui hit a home run on Opening Day. Once again, he did not perform well and was injury-prone. Matsui missed 38 games with a lower back strain in 2004 and in 2005 he missed time with an injured trapezoid and neck and sat out 44 games due to a left knee injury. By this time, he took up permanent residence in the dog house among the majority of Mets fans.

Incredibly, Matsui opened the 2006 season with another home run, this one an inside-the-park job. According to Elias Sports, Matsui is the only Major League player to hit a home run in his first plate appearance of his first three seasons. Additionally, he became the first player since Johnnie LeMaster in 1975 to hit an inside-the-park home run as his first homer of the season.

But Matsui in 2006 struggled even more than before. After 139 PA with the Mets, he had a dismal .505 OPS and the Mets mercifully dealt him to the Rockies for Eli Marrero. Of course, once he left the Mets he put up numbers in a half season with Colorado that matched expectations for when he first came to this country, as he posted a .345/.392/.504 line with the Rockies.

Matsui put up solid years for the Rockies in 2007 (.746 OPS) and the Astros in 2008 (.781 OPS). But the past two seasons were big disappointments. Last year he played in just 27 games and to be kind to him, I will not post his numbers. All you need to know is they were terrible numbers that would make even Rey Ordonez wince.

The standard joke among Mets fans became that we needed to convince Matsui that every day was Opening Day. In his three Opening Days with the Mets, Matsui went 5-for-11, with a double and three home runs. His slash line in those three games was .455/.538/.1.364, which was considerably less than his lifetime .670 OPS with New York.

The Mets signed Matsui after the Yankees added Hideki Matsui (no relation) a year earlier. The Yankees’ Matsui made the All-Star team and drove in 106 runs in his first season in this country. So the Mets’ Matsui did not measure up to the one in the Bronx, he did not meet preseason expectations, he forced a more-talented player in Reyes to move out of position and to top it all off, he was constantly injured.

It’s no wonder he was a target of the boo-birds at Shea.

Clearly, he was not the shortstop that everyone expected him to be when he first arrived in this country. But in a parallel universe, a healthy Matsui could have had an MLB career as an average to above-average player, instead of the seven mostly forgettable seasons he did have.

Good luck back in Japan, Kaz. Too bad it didn’t work out better in New York.

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