Last week, former Yankee star Hideki Matsui announced his retirement from baseball. The 38-year old former Japanese star played in 34 games last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, hitting a weak .147, with an anemic .435 OPS. This followed a season each with the Angels and A’s, where he batted a collective .262, with a .756 OPS. Matsui started his career in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, but after the 2002 season, at the age of 29, decided to sign with the Yankees—a bold move for Japan’s top HR hitter. He wasted no time making his mark on major league baseball and Yankee fans by hitting a grand slam in his first game in pinstripes, at old Yankee Stadium.
Over his seven year Yankee career, he averaged 20 HRs per season, batted .292 and logged an OPS of .852—23% above the league average OPS for those years. What fans will remember most about Matsui was his penchant for the big hit, capped off by his World Series MVP performance in 2009. He came to bat 36 times in the two World Series in which he appeared (2003 and 2009—his first and last years as a Yankee), but managed to hit 4 HRs. He batted .387 in the World Series and put up a remarkable 1.216 OPS. In fact, in 235 postseason plate appearances his OPS was .933.
For those of you who have been following this blog, you know about the work I’ve done in measuring a hitter’s performance against different quality levels of pitching. I’ve racked up the batter—pitcher matchup data (starting pitchers only) from 2009 through 2011 to see how hitters perform against the best pitching vs. the weakest pitching. This study was of particular interest to me because the quality of pitching is one of the most defining characteristics that differentiates the regular season from the postseason. The pitching is far better in the postseason. Nearly two-thirds of the postseason starting pitcher innings are thrown by the top one-third of regular season starting pitchers (as measured by their OPS against). Not surprisingly, Matsui has an uncanny ability to hit top pitching, which helps explain his postseason prowess.
Against the top two quintiles, the MLB average for a left-handed hitter is a .641 OPS. Matsui had 387 plate appearances against this group of pitchers over the 3-year period of my study and banged out a remarkable .830 OPS. Over that time period here’s his record (OPS) against some of the top pitchers—vs. David Price, 1.333; vs. Greinke, 1.267; vs. Josh Beckett, 1.032; vs. King Felix, .838; vs. Verlander, .778, vs. Halladay, .752. Matsui also had his nemesis, as Jered Weaver held him to a puny .315 OPS in 27 career plate appearances. I take it that Matsui is not fond of the change-up from righthanders—a pitch Weaver is known to use extensively on left-handed hitters.
Another one of Matsui’s defining traits was his ability to handle left-handed pitching. He had very narrow platoon splits. Over his career he hit .831 against right-handers and .802 against lefties. One more thing I’ll remember about Hideki is the time he held a press conference to announce that he had gotten married. So instead of having his wife present at the event, or having a photo of his wife, he pulled one of the all-time great moves—he unveiled a drawing of his bride. Hideki Matsui, one-of-a-kind.