The U Files # 50: The Matsui Maneuver

The Mets have had a hole at shortstop going back even to the days when the infield as a whole was a strength. Last year the Mets were blessed to see a piece of a bright future slide into place at shortstop in the person of Jose Reyes. Immediately Reyes began to show the talent that could have made him the best shortstop in the NL by the time he hit free agency. Now, with a hole open at second base, the Mets have filled the hole with a star shortstop from Japan, moving Reyes to second base.

The Mets will hold a press conference on Wednesday to introduce the newest Met, Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui. Matsui has already announced to the Japanese press that he has agreed to sign with the Mets. The contract is reportedly a three year deal worth $20.1 million. Ordinarily, Matsui will not reach free agency for another three years thereafter, as under MLB rules he will be arbitration eligible for the three years after his current contract expires. However, the Mets contract reportedly gives Matsui the right to become a free agent after just three years, in addition to a full no trade clause. Since Major League rules stipulate that any player must have six years of service time before he reaches free agency, it is unclear whether this clause can override this rule. It is possible this clause only makes it possible for Matsui to return to a Japanese team as a free agent; that to stay in MLB he would have to go through arbitration, remaining Mets property for three more years.

Matsui, who has become known despite his protests as Little Matsui (as opposed to Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, now of the New York Yankees) was known up to this point as the best overall player in Pro Yakyu (the Japanese professional leagues). A first round draft pick of the Seibu Lions, Matsui played his entire Japanese career with that team, culminating in a streak of domination the last five years.

Matsui, to be 28 on July 1 in his first Major League season in 2004 is a 177 cm, 83 Kg dynamo (5 feet 10 inches and 183 lbs in American usage). He is regarded as a superb defensive shortstop, and has been unquestionably a standout offensive player at the position. A more balanced player than the speed based Ichiro (who also has a name Suzuki) and the slugger Godzilla, the two Japanese superstars to previously make the transition, Matsui is thought to have a blend of their skills. Ichiro saw his skills translate relatively well, posting high batting average in MLB and making Seattle's pitchers look better. Godzilla saw his power fall off massively in one season of Major League baseball.

























Matsui has posted a weighted average line (2003 weighted five times, 2002 four times… and 1999 once) of .317/.374/.554. Matsui has not drawn a particularly great number of walks, supporting his OBP largely through his high batting averages. Kazuo Matsui will not see his walks drop to the degree that Hideki Matsui lost his (Godzilla, having been the most feared power hitter in Japan, likely had his Japanese walk totals inflated by a great number of intentional walks that he did not receive in America). Japanese players to play in American baseball have typically seen their power fall off precipitously. Batting average falls off to a smaller degree, but the loss here affects OBP and SLG as well.

A fair translation of Matsui's statistics into the Mets may be a line of .285/.331/.441.

This is not a bad line at all for a ML shortstop. The average NL shortstop posted a .262/.317/.385 line in 2003. Matsui's numbers would even be close to average as a second baseman (lower OBP, but higher SLG).
Kaz Matsui
Kaz Matsui: The Mets should have excellent up-the-middle infield defense with Matsui and Reyes.
More critically, these numbers would be a significant upgrade over what the Mets got at second base, a .240/.319/.331 offensive line and bad defense. In 580 AB, Matsui would generate 85 Runs Created with the stated line, an improvement of 20 runs over what the Mets had at second base in 2003. Plus, the Mets are gaining a reportedly solid defensive player, an improvement of another 20 runs over the terrible defense the Mets got from their 2003 second baseman. Figuring that 10 runs is worth one win, the Mets are now four wins better, not including the improvement to be had from having a full year of Reyes.

The rebuilding Mets now have two young pieces of the puzzle in place, under Mets control for another three years before Matsui reaches free agency. It would have been better from a Mets standpoint if Matsui were to have to go through the arbitration process, as the Mets would be guaranteed to keep Matsui just as they could be becoming competitive. However, the chance to become a free agent may have made the contract more attractive to Matsui. The Mets should have excellent up-the-middle infield defense for as long as they keep the two together.

Off the field, this move should be very beneficial both for the Mets and for Matsui. Matsui, a Japanese superstar coming to play in the largest market in the United States, will have abundant marketing opportunities. The Mets, having landed the consensus best player in Japan, will have significantly more name recognition in Japan, with possibilities opening to create streams of revenue coming from the land of the Rising Sun into Mets coffers.

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