Tuesday, March 16, 2004


I was doing my daily tour of my favourite blogs, and first off was a stop at the peerless U.S.S. Mariner.

David Cameron's noticeable sigh of relief watching the latest Japanese import caught my attention:

The M's should jump for joy that they didn't get Kazuo Matsui. He's got serious issues with his swing, and unless he makes some adjustments, is going to be a groundball machine. There's just no way he hits for any real power with his current hitting mechanics.

Kazuo Matsui hit 33 HR and a .549 SLG in Japan last year, but Cameron doesn't see a player capable of putting the ball in the air. Cameron's a bit of an expert when it comes to analysing the potential of players yet to reach the MLB, having recently joined the staff of minor league bible Baseball America, so I'm going to assume he knows what he's talking about.

Which leads me to ask, what the hell is it with Japanese power hitters turning into groundballers once they reach MLB?

Aaron Gleeman did a great study of the other Matsui mid-season, and noticed that Godzilla was among the league leaders in GB/FB ratio. When Gleeman wrote his piece in June, Matsui had a GB/FB ratio of 2.48, and still finished the year at 2.17 GB/FB. That's great if you're Roy Halladay or Kevin Brown, not so good if you're a supposed home run champ. Consider: Derek Lowe, Brandon Webb, Carlos Zambrano, and Tim Hudson were the other leading pitchers in GB/FB last year. (Well, maybe it's not so good if you've got Todd Walker playing 2B behind you.)

Meanwhile, Luis Castillo (6 HR, .397 SLG), Juan Pierre (1 HR, .373 SLG), Jacques Jones (16 HR, .464 SLG), Ken Harvey (13 HR, .408 SLG), Derek Jeter (10 HR, .450 SLG), and Endy Chavez (5 HR, .354 SLG) were the only hitters with a higher GB/FB than Matsui (16 HR, .435 SLG). Note that these (mostly) aren't bad hitters. But generally, they have great wheels, and none of them are threats to challenge for the home run title. In fact, the first player to have a slugging percentage over .500 is #39 on that list, Dimitri Young, who had a GB/FB ratio of 1.53.

Trying to come to terms with Godzilla's lack of punch, Gleeman suggested that maybe he changed his approach coming to North America. After all, Matsui hit 50 HR and .692 SLG in his last year in Japan, and 36 HR and .617 SLG the year prior. Even accounting for both the weaker competition and smaller ballparks overseas, you don't accumulate stats like that slamming the ball into the ground twice as often as lifting it into the air, right?

As was his wont, Gleeman dug deeper, and found that Matsui was still hitting a lot of line drives that weren't necessarily showing up in that GB/FB ratio. A couple of days later, Batter's Box's Robert Dudek wrote Aaron with a follow-up, and also speculated that most of Matsui's Japanese HRs were line drive shots that are simply falling 20 feet short over here. Quote Robert:

Matsui has a very level swing and it would figure that almost all of his home runs (even in Japan) are line drives on balls up in the zone... it becomes very difficult to hit homers [in the AL] without a significant uppercut.

Now, Robert's a really bright guy, and I'm sure he knows a lot more about this stuff than me, but I'm not sure if that's true. Frank Thomas' swing is pretty level, isn't it? Sure, he's got 3 inches and 65 pounds on Matsui, but bulk and brawn alone create power not. John Olerud's another guy with a level swing, and although he's only topped .500 SLG twice due to the power-sapping effects of Shea and Safeco, his career mark is a not unimpressive .471. Although come to think of it, Olerud has never hit 25 HR in a season, and even Thomas' yearly HR totals seem a little underwhelming given what the Fielders, Belles, McGwires, Sosas, and Bonds have done over Frank's career. (Although if Matsui can approach either player's .400+ OBP in the majors then there will be a lot less to complain about.)

Which leads me to ask, didn't the Yankees (and now the Mets) have their scouts actually watch Matsui(s) play in Japan before they signed them? Didn't they think to themselves, "Hmmm, that level swing may not translate into home run power in the majors"?

What's really interesting is that Baseball Prospectus' PETCO system is predicting Matsui I will slug .451 with 17 HR with the Yankees, while Matsui II will slug .456 with 16 HR across town. (BP's writers even think a .500 SLG isn't out of the question of Hideki.) I don't know. Keep in mind that Clay Davenport translated Matsui I's 2002 .334/.463/.692 performance in Japan into .301/.431/.632 in the majors in the 2002 Baseball Prospectus, leading me to believe I was drafting the second coming of Jim Edmonds on my Batters Box Fantasy Baseball Team. Given the, err, gap, Davenport retranslated that 2002 season into a .309/.405/.512 in the 2003 BP. Given what Cameron's saying about Matsui II, it might be time to fine-tune again, Clay.

If you want real Japanese power, go to Honda. (And maybe a Mazda for home.)

CORRECTION: David Cameron writes for BP, not BA. So clearly that means he has no idea what he's talking about. No, but seriously, he's still something of a minor league expert.

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