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Brett Borzelli

Hideki Matsui: A Unique Hall of Fame Candidate

The MLB superstar and NPB legend’s appearance on this year’s ballot presents a unique and exciting opportunity to recognize this outstanding player’s achievements on both sides of the Pacific with enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Hideki Matsui’s arrival in New York couldn’t have been more eagerly awaited by Yankee fans everywhere. As the NPB legend stepped into the batter’s box during the Yankees’ home opener, the sellout crowd in “The House That Ruth Built” stood and began chanting his name. Matsui responded by hitting a 3-2 pitch into the right field bleachers for his first MLB home run, which proved to be the game-winner. With that blast, Matsui became the first Yankee ever to hit a grand slam during his first game in the Bronx.

Nippon Professional Baseball League Legend

Matsui later called it “the greatest moment” of his life. This, despite having already achieved legendary status during his prolific 10-year career in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

While playing in Japan, “Godzilla” was a three-time MVP, nine-time All-Star, and won eight Best Nine Awards. He led his team to three Japan Series championships, taking home MVP honors in 2000. Matsui also won the prestigious Matsutaro Shoriki Award that year, which is presented annually to the person who made the greatest contribution to the development of professional baseball in Japan.

A .304 career NPB hitter, Matsui was consistently one of the top offensive threats in the league. His .OPS over 10 years was .996, and he topped one thousand in five seasons.

Despite the much shorter NPB schedule at the time (130 to 140 games), he still drove in 90 or more runs seven times. He eclipsed the 100 mark five times. Matsui hit at least 20 doubles and 20 homers eight times, while swatting 50 long balls during his final season in Japan.

Japan’s Best Player

Over his seven-year NPB peak beginning in 1996, Matsui was the best overall player in Japan. His 280 home runs, 716 RBIs, 728 runs scored, and 1.054 OPS were the highest in NPB.

He led the Central League in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging average, and OPS in 1998, 2000, and 2002. Matsui was the runner-up for the batting title in 2002, falling seven-percentage points short of the Triple Crown during his final season in Japan.

Throughout that seven-year period, Matsui never finished worse than second in home runs. He led the league in runs scored five times, and finished among the top three in RBIs six times. He also hit .313 and had a .432 on-base percentage.

Top Run-Producer in MLB

Godzilla didn’t make his MLB debut until 2003 at age 28, but he made an impact immediately upon arrival. He became only the second Yankees outfielder after Joe DiMaggio to start an All-Star game in his first season. Matsui finished second in a controversial Rookie of the Year vote. Two writers admitted withholding their votes from Matsui because of his “age.”

In total, Matsui was a two-time MLB All-Star, and also garnered MVP votes twice. He drove in 100 or more runs four times, and led the league in games played in each of his first three MLB seasons.

Throughout his seven-year MLB peak, Matsui averaged 97 runs batted in per season. David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Cabrera are the only players who knocked in more runs over this period. That’s a pretty impressive group.

World Series MVP

In addition to being a top, regular season performer after moving over to the MLB, Matsui continued building an impressive resume in the playoffs as well. In 56 games spanning 11 postseason series, Matsui hit 10 homers, drove in 39 runs, and scored 32 times. He had a .312 batting average and .933 OPS in 235 plate appearances.

His crowning MLB achievement came in 2009, when he earned World Series MVP honors while helping the Yankees win their 27th title. Matsui bashed three homers and knocked in eight, while going 8-for-13 with a 2.027 OPS over the six-game set.

Six of his RBIs came in the clincher at Yankee Stadium, which tied Bobby Richardson’s single-game World Series record. Matsui drove in two runs apiece on a homer, double, and single. He was clutch throughout the series, getting the game-winning RBI in two of the Bomber’s four victories.

Hideki Matsui remains the only player in baseball history to win the MVP Award in both the World Series and Japan Series.

Character, Integrity, and Sportsmanship

You’d be hard-pressed to find a ballplayer who more firmly embodies the spirit of character, integrity, and sportsmanship than Hideki Matsui. Although he has never sought to bring attention to himself in this regard, he has won the highest of praise from many.

In 2004, Matsui donated $500,000 to the victims of the Indian Ocean earthquake. He donated $620,000 to vitims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Four years later, he and former teammate Derek Jeter held a baseball charity event in the Tokyo Dome to raise additional funs for children affected by that disaster. Upon his retirement, the People’s Honour Award was bestowed upon Matsui by the Japanese government.

“I’ve said it numerous times over the years, but it’s worth repeating now,” then Yankees’ captain Derek Jeter said following Matsui’s retirement. “I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites. The way he went about his business day in and day out was impressive. Despite being shadowed by a large group of reporters, having the pressures of performing for his fans both in New York and Japan and becoming acclimated to the bright lights of New York City, he always remained focused and committed to his job and to those of us he shared the clubhouse with.”

“I have a lot of respect for Hideki,” Jeter said. “He was someone we counted on a great deal and he’s a big reason why we became World Champions in 2009.”

“He played with pride, discipline and, of course, talent, and flourished when the lights were at their brightest,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “People naturally gravitated towards him, and that’s a direct reflection of his character. He was a true professional in every sense of the word and it feels good knowing he was able to raise the championship trophy as a member of the Yankees.”

Hideki Matsui: A Unique Hall of Fame Candidate

Combining his 20-year career totals from NPB and MLB, Matsui hit 507 home runs and 494 doubles. He drove in 1,649 runs and scored 1,557 times. He retired with 2,643 hits, a .293 batting average, .388 on-base percentage, and .523 slugging average. Matsui’s career OPS was .911.

While still in Japan, Matsui played in 1,250 consecutive games. He continued by playing in 519 straight games for the Yankees, which remains the record for consecutive games played to start an MLB career. His total of 1,769 between Japan and the U.S. is the third longest consecutive games streak in major league history behind Cal Ripken, Jr. and Lou Gehrig. Matsui’s streak ended when he fractured his wrist making a play in the outfield during the 2006 season.

When considering his 20-year major league career, Matsui’s Hall of Fame credentials are beyond dispute. He was not just the top player in Japan during his time, but he is regarded as one of the best players in NPB history.

An Unprecedented Challenge for Hall of Fame Voters

Therein lies the biggest statement for, as well as the biggest obstacle to, Matusi’s candidacy. His seven-year NPB peak preceded and overshadowed his seven-year peak in MLB. This is not so hard to fathom. After all, is it reasonable to expect anyone to keep up that torrid pace for 14 years? Yet, his drop-off was only slight. Amazingly, he went on to become one of MLB’s top run-producers.

This presents an unprecedented challenge for voters. Some may fail to acknowledge Matsui’s extraordinary NPB career when considering his Hall of Fame worthiness. The oversight is understandable, since baseball writers have never had to contemplate such a case before.

At this point, some unknowing fans may question why we are discussing Matsui’s career in Japan at all. They might have the mistaken belief that NPB is a minor league, and thus one’s accomplishments there shouldn’t be considered alongside his MLB career. But unlike the Mexican League, which is recognized as an unaffiliated Triple-A league, NPB is indeed recognized as a major league by Major League Baseball.

Remember, it’s called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, not the “MLB-only Museum.” Cooperstown’s doors should be held wide open for transpacific stars like Matsui, who has been a trailblazer.

Matsui: An Undeniable Part of Baseball History

Japan’s first professional baseball team was founded in 1934, and they played host to visiting all star teams led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It’s taken over 80 years for a Japanese star to complete his 10-year service to NPB, successfully make the move to MLB, continue his stardom, retire, and make it to the Hall of Fame ballot.

That man is Hideki Matsui. And he appears on the ballot this year with the credentials to earn him enshrinement. Matsui is an undeniable part of baseball history, as all firsts are. He deserves to take his rightful place in Cooperstown.

One more point I’d like to make, in case anyone is wondering why Matsui didn’t simply come to MLB sooner rather than spending his best years in Japan. The fact is, he didn’t have a choice. MLB and NPB have a long-standing agreement not to scout and draft each other’s high school or college prospects. And the current posting system didn’t exist in Matsui’s day. Once he signed with the Yomiuri Giants as a teenager, he was indentured to them for 10 years. Matsui came to MLB as soon as he was free to do so. The fact that he was not able to come sooner should not be held against him by voters.

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Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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