Get your pencils ready; it’s time for a quiz. Who has the second most home runs on the Yanks? Third most RBIs? Third highest OPS? And who has done this in 495 plate appearances, fewer than all but Jorge Posada among Yankee regulars? By now, of course, the answer is clear: Hideki Matsui is having a season, for him, for the ages, and in doing so, he is going to force the Yanks’ hand in November.
Matsui’s season wasn’t on pace to end up this way. June 28 marked the Yanks’ last Interleague game, and Hideki Matsui pinch hit against the Mets. That wrapped up a month of irregular play and little success for the once-mighty Yankee DH. He was hitting .246/.345/.463 with 10 HR and just 28 RBIs. Unable to play the outfield due to his very creaky knees, Matsui seemed to be on his last legs.
Since then, however, Matsui has been every bit the force in the Yankee lineup that the team expected him to be. Over his last 261 PAs, Hideki is hitting .310/.396/.588 with 18 HR and 60 RBI. He leads all Yankees in home runs and slugging over that stretch and is one of the key movers behind the Yanks’ run toward the best record in baseball. His home run last night was an unsung moment in the game, a blast well into the high porch in right field.
Matsui is also heading toward free agency, and the Yankees are going to have to decide if they want to bring him back as their full-time DH. Over the course of the season, the Yanks have intimated that, with their aging team, they would prefer to keep the designated hitter spot open for its veterans. They can rest Jorge Posada without losing his bat. They can cycle Derek Jeter, A-Rod and Johnny Damon — if he returns — through that spot. With Matsui limited to DH duties, the Yanks would have more roster flexibility without him. They would also have fewer wins.
I’ve briefly touched upon this idea in the past, but Matsui’s value to the team’s offense cannot be understated. Few teams have a DH as good as he is. In fact, among full-time designated hitters, Matsui’s .905 OPS ranks him second. While the league’s DHs are averaging a .255 BA with a .781 OPS, the Yanks are far outpacing that figure thanks to Matsui.
From a value perspective, Matsui has a 32.1 VORP and a 2.5 WAR (wins above replacement). If the Yanks go with their rotation DH plans, their lineup would include a subpar hitter nearly every day. Ramiro Peña has a 1.1 VORP and a 0.3 WAR. Jose Molina’s and Franciso Cervelli’s respective offenses both put them below replacement level on the VORP scale. Molina’s WAR is 0.2, and Cervelli’s is 0.1. Faced with a very competitive Red Sox team, the Yanks can ill afford to let Matsui’s 2.5 wins simply walk away unreplaced.
As the Yankees head into the playoffs, Hideki Matsui will anchor this offense. He can hit lefties; he can hit righties; and apparently, he can hit in Anaheim too. He may be old; his knees may be frail; but he can hit with the best of them. The Yanks should look to bring him back next year on a one-year deal. Unless they can find a suitable replacement, the team will miss his bat if it isn’t there.