Remembering the Matsui years

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When Hideki Matsui came to America — to New York, to the Yankees — it was a Very Big Deal. When he announced his decision to become an international free agent and test the U.S. market in November of 2002, Ken Belson of The Times piled on the praise. Matsui was Japan’s “most popular and perhaps most talented player,” and it pained him to leave almost as much as it pained the fans who gave the nickname Godzilla to see him go.

”I tried to tell myself I needed to stay here for the prosperity of Japanese baseball,” he said at the time ”but in the end I decided to go with what my gut said. I will do my best there so the [Japanese] fans will be glad I went.” Clearly, Hideki has not disappointed.

From the get-go, the Yankees wanted Matsui. Before he even had a chance to declare free agency, before the Angels and Giants wrapped up their seven-game World Series, the Yankees were rumored to be interested in Matsui. Godzilla, just 28 at the time, had just finished a season for the ages. He hit 50 home runs, drove in 107 and flashed a batting line of .334/.461/.692. No wonder the Yanks, looking for some stability in the outfield and a bat to fill the hole left a year earlier by Paul O’Neill’s retirement, coveted the slugger.

By December, as has happened so many times since, the Yankees got their guy. The Yankees outbid the Orioles and Mets to land Matsui to a three-year, $21-million deal. Today, it sounds like a fleecing. For the Yankees, the investment represented their first in Japan since the glory days of Hideki Irabu, and the team was looking forward to the arrival of their Japanese slugger.

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In his first game at Yankee Stadium, Hideki Matsui did not disappoint. On a 35-degree day in mid-April and with the Twins in town, the Yanks had built up a 3-1 lead when Matsui stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. Godzilla crushed a pitch into the right field bleachers for his first career Major League home a run — a grand slam to boot. “That was the greatest moment I ever had,” Matsui said after the game.

The rest of the year would be an up-and-down one for the slugger. Matsui played in every game and hit .287/.353/.435 on the season but launched just 16 home runs. Where, Yankee fans wondered, was the famed Godzilla power? It would return in a big way the next season when Matsui had his best year in pinstripes. He hit .298/.390/.522 with a career high 31 home runs and tried his best to beat the Red Sox in that famed ALCS.

After the 2005 season, the Yankees and Matsui rushed to reach an agreement on a contract extension. As part of the original three-year deal that brought Matsui to the States, the Yanks promised to non-tender him if they could not agree on a new contract in 2005. Just hours before the deadline, Matsui reupped with the Yanks for four years at $13 million a year.

Unfortunately for the Yanks, the new contract started out with an injury. On May 11, in a game against the Red Sox, Matsui tried to make a sliding catch and ended up shattering his wrist. He would miss four months of the year. It was his first stint on the DL during his professional career. The next three years were uneven ones for Hideki. He missed significant time in 2008 with knee problems, but when he was healthy, he could hit with the best of them.

For his Yankee career, Matsui was every bit as good as advertised. Despite missing time over the last three season, he heads west with a career batting line of .292/.370/.482 and a career OPS+ of 124. In 56 playoff games with the Yanks, he hit .312/.391/.541, and Yankee fans will forever remember his effort in the 2009 World Series. The three home runs in 13 at-bats, the eight RBIs, the decisive blows against Pedro Martinez will all live in Yankee lore.

As Matsui heads to Anaheim, reports Ken Belson, the Japanese presence will start to recede from the Bronx. For me, though, it’s more personal. He was a quiet and steady presence on the Yanks who always seemed to come through, and I’ll really miss the guy. He was a stalwart on the Yankees during a World Series drought, and it was fitting that he was the one to take home the MVP award and bring that title to the Bronx in his last season here. I had always figured he would leave after this season, and I’m glad he did it while going out on top. Even as he joins the hated Angels, I’ll be pulling for him, good old Number 55, the former left fielder-turned-designated hitter, Hideki Matsui, Number 55.

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Open Thread: Another stat

If you head to FanGraphs and click on an individual player page, you might notice a new stat under the Advanced section, where wOBA once resided. Fret not: wOBA is still there, just a column to the left. Occupying the far right slot is wRC+, which FanGraphs proprietor David Appelman explains here. It’s essentially a weighted Runs Created stat, but scaled to the league like OPS+.

The idea actually came from Tom Tango, who criticized the composition of OPS+. The idea behind OPS+ is to weigh on base and slugging averages on a scale where 100 is the league average. The stat takes into consideration park effects, which is nice, but it ignores stolen bases and, more importantly, it doesn’t give OBP enough credence. It weighs OPB to SLG 1.2 to 1. Tango, among others, notes that it should be more like 1.7 or 1.8 to 1.

So, in sum, the differences between wRC+ and OPS+:

1) wRC+ puts a more realistic weight on OBP
2) wRC+ includes stolen bases

Some will bemoan the introduction of a new stat. I never understood why. The point of new stats is to more accurately portray a player’s contribution. Sometimes you can find that in old stats. But, especially for more dynamic players, a stat like wRC+ can be a huge help. In this specific case, it credits players who steal bases and get on base, whereas OPS+ favors power hitters. In other words, I think it’s a bit more balanced take.

You can discuss this, or any other topic you choose in tonight’s open thread. But I really am interested in the reaction to another stat.

Jeter a natural in the leadoff spot

When the Yankees signed Johnny Damon after the 2005 season, they thought they were getting a center fielder and leadoff man for the next four years. It didn’t quite work out that way. By 2008 his poor defense necessitated a move to left, and by 2009 he was batting in the two hole. The latter, however, was no fault of his. Rather, it was the idea that the lineup would be more efficient with Derek Jeter leading off, with Damon to follow. Joe Girardi said that he liked what he saw of Damon hitting second while Jeter was playing in the WBC, and in late March he made the switch.

As I noted just days before the move, there was good reason to flop the top two guys in the order. Not only does Jeter hit into a lot of double plays, but Damon is historically good at avoiding them. The switch meant a potentially huge swing in double plays, which are the ultimate rally killer. The move worked in almost every way, with Jeter flourishing in the leadoff spot and Damon having one of this best offensive seasons.

Just how well did it work? Walk Like A Sabermetrician examines how teams fared out of the leadoff spot, and finds that Derek Jeter tops most of the major categories. This includes OBP, runs scored per 25.5 outs, and runs created per game. Derek also destroys in the weighted OPS category, which gives a bit more of a boost to OBP than OPS+. You can check the whole spreadsheet here. I’ll be looking forward to more first-pitch hits from Jeter in the leadoff spot this season.

The stove gets hotter with updates on Sheets, Holliday, and Bay

The Red Sox struck yesterday, landing both John Lackey and Mike Cameron. How will the Yankees react? In short, they won’t. They might have to alter their plans, given yesterday’s activity, but they’re not going to make some huge signing just to keep up with the Red Sox. They did, after all, bring in a new center fielder last week. In the torrid pace of the hot stove we can lose sight of that.

We kicked off today with a question: which outfielder would you want under current circumstances: Holliday for eight years, Bay for five, Damon for three, or Melky for one. As happens frequently during the off-season, those circumstances have changed. One option appears all but eliminated, and another seems at least a little more attractive.

According to three reporters — Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports and Mark Feinsand of the Daily News — the Yankees have no interest in Jason Bay. Last night’s report that the Yankees had reached out to Bay’s agents was just another routine hot stove item. We shouldn’t have expected otherwise. Bay seems adamant about a five-year deal, and reportedly has one on the table.

That development brings the options down to three, though one of them got at least a little more attractive. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, reports of an eight-year offer to Holliday might not be true. He hears that the Cardinals will “stand on a five-year offer,” though they could alter it a bit. Then again, there aren’t many teams in on Holliday, so we could certainly see St. Louis stay at five years. Sources also tell Olney that they “cannot foresee a situation” in which the Yankees bid on Holliday. I wouldn’t be so sure of that, especially if they’re talking about a five-year deal.

Finally, Ken Rosenthal hears that the Yankees are “very interested” in Ben Sheets. That’s good news. He’s a high-risk arm, but he could be fresh after missing all of 2009 with a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. While any arm injury should give teams pause, Sheets’s case might not be severe. Andy Pettitte underwent the same procedure at the end of the 2004 season, and came back with perhaps the best year of his career in 2005.

There is, of course, the issue of money, and as we’ve discussed before Sheets is looking for about $12 million. It’s doubtful any team guarantees him that much, so it could come down to the team that puts together the best incentives package. Even with that, it could take $8 million guaranteed to sign Sheets. For a team in the Yankees position, that might be worth it.

Top Prospects Of Decade

Last night we went with a “top [whatever] of the decade” theme for the open thread, so let’s continue with that today. Baseball America is running a series in which they looking back at each organization’s top ten prospects of the decade, and so far they’ve gotten to all the clubs in the NL East, NL Central, and NL West. I’m not sure when they’ll get to the AL, probably tomorrow, but I’m going to beat them to it and post my top ten Yankee prospects of the decade.

First off, let’s address the best/worst draft pick issue like BA. Clearly, the Yanks’ best draft pick of the last ten years is Joba Chamberlain. He was a top ten talent before concerns about his weight and a triceps injury caused him to fall all the way to the 41st overall pick in 2006. He’s since rocketed to the big leagues, and his +4.5 career WAR is far and away the best by of Yankee draft pick of the decade (Brett Gardner & Phil Hughes are tied for second at +2.2 each).

As for the worst pick, I’m going to go with Jon Poterson, though I suspect BA will go with a bigger name like Eric Duncan or C.J. Henry. Both Duncan and Henry were elite high school prospects deserving of their first round selection, while Poterson was just a straight up overdraft. The Yanks second pick (#37 overall) in 2004 was a big bodied and unathletic catcher that had to move out from behind the plate before the ink dried on his contract, and he hit just .207-.265-.326 in 215 career games, none above A-ball. Poterson was playing in an independent league less than three years after being drafted. Just a brutal, brutal pick.

Okay, let’s move on to the top ten prospects of the decade. This is all done in hindsight, based on what these guys have gone on to do, not what they were projected to do when they were just minor leaguers. If this were based on potential, it would be Drew Henson then everyone else.

  1. Alfonso Soriano, 2B: One homer away from becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club in 2002 (he later joined with the Nats), Soriano hit .284-.322-.502 with 98 homers and 121 steals in 501 games for the Bombers before being traded away for some guy named Alex Rodriguez.
  2. Robbie Cano, 2B: A career .306-.339-.480 hitter at age 26, Cano has developed into a bat control freak that’s on the brink of stardom.
  3. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP: Easily the most productive pitcher the Yanks have developed since Andy Pettitte, Wang won 55 games in parts of five seasons with the Yanks, although his tenure came to an abrupt end last weekend because of injuries.
  4. Nick Johnson, 1B: The man who led all of professional baseball (majors and minors) with a .501 OBP (!!!) during the ’98-’99 seasons quietly hit .256-.376-.424 in parts of three seasons with the Yanks before being dealt in a package for Javy Vazquez.
  5. Juan Rivera, OF: Traded away in the same deal as Johnson, Rivera has gone to post an under-the-radar .285-.331-.470 batting line while playing solid defense in the corner outfield spots.
  6. Marcus Thames, OF: Only Soriano has more career homers than Thames among players on this list, and although his contribution to the Yankees was limited, Thames has six productive seasons (107 OPS+) for the Tigers.
  7. Joba Chamberlain, RHP: Just three full seasons into his pro career, Joba’s already got a 31 start season in the big leagues under his belt, plus a rep as being a dominant reliever. Best of both worlds, I guess.
  8. Phil Hughes, RHP: Hughes is the messiah, the first prospect that represented the team’s newfound dedication to building from within after years of eschewing the farm system. Still just 23, Hughes has already been a major contributor out of the bullpen for a World Championship club.
  9. Dioner Navarro, C: Pudgito never got much of a chance in pinstripes, though he’s gone on to be a serviceable backstop for two clubs, not to mention an All Star for a pennant winning club.
  10. Melky Cabrera, OF: Everybody’s favorite fourth outfielder is still just 25-years-old, and has been a fixture in the Yanks’ outfield for the last four seasons. He enjoyed the best season of his career in 2009, hitting .274-.336-.416.

The talent production really starts to drop off after that. There’s Al Aceves, Brett Gardner, David Robertson, Phil Coke, Brad Halsey, and Andy Phillips, none of whom has sustained much of anything in the majors to this point. Just four of the ten players listed above were drafted by the Yanks, the other six were signed off the international market. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the draft gets all the attention, but the international market continues to be the backbone of the Yanks’ system.

What Happened To All Those Draft Picks? Part Two

Yesterday we took a look at what happened to the draft picks the Yankees forfeited as free agent compensation from 1979 to 1985, and today we’ll continue the series by looking at the picks surrendered between 1986 and 1991. Remember to let me know if there’s any missing/incorrect info in any of the posts in this series.

1986 First Round Pick
Free Agent: Al Holland, LHP
Forfeited Pick: Terry Carr, OF (Angels)
Looking to upgrade their bullpen, the Yankees imported Holland from the Angels, who had a 2.72 ERA in eight previous seasons in the big leagues. Unfortunately, he didn’t produce as expected, putting up a 6.32 ERA in 47 innings in pinstripes. As compensation for losing Holland, the Angels received the 25th overall pick in the 1986 draft, and used it to selected Maryland high school outfielder Terry Carr. Carr never made it out of A-ball, retiring from baseball in 1990 with a .217 AVG and a .284 SLG in 1,510 career minor league plate appearances.

The Halos also received a supplemental first round pick, taking Texas high school righty Daryl Green 28th overall. Like Carr, Green never made it out of A-ball, and was out of the game by 1992 after posting a 4.09 ERA in 105 starts and 68 relief appearances.

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Hot Stove Open Thread

Ben, Joe, and I are going to be out at an RAB power lunch for a few hours to discuss our soon-to-launched China division with potential investors. We believe China is the future baseball blogging mecca of the world, so we’re trying to get in on the ground floor. The RAG (River Ave. Gulfstream) will have us back this afternoon, but in the meantime use this thread to talk about any breaking hot stove news. We’ll be sure to cover anything major once we get back.