Rays Close to Signing Hideki Matsui to a Minor League Deal

By Robbie Knopf

An ordinary off-day got a little more interesting as Jack Curry broke the news that Hideki Matsui is expected to sign a minor league contract with the Rays. Although Matsui lacks any defensive versatility (maybe he can fake left field), this is a relatively noteworthy move by the Rays, and not just because they’re signing the former World Series MVP.

Matsui’s 2011 numbers appeared to show a steep decline from his career marks. He hit just 12 home runs at the carnivorous O.co Coliseum (or whatever it’s called now) after hitting 20 or more home runs each of the last five seasons that he had appeared in at least 95 games. But it wasn’t just the home runs. Matsui posted a .251/.321/.375 line with 28 doubles, which was his highest total since 2007, 12 homers, and just 72 RBI. Considering Matsui turns 38 in June and has played just 45 games in the field the last three seasons, that appeared to be enough to signal the end of his brilliant career between Japan and the United States. But the Rays have given him one final shot to crack a big league roster. Why? It wasn’t just for name recognition.

Hidden in Matsui’s lackluster stats were some positives, the most notable of which was his line drive rate. Matsui line drive rate was 22% of his batted balls, the highest mark of his career. Why could that have been? The answer is that he adjusted his swing because of the ballpark he played in. Even in the second half in 2011, when Matsui rebounded to a .293/.353/.425, he hit just 15 doubles and 6 homers. Matsui hit plenty of line drives and hit the ball to the opposite field more than he had done previously. Matsui also continued to hit left-handed pitching very well for a lefty batter (he has hit .285 against both lefties and righties in his career), hitting .273 with a .795 OPS and bizarrely, 8 of his 14 home runs despite the fact that he had more than double the plate appearances versus righties. While Matsui’s overall home rate tailed off, he actually hit home runs at a higher rate versus lefties than he had in the past, connecting for homers in 4.7% of his plate appearances versus southpaws compared to his 3.7% career mark. Say what you want about Matsui, but he can still hit lefties.

Hideki Matsui will never be the All-Star caliber player that he was for the first few years of his career again. But he still can contribute to a big league ballclub. Matsui’s power may have looked much worse than it was because of the dreadful ballpark he played in, and especially in the second half of the year, Matsui made adjustments to help raise his overall numbers. And Matsui’s ability to hit lefty pitching still gives him the ability to be a feared batter in a major league lineup. Considering the Rays’ lefty batters have just a .293 OBP against lefties thus far this season, Matsui’s ability to hit lefties is definitely a plus. Hideki Matsui may really be washed up. Maybe he’ll play a few minor league games before calling in quits. But he could still have the ability to be a contributor in a big league lineup, and especially considering they signed him to a no-risk minor league deal, the Rays are willing to take a chance on Matsui and see if he has anything left. As strange as it may sound, Andrew Friedman is going for upside on the negligible-risk Matsui deal. And who knows? Maybe he’ll disccover just a little of his magic from his with the Yankees and make 2012 his last hurrah.