Friday, April 10, 2020

The Goats of 2005: Kaz Matsui

In December of 2003 the Mets announced the signing of 28-year-old Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui. Kaz had been a big star for the Seibu Lions in Japan, hitting for average and power and with the reputation for playing good defense as well.

Other major league clubs were looking to sign Matsui. They were primarily looking at him as a second baseman due to concerns about whether his arm strength would allow him to play shortstop in the American game.  The Mets convinced Matsui to sign with them by throwing a lot of money at him ($20 million over 3 years) and promising that he could play shortstop.

On the face of it this wasn't a terrible decision. The Mets farm system had little talent that was even close to major league ready, and Matsui was a true superstar in Japan. Over the past 2 seasons he had batted over .300 and slugged 30+ home runs each year.  Nobody expected him to duplicate that here, but it wasn't unreasonable to expect a good batting average and some pop out of Matsui.

The only problem was that Kaz was coming to play shortstop for a team that currently had a single young player that gave fans hope and a reason to come to Shea Stadium. Jose Reyes was supposed to be the shortstop for the future in Queens.  In interviews Reyes clearly appeared to be blindsided by the move, along with being confused and hurt. He took the move to 2B like a good soldier, not like he had a choice in the matter, and the 2004 season opened with Kaz and Reyes as the keystone combination.

In sadly predictable Mets fashion it did not go well. After watching Matsui play shortstop for a few games it was apparent that he did not have the strong arm most shortstops in the American game possessed. He also had an aversion to making plays to his right with the backhand, taking the extra time to try to circle around these balls that put even more pressure on his throwing.

A significant number of Kaz' throws to first base wound up in the dirt or off the bag. He might have been bailed out by a great first baseman, but 2004 was the season of the Mike Piazza at first base experiment that was doomed to inglorious failure.  On days Piazza wasn't playing first the other options weren't any better.  More often than not these errant rushed throws by Matsui wound up as errors.

Kaz collected 24 errors in a season shortened by injuries to 113 games.  Manager Art Howe, undoubtedly under orders from upper management, kept Matsui at shortstop for much too long, and the fans turned on the former Japanese hero vociferously.

Matsui combined the troubling defense with offense that would have been just adequate for a good defensive shortstop. In the steroid era a line of .272/.331/.396 didn't offset bad play in the field.

Kaz Matsui headed into the 2005 season with a lot of baggage. He was already reviled by many Mets fans for the whole fiasco over who should have played shortstop the previous season. There was a new GM, Omar Minaya, who bore no personal responsibility for the signing.  There was also a new manager, Willie Randolph.

It had already been announced that Matsui would move over to 2B and Jose Reyes would slide back to short in 2005.  There seemed to be a chance to redeem the signing and the player if Matsui could improve his play at the position for which he was better suited.  If Kaz played well there was a decent chance he could remove those goat horns and enjoy his last 2 years in Queens.

Needless to say, that didn't happen. Matsui didn't play that well defensively at 2B, committing errors and failing to make plays. His offense declined to an anemic .255/.300/.352 slash line, good for an OPS+ of 72. Randolph lost faith in him and Kaz lost playing time to the great Miguel Cairo, who managed to be an even worse offensive player but less of a defensive liability.

Kaz Matsui's failures defensively and sub-par production at the plate ensured that the fans would never come around. He was booed lustily and relentlessly.  Some players manage to overcome a bad first impression, as Carlos Beltran did in 2006.  Some, like Kaz, just seem to have a little black cloud following them around and manage to play down to low expectations.

Minaya tried to dump Matsui following the 2005 season but could find no takers. After Matsui got off to an even worse start in 2006 he finally traded him to Colorado for utility player Eli Marrero.  Matsui further frustrated Mets fans by doing much better hitting in the rarefied air of Colorado, a 120 OPS+ in just over 130 AB.

He came back down to earth in 2007. His slash line was solid, not spectacular for Coors field, .288/.342/.405, which admittedly was still better than his Mets production. He also did have quite a good playoff run with the Rockies that fall.

Kaz signed with the Astros in 2008, managing to miss the start of the season with an anal fissure, of all things.  He came back to have arguably the best year of his career, slashing .293/.354/.427.  His numbers dropped down drastically in 2009 and by the following season his career in American baseball was over.

As bad as it went for Kaz Matsui in New York, the truth was it never had to be that way.

Why the Mets brain trust didn't realize that bringing him in as shortstop and forcing Reyes to move was a terrible idea is beyond me.  The resentment and negative publicity forced Matsui to begin his time in New York with an uphill climb to win the fans over.  It's difficult enough for a Japanese player to overcome the language barrier and the difference in playing ball in Japan vs. the United States.

Moreover, the Mets claimed that they had scouted Matsui extensively and were convinced that he was more than capable of playing shortstop in the US.  Other teams said he wasn't, and it was apparent almost from the start that the Mets were wrong.

Perhaps Matsui would never had signed with the Mets as a second baseman, but that was the only way they should have signed him.  If they left Reyes alone at SS and brought Kaz in the play second at the very least he would have started out with a more neutral opinion from the fans.  His major league career shows that he was adequate at the position, and if his offensive numbers were along the lines of what he did in 2004 he would have probably had been remembered as a decent enough player.

Kaz was never bound for greatness in this country.  His power from Japan didn't translate and he was hardly durable, averaging only 90 games played in his 7 year career in the states.  He did have some assets, however.  He was fast, a pretty good base runner who could steal some bases. He was a good athlete in general.

Only the Mets could turn the signing of a solid, decent player into such a disaster.  They not only failed to properly analyze his capabilities, but they were somehow oblivious to the obvious fallout of moving Jose Reyes.  Remember, Reyes' ascension to the big club was one of the very few highlights of the season before Matsui was brought on.

Anyone with half a brain looking critically at the roster for 2004 would quickly understand that a Matsui signing, even with the rosiest possible scenario for Kaz' success, was not going to turn a pretty bad team into a contender.  So why make this move at all?

Kaz Matsui definitely earned a spot as a goat in that 2005 season, but the real goats of the story were the committee of people that ran the Mets before Minaya took over.  He was just one of several glaring mistakes made by that crew.


I think when we venture back in time to look at 2005 again we're going to step away from the goats and try to resurrect a happier memory.  Please stay well, everyone.  Thanks for stopping by.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

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