Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Divergent Paths Of Matsui & Wang

The Yankees signed two bona fide stars from Asian countries in the 2000's. After the disasters that were Katsuhiro Maeda and Hideki Irabu and before the debacle of Kei Igawa, Chien-Ming Wang and Hideki Matsui played vital roles on the team this decade.

Wang was acquired all the way back in 2000, starting at the one of the lowest levels of professional ball the Yankees could place him in (the short season NYPL) and didn't make his Major League Debut until 2005. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hideki Matsui arrived via much fanfare after winning both the Central League MVP and Japan Series title in 2002 and joined the Yankees out of Spring Training in '03.

The graphic below follows the careers of the two men, both of whom are athletic heros in their respective countries. In many ways, left the Yankees the same way they came to them; Matsui a champion and a hero and Wang an unwanted minor leaguer. It shows in their salaries as well. Matsui has already made $73M in the United States and is due $6.5 more while Wang netted about $10M between the Majors and Minors and will have to take when he is given from his next team.
  1. The Taiwanese right hander was signed as an amateur free agent in 2000 and made his debut pitching in the short season New York Penn League for the Staten Island Yankees. He had a fantastic first season, throwing 87 innings at a 2.45 ERA.

  2. Wang injured his shoulder and missed the entire 2001 season. However, he rebounded nicely in 2002, compiling a 1.72 ERA over 78 1/3 innings.

  3. Amidst much hype, Hideki Matsui was signed as a free agent from the Yomiuri Giants of Japan and given a Major League contract. Expectations varied but many expected his prodigious power to carry over from Japan. He hit only 16 home runs his first year but did rack up 42 doubles.

  4. During 2003 and 2004, Chien-Ming made most of his ascent through the Yankees' minor league system. He began at Rookie ball in Tampa, and jumped to AA by the end of '03. Despite an ERA in the 4.00's during his time in Trenton, he made it to AAA by the end of 2004.

  5. Hideki Matsui's ostensible prime as a Yankee came in 2004 and 2005. He played in every game in both years, hit .302/.378/.509, averaged 27 home runs and 112 RBIs while striking out scarcely more than he walked.

  6. 2005 was the year that Wang made the jump to the Big Leagues. He wasn't pitching spectacularly in Scranton but when Jaret Wright got injured the Yankees were forced to call him up. He pitched 7 innings of two run ball in his first start and ended up sticking with the team for the rest of the season, going 8-5 with a 4.02 ERA in 17 starts.

  7. In May of 2006, Matsui broke his wrist attempting to make a catch in the outfield, ending his season and his consecutive games streak of 1768 which he had carried over from Japan. He was in the middle of a solid offensive season, hovering at a 128 OPS+ through 51 games.

  8. Wang's peak as a Yankee was high but it was also steep, lasting only two complete seasons. In 2006 and 2007, just as Matsui was relegated to the background, Wang burst onto the scene. He won 38 games in those two years (the most in the Majors during that time) and pitched 417 1/3 innings of 3.67 ERA ball.

  9. Matsui re-emerged in 2007 but injuries to his knees and hamstrings limited his defensive ability and he appeared in 143 games, 112 in left field. In 2008 he was injured again, appearing in only 93 games and putting up a 108 OPS+, the lowest of his career.

  10. On June 15th, 2008, Wang's career entered a downward spiral from which he has not recovered. He missed the rest of the '08 season and when he returned in 2009, he couldn't have been much worse, surrendering 23 runs in 6 innings in his first three starts. The Yanks jerked Wang around (/obligatory) calling him up after only two minor league starts after Joba Chamberlain got hit with a line drive. He alternated between the bullpen and the rotation for 9 more appearances before being placed on the disabled list July 15th and undergoing shoulder surgery.

  11. Hideki Matsui rebounded in 2009, having one of his better offensive seasons strictly at the Yankee DH. He hit 28 homers and drove in 90 runs despite playing in only 142 games. Of course, his career as a Yankee was capped over with a resplendent World Series recognized by the MVP award. He just signed a $6.5M contract with the Angels.

  12. In the process of rehabbing his shoulder injury, Chien Ming Wang waits in limbo. The Yankees declined to tender him a contract and he doesn't figure to be ready to pitch until May at the earliest. As such, he may wait until then to sign his contract.

Sayonara Hideki-San

Good morning Fackers. Well I would have bet you a dollar that last week's Winter Meetings would be the peak of the Hot Stove League. Then yesterday happened. We'll get to all the hullabaloo a little later on today, but the only proper way to lead off this morning is to bid a fond farewell and thank you to Hideki Matsui for seven years of good and loyal balky-kneed service.

Matsui came to the the Yankees from the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent following the 2002 season. While Ichiro experienced unprecedented success in his first two years in the Big Leagues, other Japanese postion players - Tsuyoshi Shinjo and So Taguchi - had not been as successful. Matsui was the first slugger to come out of Japan and no one quite knew what to expect. Bolder predictions forecasted as many as fifty home runs; others weren't quite so optimistic.

Early on at least, the pessimists were right. After an Opening Day grand slam, Matsui had a difficult time adjusting to two seamers and sinking fastballs. He perpetually flailed at pitches on the outer part of the plate, trying to pull everything - a habit he's yet to outgrow. It seemed as if every other at bat saw Matsui rolling over one and grounding weakly to second. Through his first fifty eight games - more than a third of his first Major League season - Matsui was hitting .250/.299/.357 with just 3 HRs. He had grounded in to eight double plays, most of them surely of the 4-6-3 variety as he tried again and again to pull the pitch low and away.

Matsui struck bottom in an early June interleague series in Cincinnati. The Yankees were 33-23, leading Boston by a game and a half, Toronto by two, and Baltimore by four and a half. Despite their record, they were playing listless baseball, foreshadowing the early portions of seasons to come. Prior to the opening game of the season, George Steinbrenner named Derek Jeter as the eleventh captain in Yankee history. Matsui went just 1 for 8 over the next two games, dropping his triple slash line to its lowest mark of the season. But he was about to get right.

In the series finale, dropped to seventh in the order, Matsui went 4 for 5 with three doubles, a home run, two runs scored, and three RBI. He hit .311/.385/.485 with 13 HR over the season's final 105 games, finishing with a respectable .287/.353/.435 line in finishing second to future Yankee legend Angel Berroa in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He wouldn't look back for the remainder of his Yankee career.

After extremely productive seasons in 2004 and 2005, Matsui's body began to betray him in 2006. Off to another solid start, he broke his wrist in May 2006 game as he attempted a diving catch in left field. The injury cost him 111 games and relegated him almost exclusively to DH duty upon his return. In 2007 and 2008 Matsui's knees, abused from years playing on the astroturf of the Tokyo Dome, did him in. He required surgery on his right knee after the '07 season and on his left during the '08 season. Relatively healthy in 2009, he bounced back with his best season in four years, culminating with the World Series MVP.

More than just his significant offensive production in the middle of the line up, Matsui's professionalism will be missed. He was quiet - not all of it due to the language barier - dignified, and well respected by teammates, announcers, media, fans, and opponents alike. Outside of the "core four" he was the most-tenured Yankee. Now he's the newest Angel.

The Yankees easily could have matched the more-than-reasonable $6.5M, one year deal Matsui received from the Angels. But, with Matsui's physical limitations, he wasn't priority number one - or even priority number three this off-season. The club wasn't willing to make a decision on him until other situations resolved, and that thought process didn't change even when Matsui was willing to accept a very team-friendly offer. It's not a pleasant outcome, but it's what the off-season plan dictates. For the second consecutive year it appears the Angels will get themselves a helluva bargain on a former Yankee.

So thanks Hideki. And good luck to you, except of course during the ten or so times the Angels and Yankees meet next year. It's been a fun seven years Godzilla, but now, they say he's got to go.