3:10 pm Aug. 3, 20121
Hideki Matsui may have played his final major league game, and attention must be paid.
The 38-year-old slugger and longtime Yankee was granted his release, at his request, by the Tampa Bay Rays this week. Matsui was hitting just .147 with two home runs in 103 plate appearances. Since he has long since ceased being an asset in the field, that makes him an unlikely pickup by any other team.
If this is the end of the road for Matsui, it means he's essentially lost the derby with Ichiro Suzuki to be the greatest Japanese position player in M.L.B. history to date. (That's the case, at least, if you're measuring in stats, not championship rings.)
Suzuki came over in 2001, and has been worth about twice as much offensively as Matsui in 35 percent more plate appearances. Defensively, Suzuki has been worth even more, while what defense Matsui has played only eats at his total value.
But Matsui was an undeniable success story from the moment he arrived in the United States in 2003. That was far from certain. Suzuki had won an M.V.P. with the Mariners, but as a very different kind of player than the power-hitting Matsui.
Matsui's durability, playing in every single game the Yankees played from 2003-2005, helped to maximize the value of his hitting. His O.P.S.+ was a solid 109 in 2003, then jumped to 137 in 2004 and 130 in 2005, remaining in the 120s for most of the rest of the decade.
By itself, Matsui's American track record (roughly 5000 plate appearances, 118 O.P.S.+, no defensive value) doesn't come close to Hall of Fame standards. Dave Kingman posted a 115 O.P.S.+ over 7429 plate appearances, and no one is clamoring for Kingman to make the Hall of Fame.
But Matsui also piled up 332 home runs over 10 Japanese seasons, with seven seasons at more than a .984 O.P.S. In essence, he was Dave Kingman here plus Ralph Kiner over there.
Is that enough to make the Hall of Fame? How much to count Japanese stats for imports is one of the more intriguing questions for the Hall of Fame voters to decide, first with Matsui and Suzuki, and perhaps down the road with Yu Darvish and others. Along with things like how much a designated hitter needs to hit to justify a Hall of Fame plaque, and how dominant a closer must be for enshrinement, these new developments in the game, now not so new, are forcing voters to start evaluating Hall worthiness in a new way.
If Matsui falls short of enshrinement, which he very likely will, he still had as perfect a cap to his career with the Yankees as anyone, winning a 2009 World Series M.V.P. with a .615 average and three home runs.
The itenerant years that have followed, with the Angels, Athletics and Rays, have drawn little attention here in New York. That's for the best; Matsui, if not a Hall of Famer, still deserves to be remembered as a great slugger.