Update: Please click here for comments from Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson regarding consideration of Japanese League statistics in evaluating a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
Hideki Matsui will best be remembered for his seven years in pinstripes, but his last three seasons bouncing around the American League could turn out to be among the most important of his career. By prolonging his time in uniform, Matsui, who is reportedly set to announce his retirement, reached the milestone of 10 seasons in the major leagues. As a result, the former Japanese slugger will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration in five years, assuming he makes good on his intention to walk away from the game. However, we don’t have to wait that long to consider his candidacy.
Is Hideki Matsui a Hall of Famer? Although the left handed outfielder/DH ranks surprisingly high on the Yankees all-time list as a hitter (21st in OPS+ and 22nd in wOBA among those with at least 3,000 plate appearances), his overall numbers still pale in comparison to the Hall of Fame standard. Even including his postseason heroics and prominence on several great Yankee teams, Matsui still seems to fall short in terms of overall contribution while playing in the majors. But, what about the 10 seasons he spent in Japan?
Before joining the Yankees, Matsui belted 332 homers and drove in 889 runs while playing for the Yomiuri Giants. When combined with his output in the major leagues, Matsui’s 507 homers and 1,649 RBIs take on historic proportions. Of course, you can’t simply translate Matsui’s performance at face value. However, even if you allow for a discount, at the very least, Matsui’s combined resume merits serious consideration for election to the Hall of Fame.
Top-10 Postseason Performers, Ranked by OPS
Note: Minimum 150 plate appearances
The greatest resistance to Matsui’s candidacy will likely stem from the belief that the Japanese professional league is vastly inferior to the major leagues. Putting aside the validity of that claim, it’s important to note that the case for Matsui would not involve waiving any of the eligibility requirements. With 10 full seasons in the major leagues, the 2009 World Series MVP is guaranteed to at least be screened for the ballot, so if he makes that far, the electorate will have a significant body of work in the major leagues to evaluate. In that sense, those voting on his candidacy will not be asked to translate his stats from the Japanese league, but consider the level to which Matsui would have performed had he spent his entire career in the majors.
There is some precedent for trying to project how players would have performed in the major leagues if afforded the chance in order to determine Hall of Fame credentials. During his induction speech in 1966, Ted Williams campaigned for the inclusion of Negro League players in the Hall of Fame on that very basis. “I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here, only because they weren’t given the chance,” Williams stated. Although the circumstances are different (the restrictiveness of the Japanese reserve rules are not the same as baseball’s color barrier), the same general concept still seems to apply when it comes to preserving baseball history, which is, after all, the mission of the Hall of Fame.
Unlike Ichiro Suzuki, whose career at least reaches borderline status on the basis of his major league contribution alone, Matsui’s Hall of Fame candidacy needs a significant boost from his time in Japan. For that reason, even if voters grade him on a curve, Matsui still might not achieve a passing mark. However, he deserves the consideration. That should be evident now, but if not, the Hall of Fame voters have five years to figure it out.