Godzilla = Clark Kent?

What do we want to know about Hideki Matsui that good comps can help us understand? Two things: 1) Considering that he played the first half of his career in Japan, can we still get an idea of how good he has been, historically? And 2) given that he's averaged 55 games missed the past four seasons, just what kind of production can we expect from him in an age-36 year in which not only is Mike Scioscia putting him in the lineup every damned day, but he's even forcing to play "defense" now and then?

I think the answer to 1) is "yes," especially considering Matsui led the AL in games played from 29-31 (hence, giving us an idea about what a healthy Godzilla looks like in his late prime). The answer to 2) could tell us a lot about whether we're going to turn this stinky season around.

For this version of the comps exercise (whose methodology is explained here), I dipped the % of games played at the chosen position (LF) to 50, since a lot of guys like Matsui end up as DHs, or (shudder) even in RF.

#comps: 32
topper: .307/.377/.521, 131 OPS+ Moises Alou
middle: .267/.367/.444, 124 OPS+ Brian Downing
ourboy: .292/.370/.482, 124 OPS+ Hideki Matsui
bottom: .291/.351/.482, 116 OPS+ Raul Ibanez

Top-125 Rankings in Bill James' 2001 Historical Abstract? Of the 29 comps here who had played the bulk of their careers before James' deadline, only one didn't make a Top 125 list at his position, and that's mostly because Rube Bressler spent the first half of his career pitching (and not very well). How good is Hideki Matsui? Well, consider he's smack dab in the middle of this list: Al Simmons 7, Tim Raines 8, Minnie Minoso 10, Goose Goslin 16, Zack Wheat 23, Jim Rice 27, Jose Cruz 29, Heinie Manush 30, Bobby Veach 33, George Foster 34, Kirk Gibson 36, Brian Downing 38, Don Buford 41, Gary Matthews 46, Topsy Hartsel 47, Dusty Baker 54, Gene Woodling 57, Hank Sauer 60, Riggs Stephenson 61, Ben Oglive 64, Lonnie Smith 65, Greg Vaughn 68, Leon Wagner 78, Gus Zernial 96, Jim Lemon 97 (RF), Charlie Maxwell 99, Luis Gonzales 112, and Tilly Walker 114.

Simmons, Goslin, Wheat, Rice, and Manush are in the Hall of Fame. Raines and Minoso deserve to be. I think it's a safe bet that Hideki Matsui is one of the 75 best left fielders to ever play the game.

Any other interesting people on this list? Two of the most recent comps, Moises Alou and Luis Gonzales, are like walking Hall of Fame rebuttals. You think Garret Anderson and his 2508 hits, 517 doubles, 286 homers and 1358 RBI has a shot at the Hall? Gonzo ended up with 2591 hits, 596 doubles (15th all-time!), 354 HRs and 1439 RBI, and nobody's talking about his HoF credentials. Think Bobby Abreu's .299, 260 HRs and 1202 RBIs are a potential ticket to Cooperstown? Moises hit .303 with 332 and 1287. It's not hard to create lists with either man in which they are the only players not in nor headed for the Hall of Fame.

In your heart, you know this comp is right: Partly because the whither-Matsui question is so central to Angel fortunes in 2010, and partly because so many people on this list have their numbers skewed by different offensive contexts, plus various wars and strikes, I spent more time than usual trying to figure this out. For starters, I used Baseball Reference's marvelous "Neutralized Batting" function to re-run everyone's 29-35 years into the same runs/games context, then expressed the results as a seasonal average. When you do that, arguably the most similar player to Matsui here is a fascinating cat you've never heard of named Charlie Maxwell:

NM:  G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB  BB  SO  BA   OBP  SLG 
HM: 131 543 477  75 138 28  2 20  83  2  59  69 .290 .368 .479
CM: 129 489 418  61 115 14  3 20  70  2  64  66 .275 .373 .471

I mean, aside from 15 points less batting average, and half as many doubles, that's just a dead ringer, right? Not so fast. The doubles line is the tipoff.

Maxwell, a lefty like Matsui who also only got a full-time Major League job beginning in his age-29 season (which was just a monster show of .326/.414/.534), played in just about the most friendly confines for a LH power-hitter: Detroit. For his career, he hit 87 homers at home, 58 on the road (Hideki has a more normal split of 79/66, a gap that will likely narrow this year). Maxwell also couldn't hit lefties a lick (.232/.333/.348), while Matsui has always hit them almost as good as righties (.293/.358/.469). As a result, Maxwell never played more than 145 games, and topped 600 plate appearances just once. Matsui led the league in games played three years, racked up additional 143-game and 142-game seasons, and topped 600 PAs four times. Maxwell's productive career is a study in explosion (OPS+ of 143) followed by decline (131, 113, 118, 103), and then he was done as a full-timer. Matsui had his second-best OPS+ last year at 35, and his string looks like this: 109, 137, 130, 128, 123, 108, 131 (and 97 so far this year). In this case looks deceive.

Another good contender is Charlie Maxwell's contemporary and Angels baseball legend Leon Wagner:

NM:  G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB  BB  SO  BA   OBP  SLG 
LW: 123 479 427  65 124 15  1 19  67  6  44  61 .291 .361 .466
HM: 131 543 477  75 138 28  2 20  83  2  59  69 .290 .368 .479

This is the one I would probably choose, since Daddy Wags at his best resembles Godzilla at his best -- a big-ass LH masher who could hit .300/30/100 and take a walk or HBP. But Wagner was a famous free spirit/borderline head case who did not take care of his body, and was reduced to part-time work at 34 and just 12 ABs at 35 before retiring. Since I want to know how good Hideki might hit this year, Wagner is of no use to me.

Another close call is Ben Oglive, with his adjusted line of .285/.356/.486 (5 points less batting, 12 less OBP, 7 more slugging). But Oglive, too (and famously at that) couldn't hit lefties with a board: .246/.300/.398. He was a platoon player until age 31. Yet even given that, he was measurably more durable than Matsui from ages 29-35, averaging 143 games a year (adjusted for the '81 strike). And those of you old enough to remember him will note a significant stylistic difference, too: Oglive was whippet thin, with just ultra-violent wrists, snapping the ball down the right-field line. Matsui is all Godzilla-legs, with one of the *least* elegant looking left-handed swings you'll see. Oglive could run a bit, stealing 11+ bases five times, and never grounding into more than 12 double plays. Matsui was a better all-around hitter, but more fragile. Let's keep moving.

You could make a pretty damned good case for Cliff Floyd (.279/.368/.490), but he only had one year after age 29 in which he played in as many as 113 games. Matsui has had 5. Kirk Gibson's slash line of .281/.379/.477 makes for a surprisingly good fit, but he still stole 24 bases a year in his early 30s, and grounded into double plays basically less than any other power-hitter in baseball history (Hideki hit into 25 in 2003 alone) ... plus Kirk averaged just 101 games for the six-year span. In the opposite direction (toward durability), you have George Foster, with a similar slash line of .281/.351/.489, but Foster was great from 26-32 and mediocre thereafter, and even as a mediocrite he would play 150 games every year.

So I'm looking for someone who could still hit at 35, who wasn't at the bottom of an obvious arc, who was durable when healthy but susceptible to major injuries, who took care of himself physically, comported himself professionally, and didn't have major holes in his game aside from anything connected to speed. Who does that leave us with, among comps with pretty similar stats? All-time Angel Brian Downing:

NM:  G   PA  AB  R   H  2B 3B HR RBI SB  BB  SO  BA   OBP  SLG 
HM: 131 543 477  75 138 28  2 20  83  2  59  69 .290 .368 .479
BD: 129 545 461  74 128 24  1 19  75  2  71  56 .278 .381 .460

Matsui gives you an extra 4 doubles, 4 singles, 1 triple and 1 HR per year; Downing gives you 12 more walks and 5 more HBP. Downing missed most of 1980 and a third of 1983; Matsui was largely absent in 2006 and 2008. Both have striking cheekbones, and were the starting DH for the Angels in their age-36 years. Now, while Downing's 1987 was almost certainly better than what Hideki's 2010 will be like (.272/.400/.487, with career highs in runs, HRs, and walks), Matsui as a hitter has been almost exactly as good, and almost exactly as consistent, as Downing. Given that, and his equally broad offensive skill set, I don't see him falling off a cliff, unless his knees break.

Still! Let's run the age-36 years of all the guys above, plus Moises Alou, Dusty Baker, and Raul Ibanez. Ranked in order of Win Shares:

BD: 155 567 110 154 29  3 29  77  5/5 106  85 .272 .400 .487 137  23
RI: 162 635  85 186 43  3 23 110  2/4  64 110 .293 .358 .479 123  23
MA: 151 565  83 158 35  1 22  91  3/1  63  67 .280 .357 .462 111  20
GF: 129 452  57 119 24  1 21  77  0/1  46  87 .263 .331 .460 121  17
DB: 111 343  48  92 15  1 14  52  2/1  50  47 .268 .359 .440 126  13
BO: 101 341  40  99 17  2 10  61  0/2  37  51 .290 .354 .440 117  12
KG: 116 403  62 105 18  6 13  62 15/6  44  87 .261 .337 .432 107   9
CM:  71 130  17  30  4  2  3  17  0/0  31  27 .231 .370 .362 108   5
CF:  10  16   0   2  0  0  0   0  0/0   1   7 .125 .176 .125 -13   0
LW: [out of baseball after age 35]

Note that everyone who could still get out of bed in the morning still hit the baseball pretty good (and better than Matsui has so far this year). As bad as he has looked at times this year, I think he'll end up well above average until/unless his legs shatter beneath him.

Other interesting facts about this group? Though there is no reason for this search to produce such results, an inordinate number of Matsui's comps share something in common with him -- they broke into the big leagues incredibly late for a good hitter. Only none of them had the whole, was-winning-MVPs-in-Japan excuse. Here's how long it took some of these guys to qualify for a batting title. I'll put explainers in parenthesis:

27 -- Topsy Hartsel (maybe because he was only 5'5"; also, he was stuck for a year behind HoFer Sam Crawford); Gene Woodling (WWII, then stuck behind HoFer Ralph Kiner); Gus Zernial (one-dimensional slugger, WWII); Leon Wagner (goofy around the gills; also stuck behind Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Orlando Cepeda); Don Buford (late bloomer), Kirk Gibson (injuries, semi-late bloomer).
28 -- Jim Lemon (one-dimensional, Korean War, bad luck).
29 -- Riggs Stephenson (injuries, bad defense), Charlie Maxwell (stuck behind Ted Williams and bad management in Boston), Jose Cruz (late bloomer, stuck behind Lou Brock and Bake McBride and Reggie Smith, then platooned in Houston) Ben Oglive (platooned to death).
30 -- Raul Ibanez (late bloomer, questionable defense, never gained Lou Piniella's confidence)
31 -- Hank Sauer (poor defense, WWII, idiot Reds management)
32 -- Rube Bressler (was a pitcher first, then suffered various injuries)

Considering that age 26 often produces a player's best season, that's pretty remarkable. And a lot of the other guys were on this list were late bloomers, too -- Moises Alou and Lonnie Smith and Tillie Walker didn't get going until 26.

Coming up next in this series: We wrap up our look at the offense by seeing how all the named comps performed in their equivalent of the 2010 season. Is there hope for this offense? Is my grade inflation out of control? Stay tuned and find out!

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