Not to spread out the debate about Kaz and his departure over yet another post, but I keep thinking about this one. Why was Kaz Matsui's tenure in the orange and blue such a debacle? Why was he such a lightning rod for the fans? And should anyone get the blame?
What happened to Kaz? Was he just hurt all the time? Did he get old early? Was he too sensitive for New York? Was he too sensitive to leave the routine he knew in Japan? (Those last two aren't the same thing — there are baseball creatures of habit for whom dozens of little cultural and game differences would be intolerable. I'm guessing Steve Trachsel would be a disaster in Japan, as opposed to an annoying enigma here.)
Compare his Japanese stats to his American ones and you can't believe it's the same player. Were we expecting too much? If we're just talking raw stats. almost certainly: I dug up an interesting post by Aaron Gleeman, who wrote before his arrival that “Kaz Matsui sounds like a mix of Ichiro's speed and Hideki Matsui's power, all wrapped up into an outstanding defensive shortstop.” Gleeman then crunched the numbers, looking at what had happened to Ichiro, That Other Matsui and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in their first U.S. campaign in an effort to predict Kaz's numbers.
One question that came up then looks a lot more critical now: In 2003, Kaz had put up a .305 AVG, .368 OBP and .549 SLG while hitting 33 dingers, driving in 84 and swiping 13 bases in what would be his swan song as a Seibu Lion. A nice year, but a step down from his 2002 campaign: .332/.389/.617, 36 HR, 87 RBI, 33 SB. So which season to use as the baseline? Using 2003, Gleeman predicted American numbers of .275/.325/.445; extrapolating from 2002, the prediction was .299/.345/.499.
As it turned out, Kaz's first-year numbers in New York worked out to .272/.331/.396, suggesting 2003 hadn't been a bit of an off-year but the start of a decline. Kaz's power went off a cliff (Gleeman's SLG prediction would undoubtedly have been lower if he'd known Kaz would play in pitcher-friendly Shea), but the AVG and OBP wound up exactly as predicted. Kaz was incapable of taking a walk as a Met, but he'd been incapable of taking a walk as a Lion, too.
If the numbers had been examined more rigorously, Kaz might never have arrived at Shea. Jose Reyes might never have been asked to switch positions, with who knows what effect on his own development. Or if Kaz had been signed anyway, the expectations at Shea might have been tempered.
Well, except for that “outstanding defensive shortstop”. It would take something akin to willful blindness to suggest Kaz was anything more than average in the field, and even that might be too kind. And here, the mystery of what happened to him can't be quantified away. (Or at least I don't have the statistical chops to try it.) He had little range and bad hands, but he also didn't hang in on pivots and showed poor instincts. That's not an outstanding defensive shortstop. Yes, Kaz deserves credit for switching to second without undue fuss and worked hard at a new position — he looked dramatically better there this year. But let's not go overboard praising a player who changed positions after proving he couldn't cut it at the one of his choosing.
As for how the fans reacted, there were different aspects to it — some of them understandable, some of them inexcusable, all of them unfortunate:
• First off, let's not overthink this: Kaz was bad. Yes, there were flashes of ability. Yes, he battled injuries. Yes, he worked hard. Yes, he seemed to be a good teammate. Those things deserve to be taken into consideration. But they don't change the bottom line: For three straight seasons, Kaz Matsui was a well-paid liability to a team with high aspirations. You may not deserve boos for that, but you're certainly not going to get cheers.
• I have no doubt that part of the convulsive booing of Matsui was a frustrated restatement of that original question: What on earth happened to this guy? We were told we were getting the Japanese Cal Ripken Jr., and the guy who showed up was the Japanese Russ Adams. Nobody's happy feeling they got sold a bag of goods.
• As our commenters have noted, you can't boo management, so you boo its proxy. That's not right, but it's not so mysterious. (Hell, I think the GM should have to be on the field and announced to the crowd before at least one game each month. I remember how thrilled I was a few years back to get the opportunity to boo the living shit out of Steve Phillips. Hurt my throat. Felt like victory.)
• Now throw in some bad body language: When Kaz looked bad at the plate he looked horrendous, taking weak hacks, bailing out and then trundling morosely back to the dugout. Not fair, but you see how it happens: Bad body language didn't help Carlos Beltran last year, either.
• Kaz's failures were inevitably paired with Ichiro's heroics, having to see a player with the same last name become an iron man for the Yankees, and wondering why the Mets never seem to have any luck fishing in Japanese baseball waters. Not fair, but not astonishing.
• I think the language/cultural barriers made things worse: Kaz's teammates all seemed to genuinely like him and expressed support, but players nearly always close ranks, so the reaction was, “So what?” And if you're going bad, deference doesn't play well in this town: Cliff Floyd is loved here unconditionally in part because he's candid to a fault, first and foremost about himself. And I maintain that Beltran won over Shea when he refused to come out for his curtain call, finally replacing blank-faced stoicism and monotone stay-the-course recitations with a flash of real anger.
• There's a rancor that's drifted into the stands at Shea in recent years that's just plain ugly. The idea that home fans never boo is a bit too St. Louis for me — hell, I've leather-lunged a hapless Met or two myself. But these days you hear willfully coarse, self-congratulatory booing. It's not just the meathead element, which will always be there, but fans who've somehow bought into the notion of New York as a tough town where “we” boo, leading them to let loose for most anything and to see booing as necessary hazing awaiting any new guy. (Booing Jorge Julio during player introductions was just astonishing.) Yes, this is a tough town, but the flip side of that has always been that it's a smart town, one in which hitting behind the runner gets cheered and a bases-loaded sac fly when three runs down with one out in the ninth doesn't. I don't know how this crept in and I don't think there's a way to escort it out again, but it's ridiculous. And where one commenter sees it as a sign of creeping Bronxness, I see it as something even worse: This reflexive, mean-spirited booing is Philadelphia stuff, the self-consuming vitriol of the longtime loser who turns on the home team at the first intimation that he'll be disappointed again.
None of us — not even Kaz himself — can say what effect the rough treatment had on Kaz, but it was seriously overdone and it didn't help. And ultimately, none of us will ever be able to say definitively what happened to Kaz.
Maybe it was everything: We signed a player whose decline had already begun and put him in a pitcher's park where that decline accelerated, he had trouble adjusting to some aspects of the game, was hampered by nagging injuries, never connected with management and let the fans' frustration and disappointment get into his head. A perfect storm, in other words.
I wish Kaz the best: Given all his hard work and his dugout demeanor, it would make me happy to see him bounding in and out of the Rockies' dugout during a lengthy hot streak, embraced by the fans and just having fun playing the game he presumably loves. (Doesn't apply when he's playing us, but that's just self-preservation.) But he's going to have to turn around a pretty astonishing decline to do that: Even in Colorado, he'll be the guy who arrived in New York as a hugely touted, $8 million man, but left in a deal for a utility player and didn't even get assigned to his new team's major-league roster.
Can he reverse all that? I don't think he can. I'd like to be wrong. But I think he has a far better chance of proving me wrong in Colorado, making it the right move for him and for us. The 2006 New York Mets are better off with a utility guy who can catch and has surprising speed than with another underwhelming choice fighting for time at second. Whether it was his fault or our fault or nobody's fault, in the end that's what Kaz Matsui had become.