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September 29, 2004

Godzilla's Revenge
by SG

Hideki Matsui was the most feared native-born slugger in Japan. With the nickname Godzilla, and his 50 homerun power, he was a matinee idol. When he indicated an interest to try himself at the highest level in the sport, it was the Yankees who pursued him most aggressively. They courted him for close to a year before signing him from the Yomiuri Giants for three years, and $21 million.

While superficially, Matsui had a decent rookie year thanks to some impressive counting stats like RBI, most sabermetrically aware fans realized that he really wasn't all that good. His .788 OPS and below average defense for a LF were rather mediocre. The mainstream New York media raved about his RBI and his clutch hitting, but the more statistically inclined fans griped about his propensity for hitting into double plays (second in the AL with 25 last season), calling him Ground-zilla.

This season, it's a different story. Matsui has quietly improved his game across the board, and done it with a minimal amount of fanfare and hype. In addition to his higher batting average, OBP, and SLG, there are other statistics which I think are more telling:

2003 3.75 38.9 0.124 0.091 0.73 0.148 0.249 25 2.17
2004 3.86 20.3 0.157 0.127 0.82 0.212 0.387 11 1.11

P/PA is the number of pitches he is seeing per plate appearance.
IsoP is his Isolated Power, (SLG - Batting Avg)
SecA is Secondary Average, a Bill James stat which looks at a player's stat line besides batting average.
G/F is his groundball to flyball ratio.

One thing that stands out is he's not seeing many more pitches, but his BB rate has spiked up considerably. My guess would be that he isn't just trying to hit the first good pitch he sees, rather looking for pitches that he can drive. This has caused him to strike out a bit more often, but that's a tradeoff that is worth it.

The most obvious difference, and this is something he claims he hasn't done, is that he's hitting the ball in air nearly twice as much as he did last year. League average G/F ratio is 1.18, Matsui's is at 1.11, compared to 2.17 last year. This probably is the main reason his power has spiked so significantly.

Matsui's improvement this season has really helped the Yankees compensate for the missed time and ineffectiveness of Jason Giambi. His VORP of 53.2 compared to 30.9 for all of last season means he's helped account for two more wins this year.

Matsui was the man of the day in two great wins over a good Twins team.

Game 1
In the first game, the Yankee offense was stagnant after scoring in the first off Johan Santana, until Matsui homered in the 7th to cut the deficit to 3-2. That sparked a four run rally, and the Yankees went on to a 5-3 win.

Mike Mussina settled down after a shaky first inning, holding the Twins to three runs over six effective, if less than impressive innings. Quantrill pitched a scoreless 7th, although less than stellar. I'd be surprised if he pitches in key playoff situations based on his recent struggles, but a strong finish could change that. Tom Gordon appears to have recovered from his post All Star game woes, throwing with good velocity in the mid 90s and he is using his curveball more now, to great effect. Rivera recovered from a four pitch leadoff walk to record his 52nd save of the year.

Game 2
In the nightcap, Matsui started the game off with a bang, with a two-out, three run opposite field home run. Lieber gave two of those runs right back in the second, but Alex Rodriguez hit one out to increase the lead to 4-2. A Sheffield sac fly in the fifth increased the lead to 5-2, but an ineffective Lieber gave back two more runs. With two outs in the sixth, Torre went to The Run Fairy™. While he did the job in retiring Jacque Jones, it had the feel of a pyrrhic victory to me. Torre seems adament that he is taking Heredia to the postseason, and every reasonably good outing is positive reinforcement for that. I have no faith in him being effective in the postseason. Nursing a one run lead in the next inning, who does Torre bring in? Tanyon Sturtze, another guy who is not a good pitcher, but has pitched well of late. He cruised through five batters, and appears to have also pitched his way onto the postseason roster. This is another Torre decision that I'm not particularly enamored with, but I'd guess he'll be used in low leverage situations if at all, so his presence is less likely to be as harmful as TRF™'s presence could be. Flash Gordon came in to get the last out of the eighth before handing the ball over to the The Sandman for his 53rd save.

With Boston getting crushed by Tampa (thanks Tino), the magic number for clinching the AL East is down to one. Since the Red Sox won the season series, the Yankees can't "clinch a tie", but I will go out on a limb and say the the Yankees will win at least one more game this year or Boston will lose at least one more. They also picked up valuable ground in the pythagorean standings.

Looking ahead, there's a lot of talk about the Twins being a tough first round opponent due to them having the best pitcher in the American League able to start two of the five potential games, and while that is a legitimate concern, it needs to be tempered with the fact that the Yankees have one of the most talented offensive teams in baseball, and that the Twins offense is not a juggernaut, ranking 20th out of 30 teams with an EQA of .255. The Yankees lead baseball in EQA at .278 (tied with St. Louis). Also, the Yankees don't have to beat Santana, they just have to keep the game close while he's in there, then hope to win against the Twins bullpen, which is solid, but not nearly as good as Santana is. Kind of like how they did it tonight, although Ron Gardenhire made it easy by pulling Santana after five innings. At this point I'd expect Torre to start sorting out his roster choices, and we'll probably be able to get some insight into his thought process by his use of the guys who are on the bubble.