Insider: Last Stand For Matsui?

Whether it was said publically or not, the Tampa Bay Rays knew there was a chance Hideki Matsui‘s days of being a productive major-league hitter were over even before he ever suited up for the franchise. On the other hand, at the minimal cost of a minor league contract, there was little harm if finding out if he had anything left in the tank. As Matsui nears 100 plate appearances on the season, it may be time for the player and club to re-assess their relationship status.

On the surface, 80 plate appearances is an extremely small sample size to make player evaluations. That said, Matsui is a aging batter who has been on the decline for a few seasons. While 80, 100, or even 200 plate appearances is not be enough to properly evaluate a player in his mid-20’s, nearing century mark might be enough to make assumptions on a player in his late-30’s; especially if that player is showing a flawed process en route to unfavorable results.

The Rays did not sign Matsui with the intention of using him as an everyday player; however, injuries to Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, and Luke Scott made it a near necessity for his name to be in the lineup. The 38-year-old made a grand entrance, hitting home runs in two of his first three games. However, since then, he has 10 hits in his last 18 games with just one of them going for extra bases.

Even more concerning than the lack of hits is Matsui’s inability to hit anything other than a fastball. While most hitter’s feast on fastball compared to other pitches, Matsui’s reliance has become a bit extreme.

Matsui has taken 124 swings in a Rays’ uniform. The majority of those swings have been on fastballs (four-seam, sinker, cutter). He has 59 swings against heaters, racking up 11 of his 12 on these cuts. He has swung on a fastball and missed eight times.

The other 56 swings have come on a variety of breaking balls and off-speed pitches including four hacks against R.A. Dickey‘s knuckleball. On these pitches, Matsui has swung-and-missed an alarming 22 times. He has come up empty eight times on the off-speed (changeups, splitter), once on the knuckler, and 13 on breaking balls (sliders and curveballs).

Going a bit further, I decided to check Matsui’s approach on first pitches. This has been something Baseball Prospectus’ R.J. Anderson and I have been tracking for a few weeks.  Although more team’s are adopting the pitching 2.0 mentality, more that 50% of first pitches are still fastballs.

With 80 plate appearances under his belt, Matsui has seen 80 first pitches. As tradition would have it, 55 of those pitches have been fastballs. He has four hits on first-pitch fastballs including both of his home runs. Of the 20 totals swings, he has missed three times.

On the 25 non-fastball first-pitches, Matsui has swung eight times. Despite fewer opportunities and swings, he had doubled the amount of whiffs (six) on these pitches compared to the fastball.

Because of his age and current approach, it is fair to wonder if Matsui is cheating on fastballs to make up for dwindling bat speed. In Baseball America’s scouting dictionary, long-time scout Doug Carpenter said hitters cheat on fastballs when they no longer have the bat speed to catch up to good heaters. If Matsui is indeed cheating on the fastball to make up for missing bat speed, he becomes extremely vulnerable to off-speed and breaking pitches.

Nothing stays a secret for long in Major League Baseball. And it appears team’s have already keyed in on Matsui’s inability to hit pitches other than the fastball. For example, take this battle between Matsui and Kansas City Royals’ reliever Aaron Crow from Wednesday.

In a tie game, Matsui pinch-hit for Jose Molina with two on and two out in the eighth inning. Perhaps trying to exploit Matsui’s first-pitch trend, Crow threw a breaking ball to start the at-bat. The pitch sailed low and inside for ball one.

On the second pitch, Crow threw a 93-MPH fastball for called strike to even the count. It would be only fastball Matsui would see in the at-bat. Crow’s third pitch was a slider that crossed the plate for called strike two. After missing with back-to-back sliders out of the zone, 25-year-old went back to the well for a fourth consecutive time. Matsui took his one and only swing of the day; a whiff on an elevated slider to end the appearance and the Rays’ scoring threat.

Matsui’s declining skill set is not Tampa Bay’s only issue. The fact that the team has had to rely on his left-handed bat so much is a problem unto itself. That said, a quick resolution is the best case for all parties involved.

With Luke Scott set to return from injury on Thursday, Matsui will no longer be the team’s primary DH. If the team is looking for flexibility on the bench, Matsui is not the answer. If that is the case, perhaps a complete separation is in order. That said, Matt Joyce‘s uncertain status leaves some at-bats for a left-handed outfielder which could mean a last chance for romance.