Kaz Matsui’s big-league career was fairly unremarkable. From 2004-2010, he logged a .701 OPS, and compiled 5.4 WAR, playing second base and shortstop for the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies, and Houston Astros. His best season came in 2007, when he was the starting second baseman on the “Rocktober” Rockies.
That season, he was worth 2.7 WAR, and formed an incredible double-play combination with a rookie across the second-base bag by the name of Troy Tulowitzki. While Matsui was never much of a hitter in MLB — NPB was another story — no self-respecting Rockies fan will ever forget his Game 2 performance in the 2007 NLDS, when he came a single shy of the cycle; his fourth-inning home run was the biggest play of that game, and kept the Rockies’ famous run chugging along.
Matsui’s seven American seasons were bookended by stints in his homeland, where he’s starred for the Seibu Lions (1995-2003) and Rakuten Golden Eagles (2011-2017). Yes, Matsui — now 41 years old — is still active.
Darrin Jackson knew him when he was just breaking into NPB. The Chicago White Sox broadcaster — at the time a veteran of nine MLB seasons — spent 1995 and 1996 in Japan, as Matsui’s teammate. To say he was impressed with the switch-hitting infielder’s raw talent would be an understatement.
I recently asked Jackson if he could share his memories of Matsui. Here is what he had to say.
Darrin Jackson: “I can tell you a couple of things about a young Kaz Matsui. First of all, he was 19 years old when I got there. He had an unbelievable arm. He was also just learning how to switch-hit. He’d only batted right-handed, and they were teaching him how to bat left-handed.
“Every day, for his training, the coaches would be out there by the mound with a basket of balls. They put padding on his right side — his legs, his hips, his shoulder. They would wrap him up, and he’d stand there in the left-hander’s batter’s box. They’d throw balls at him, literally at him, and have him turn into them, turn into them, turn into them. They were getting him used to having balls come at him — seeing the balls that way, and not flying open. They put padding on him to teach him how to stay on the ball, hitting left-handed. I thought that was amazing. And there was more.
“Every day, they would roll out a shopping cart of baseballs. A shopping cart — that’s maybe 500 baseballs. They would unload that basket, hitting him ground balls at shortstop. Again, every day. They felt you had to train more and more. I used to look at him and think, ‘They’re going to kill him. He’s playing tonight.’
“It didn’t faze him. The kid was so strong. Kaz Matsui, in every aspect of strength and conditioning, speed training… he blew everybody away. Everybody. He was the best athlete out there. Period.
“One day, he and I were running before a game, getting loose — our pre-game sprints, right? Kaz was standing there next to me, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Boom! We take off. I’m running as hard as I can, and he’s in front, looking over his shoulder back at me. That tells me was basically jogging. I was like, ‘Kid, don’t ever (bleeping) do that again!’ He was embarrassing the old man, and I wasn’t even an old man. I was 31 years old, and at the time, still a really good athlete. He was 19, and a far superior athlete.
“He had an arm like Ichiro, if not better. If the ball was hit out to right-center field… he was the cutoff man, no matter what. I would go get the ball, turn around to throw it to him, and he’d be waaay out in the outfield. They told him to be there. They told me to just throw it to him, and he’d throw it home, because his arm is so strong. Well, if he’s 50 feet away from me, I’m not throwing it to him.
“I told them, ‘Tell him to move back toward the infield, because I’m throwing it over his head. My arm isn’t that bad, and you’re making me look bad. Let him show off his arm from another distance.’ Of course, he’d do what the coaches told him to do, so the coaches and I would get into it a little bit about where he needed to be. They moved him back a little bit.
“So, Kaz Matsui had the best arm, he was the fastest, he could hit — he could line rockets everywhere. Eventually, he learned to hit for power, too. From that perspective, I was surprised he didn’t succeed over here.
“When he came to the United States, he was (28) and had become a big star in Japan. There was a lot of pressure on him. Not only that, of anybody who was a teammate of mine over there, he was the last guy I would have expected to come to the United States to play. He was very shy, a very quiet kid. Now, I know he was only 19, and that he was minding his place, but he also didn’t like to try to speak English. He was embarrassed to try to speak English. He was not outgoing in that way.
“Because he had become a star, and other Japanese players were coming to the United States, the natural evolution for him was to come over as well. But I don’t think he could handle the actual pressure. That was not his makeup. I think that’s why he didn’t succeed over here.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.