Hideki Matsui Returns: The Rays, Godzilla, and LHP

Godzilla’s back, and there’s gonna be trouble.

Hideki Matsui, after a somewhat* underwhelming display in Triple-A, will join the Tampa Bay Rays tonight as they take on the Chicago White Sox at home. Some might suspect the move has to do with Monday afternoon’s outing against the White Sox in which Chris Sale struck out 15 Rays hitters — against a lineup featuring backup catcher Jose Lobaton as the DH, minor league veteran Rich Thompson playing left field, and a menagerie of infielders who started the season in the minors or the bench.

*I say somewhat because he was still hitting the ball well.

But the Rays front office rarely works hastily, and in fact Matsui’s callup is somewhat late. The team had previously suggested Matsui would arrive for the preceding Red Sox series, but instead delayed that transaction.

With the move, utility outfielder Stephen Vogt will likely return to the minors and will have to wait a little longer for his first major league hit or walk (he has 17 PAs but not yet reached even first base). How does Matsui fit on this Rays team — a team that already features five left-handed hitters? The answer is not fully clear, but there’s going to be a problem somewhere.

Now that Lobaton is back, the Rays now have 9 men on the DL, 4 of whom are on the 60-day DL. Needless to say, the 29-20 Rays record is a testament to Andrew Friedman and the Rays front office. They have shrewdly acquired positional depth and used their wealth of drafted pitching depth — along with a resurged Fernando Rodney — to keep the team not just afloat, but atop their division.

Matsui may just play the high-leverage pinch-hitter role. The team certainly has some bats — Will Rhymes, Jose Molina, Rich Thompson, and Sean Rodriguez against righties — over whom Matsui could presumably offer a pinch-hitting upgrade (even considering a modest pinch-hitting penalty). But, given the lineup the Rays elected to throw out against lefty Chris Sale on Tuesday, it seems very possible Matsui gets more playing time than that.

Matsui, on his career, owns a fairly neutral platoon split — 123 wRC+ vs. RHP / 115 wRC+ vs. LHP, good for a 7-point difference. In fact, Matsui only succeeded against lefties in 2011 (82 wRC+ / 118 wRC+). The other power lefties on the Rays roster — Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, and Matt Joyce — all have demonstrably big platoon splits. Scott (26 points), Pena (36 points), and Joyce (59 points) are all borderline liabilities against lefties. Scott is really the most serviceable of the three, given that his slugging percentage only drops .05 points and his ISO is still over .200, meaning he can run into a few pitches, but still misses a lot.

In addition to those three lefty sluggers, the Rays also have lefties Rich Thompson and Will Rhymes, two defense-first position players. Thompson is on the team for his speed and fielding, and he has never shown much capacity for hitting lefties in the minors. Rhymes has a pretty neutral split, if not a reverse split, in the minors, but his offensive ceiling is not terribly high.

So: The Rays need Matsui to hit lefties. Somebody has to. Even switch-hitting Ben Zobrist (14 point difference) prefers the north-paws. Eventually, the team will have back Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, and Jeff Keppinger (a lefty-masher), but until then, they will probably ask Matsui to play at least in a platoon situation at DH.

But, if their intentions are to give Matsui regular playing time, then the situation becomes more tricky. Matsui is simply not an outfield option. They can essentially replace one of their infielders — probably Rhymes — with Matsui because of the flexibility of Ben Zobrist. Zorilla can go to second base (Rodriguez to third, Elliot Johnson at short), Joyce slides to left, and Scott goes to right. But Luke Scott in right field should be quite the adventure.

Though his career UZR is not bad in the outfield (3.0 UZR/150 for all three positions), he has not posted a positive UZR number since 2008 as his range numbers went from the 3 or 4 in his late 20s to -1 or -2 in his 30s. Add in that he’s struggled with hamstring injuries this season, and the outfield begins to look like a two-man operation.

There are a couple of possible scenarios right now. They include:

    1) Matsui musters no thunder; he gets released.The team continues to await the return of their right-handed bats. (TROUBLE FOR THE RAYS)

The were some troubling signs in 2011, so this is a very real and very big possibility.

    2) Matsui musters enough thunder to stick around and plays in a platoon with Scott. When Longo comes back, Rhymes goes down. When Keppinger comes back, Drew Sutton goes down. When Jennings comes back, Thompson goes down. When Brandon Allen comes back, he himself goes down. When Fuld comes back… ? (POTENTIAL TROUBLE FOR THE RAYS)

Currently Thompson is the Backup Fuld, but Super Sam should be back this summer, so the team may have a potential overload here. They can go without a fourth outfielder because Ben Zobrist offers the necessary flexibility, but shifting Zobrist to the outfield for defensive replacements could mean potentially installing an inferior defender somewhere else on the middle infield. Keeping a Fuld/Thompson around allows the team simplify this.

Also, Fuld is out of options and the team would have to risk losing him in order to send him to the minors. Naturally, the Rays would prefer to avoid this.

    3) Matsui goes Godzilla and earns a starting DH role. Luke Scott becomes the everyday right fielder (pull-lefties rejoice). When/if the team gets healthy, someone, somewhere has to lose their starting role. Or B.J. Upton has to get traded. (GOOD TROUBLE FOR THE RAYS)

As much as the Rays have been unlucky with their health situation early this season, they can be as equally lucky later in the season. The net result of which — if Matsui can hit with authority — could be a talent logjam for a team now hurting for help. And in a game rich with injuries, that is nary a bad thing.

Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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Matsui may not have much of a career platoon split, relative to most lefties, but he still has one, and it is probably wise to regress it somewhat as well. The point I am making is that it is not a huge advantage to use a lefty as the right handed half of a platoon. They will not be getting the good half of Matsui by using the lefty only against lefties. Sure he is better than Scott against same handers, but I do not think it is efficient to have a lefty only face lefties. Were there really no right handed bats out there that would settle for a part-time DH platoon with Luke Scott? I feel it will be hard for Matsui to muster any thunder when he is always playing against the platoon split, instead of with it on his side.

In conclusion, I don’t get why this is such a great signing for the Rays. Sounds like they “shrewdly” signed a lefty pinch hitter to use against lefty pitchers.