After seven seasons in the majors Kazuo Matsui has returned to Japan by signing with the Rakuten Eagles, which is interesting timing as the baseball world waits to see which team won the bidding for negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Nishioka is a speedy, switch-hitting middle infielder who won a batting title in Japan last season and has Gold Gloves at both shortstop and second base. And once upon a time Matsui came to the United States with essentially the exact same resume.
Matsui left Japan in 2003 following seven straight seasons with a .300-plus batting average and smacked 33, 36, 24, 23 homers in his final four years there. He also averaged 35 stolen bases per season and was a four-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop.
If anything, the scouting reports on Matsui then were even better than they are for Nishioka now.
Matsui signed a three-year, $20 million deal with the Mets, but proved to be a shaky defensive shortstop who was eventually moved to second base and hit just .267 with a .321 on-base percentage and .380 slugging percentage in 630 career games while totaling 32 homers in 2,302 at-bats.
I’m certainly not suggesting that Nishioka must be compared to Matsui simply because they were both born in the same country any more than I’d suggest Joe Mauer must be compared to Jeff Mathis. However, even seven years after Matsui signed with the Mets he remains the only prominent Japanese shortstop to play in MLB and it’s tough not to think about Matsui’s disappointing seven-year career when reading the remarkably similar-sounding reports about Nishioka.
Projecting how hitters will perform in MLB based on their production in Nippon Professional Baseball is hard enough, but projecting how they’ll hit while also trying to determine if a shortstop there has what it takes to be a full-time shortstop here adds another layer of unknown. And unfairly or not, the fact that right now Matsui stands as the lone data point dramatically increases the skepticism surrounding Nishioka’s upside.