The natural inclination is to ask Matt Murton what’s changed. To find out how, exactly, he went from the lows of an often tumultuous 2012 campaign, to hitting just about everything in sight early this year.
There were few hitters more consistent than Murton over his first two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, but his third year in Japan brought with it a fair share of adversity.
Last season saw Murton’s average dip to .260 — not terrible on it’s own, but he was out-of-this-world in 2010 and remained among NPB’s top hitters after falling back to earth in 2011, so .260 leaves something to be desired — and he had to deal with the fallout after an innocent comment about pitcher Atsushi Nomi was widely and negatively misconstrued in the media.
Fast-forward to 2013, and you have a tale of two different players. Murton is carefree, playing at a high level and having fun. His personality has shone through during hero interviews, when he once professed his love for Nomi and gathered the left-hander in an embrace, and on another occasion playfully gave all his answers in Japanese.
This isn’t a new Matt Murton, just a wiser one.
“I think you always have to learn from your past experiences,” Murton said earlier this week. “One of the things I really tried to focus on this offseason was being able to control what I can control. I felt that last year, too often I allowed myself to get caught up in things that weren’t helping me. So mentally, I tried to get back to playing the game the way that I know that I should.”
Murton went 3-for-4 in a victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Saturday to raise his batting average to .361 on the season and notch his ninth modasho (three-hit games) of the year. He’s hit three homers and driven in 21 runs in 37 games, after connecting on just five home runs and driving 38 runs in 121 games last season.
Murton isn’t satisfied just because he’s found early success, but says he’s “very thankful that God has allowed me to play like I have to this point.”
“I think the biggest thing is it’s just a fresh start,” the 31-year-old said. “Anytime that you struggle, you look forward to the opportunity to go back at it again. The only way that you’re going to put that behind you is to go out and play.”
To appreciate how far Murton fell last season is to realize how high the bar had been set.
Murton hit .349 with 17 homers and 91 RBIs in 2010, recording 214 hits to break NPB’s single-season hits record, previously held by Ichiro Suzuki. He went on to hit .311 with 13 homers and 60 RBIs the next year.
He batted .260 with five home runs and 38 RBIs last season, a down year which was compounded by the negative firestorm created when in frustration he said, “I don’t like Nomi,” when his hustle was questioned by a reporter, and his sarcasm was mistakenly taken at face value by the media in Osaka.
“When you come over and you play here for the first time, you don’t have any expectations as to what you’re capable of,” Murton said. “You know you can play the game, and you believe in your ability, but you really don’t know exactly what that entails when you come over.
“So after you come over and you play, I think what happens is, in subsequent seasons, you try to maintain the performance you’ve already had in the past. The next year, you almost try to reproduce something.
“What was refreshing for me, was after struggling last year, now the expectations aren’t so high. It was more of a challenge to come back out and prove to myself that I was capable of playing, rather than trying to achieve something I had done in the past. I think that instead of maintaining something, I was striving for something. I think that was a big change mentally.”
It’s helped that his teammates have also been playing well. The Tigers, who finished a dismal fifth in the CL last year, have shown improvement this season and are off to a 22-14-1 start.
“I definitely believe that when you play on a good team, it’s much easier to hit and be successful than if you play on a bad team,” Murton said. “You relax a little bit more, the team has an expectation of winning. When you play on a team that feels like ‘here we go again, we’re going to lose again,’ you put all that added pressure on yourself every time you go to the plate. I think the biggest thing is it’s a fresh clean slate.”
Experience can be a cruel teacher, and last year gave Murton a good kick in the rear, which he says has helped him refocus and get back to the basics.
“Through those things, I think you learn,” he said. “What I would like to believe is that now having experienced the success and what that meant, and how that can adversely affect you if you don’t control it, I think it’s allowed me to refocus my energy and my mental preparation on the things that are most important. So If I’ve been able to find that, hopefully it will allow me over the latter part of my career to really be able to go out and enjoy the moment, enjoy the day, and be able to compete in the moment.”