TORONTO — What a difference six weeks can make. On June 4, Hideki Matsui was scuffling along with a .250 batting average, a paltry three homers and 33 RBIs. Since that low point in the season, the New York Yankees rookie outfielder has hit at a torrid .387 clip, while adding six homers and 33 RBIs in about half the number of at-bats.
With his improved play — along with a flood of Internet votes from Japan — Matsui has landed a starting spot in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
Back in late May, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wondered aloud if his prized offseason import, billed as Japan’s first power hitter to join the major leagues, was in fact a $21 million bust. “This is not the guy we signed in terms of power” complained the cantankerous boss.
Matsui’s turnaround came shortly thereafter, but he denies the suggestion that Steinbrenner’s criticism spurred on his improved play.
“I didn’t really change my approach at all,” Matsui said through his translator in an exclusive interview during this past weekend’s series against the Blue Jays. “I took his criticism and absorbed it, but I didn’t change my approach at all.
“The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make has been to the pitchers,” said the 29-year-old former Yomiuri Giants slugger. “I’ve seen some different styles that I never saw in Japan. Now I feel that I’m getting used to the pitching.”
It’s understandable that it would take some time for Matsui to adjust to life in the big leagues. Besides adapting to a different brand of baseball, he’s had to learn a new culture and language. All this under the glare of the New York media, compounded by an ever-present horde of reporters from Japan.
Unlike his compatriot Ichiro Suzuki, who’s had a frosty relationship with Japanese media members covering the Seattle Mariners, Matsui has been gracious in granting requests from both English and Japanese media.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. “I’m able to focus on what I need to do without being distracted by everything else. In some ways it’s similar to when I played for the Giants, which is the most popular team in Japan.”
Matsui’s command of English is still limited, but he says it’s getting better “little by little” and says his interaction with other players involves “just simple greetings.”
Despite the upswing in his performance, Matsui sees room for improvement in the second half of the season. “I’d like to work on all aspects of my game: hitting, defense and baserunning. I’d also like to hit with more power.”
While Matsui’s home run total at the All-Star break is below expectations, his .299 average is second only to Derek Jeter among Yankee regulars and his 66 RBIs are second only to Jason Giambi. He is by far the team leader in doubles with 30, only one double shy of the American League lead.
He has also made a strong contribution defensively, recording five outfield assists and providing valuable versatility. He began the season in left field, but has also started 43 games in center, filling in when Bernie Williams was on the disabled list with a knee injury.
Matsui will start the All-Star Game in the outfield alongside Ichiro, who is making his third straight start in the Midsummer Classic. This marks the first time that two Japanese position players will appear in the same All-Star Game. Also selected to the American League squad is Ichiro’s Seattle teammate Shigetoshi Hasegawa, a reliever who used to pitch for the Orix BlueWave.
“It’s a great honor to be chosen to play in the All-Star Game,” Matsui said. “I just want to play well, especially for the fans. I’m looking forward to it and I think the fans in Japan are excited about it.”