Hideki Matsui's Hall of Fame case: How much should career in Japan weigh?

No sooner than five years from now, the great Ichiro Suzuki will be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Ichiro still wants to play but remains unsigned. If he's unable to latch on anywhere, his five-year waiting period before appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot will begin.

Clearly, Ichiro is a Hall of Famer. Despite not coming over from Japan until his age 27 season, he has amassed 3,080 big league hits and is a career .312/.355/.403 hitter with +59.6 WAR in MLB. Between Japan and MLB, Ichiro has 4,358 professional hits (and counting!) to his name, the most ever. 

We can debate all we want about whether Ichiro's combined hit total between Japan and MLB makes him the true hit king. There is no debate as to whether he is a Hall of Famer. His MLB body of work alone gets him. That is not the case for any other Japanese-born player, however. No other player has come over and has as much success as Ichiro.

On the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year is former Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, who played 10 years in Japan and another 10 years in MLB. Here are his career numbers:

PA

AVG/OBP/SLG

Hits

Extra-Base Hits

HR

RBI

Japan

5,504

.304/.413/.582

1,390

593

332

889

MLB

5,066

.282/.360/.462

1,253

436

175

760

Combined

10,570

.293/.387/.523

2,643

1,029

507

1,649

In addition to the raw numbers, Matsui was an 11-time All-Star (nine times in Japan, twice in MLB), a three-time MVP (all in Japan), a Japan Series MVP, a World Series MVP, and a four-time champion (three times in Japan, once in MLB). The man they call Godzilla had one heck of a career.

Taken by itself, Matsui's MLB career is well short of Hall of Fame worthy. His MLB career is on par with Kevin Millar's. Millar hit .274/.358/.452 with 170 home runs in 5,382 big league plate appearances. Matsui's combined numbers between Japan and MLB paint a different story. His total career numbers are similar to those of probable Hall of Famer David Ortiz, who hit .286/.380/.552 with 541 home runs in 10,091 plate appearances.

Of course, Matsui's career numbers are not similar to Ortiz's because Matsui did spend half his career in Japan, and a difference in the level of competition exists. How big is the competition gap between Japan and MLB? It's hard to say, exactly. You've probably heard Japanese baseball described as being on par with Triple-A ball, though that is a bit disingenuous. Those who cover and analyze Japanese baseball say the competition level is somewhere between Triple-A and MLB.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees
Combine his Japan and MLB careers, and Hideki Matsui's career is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. USATSI

How much should Matsui's -- or any other Japanese player, for that matter -- excellence in Japan be considered when voting for the Hall of Fame, if at all? There are a few arguments to be made here.

  1. The baseball Hall of Fame is the baseball Hall of Fame, and general baseball excellence at the highest possible level should lead to induction.
  2. It is the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which implies only domestic performance should be considered when voting. No one considers Dominican Winter League performance as part of the Hall of Fame process, for example.
  3. Baseball is an increasingly global game, and as time goes on, more and more Japanese born players will make their way to MLB. Ichiro and Matsui and Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani are really only the beginning. This question about Japanese performance and the Hall of Fame will be asked again.
  4. There is undeniably a difference in competition level between Japan and MLB, which makes equating Japanese performance and MLB performance dubious at best.

The Hall of Fame voting criteria is (intentionally?) vague, so a lot is left up to the individual voter. Here is the voting criteria from the Hall of Fame's website:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. 

Would Matsui's decade of dominance with the Yomiuri Giants fall under "contributions to the team(s) on which the player played?" Again, that is left up to the individual voter. There have been lots and lots of debates about Hall of Fame voting standards, though I think having a large voting body with many different opinions is a good thing. Ideas should be challenged.

Clearly though, the current Hall of Fame voting body does not think Japanese performance should be considered as part of the Hall of Fame voting process. Matsui has not received a single Hall of Fame vote this year, according to Ryan Thibodaux's indispensable tracker. Taken at face value, his overall career numbers would warrant at least a few stray votes, I imagine. He has yet to receive one.

Personally, I agree with not considering a player's Japanese career when evaluating his Hall of Fame candidacy. Perhaps if a Japanese born player has a borderline Hall of Fame career in MLB, his performance in Japan could be used to push him over the top and into Cooperstown. But building a large portion of a player's Hall of Fame case on his career in Japan, which is what the voters would be doing with Matsui, is a bit much.

Realistically, Matsui is a special case because he spent half his career in Japan and half in MLB. Ichiro played nine seasons in Japan and 17 (and counting!) in MLB. Darvish played seven seasons in Japan and is already up to six in MLB, which many more to come. Ohtani played only five seasons in Japan and came over to MLB at age 23. Most of his career will be spent here. Nowadays the best Japanese players are coming over to MLB at a young age. Matsui didn't arrive until he was nearly 30.

Based on the caliber of players coming over from Japan, the level of competition is being raised overseas, so at some point down the road it might make more sense to consider a player's Japanese career when voting for the Hall of Fame. That time is not now, at least not to me. Ichiro will waltz into the Hall of Fame for his MLB excellence. Others like Matsui and Hiroki Kuroda had excellent careers split between Japan and MLB, and right now, that's not enough for Hall of Fame consideration.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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