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Why Nick and Not Matsui?

Columns, Featured — By Scott Ham on December 18, 2009 12:22 pm

Looks like the only thing left bringing DH/1B Nick Johnson back to New York is the dotting of the I’s.  The $5.5 million price tag has left many wondering why the accident prone Johnson and not the gimpy-legged Matsui?

Jason over at IIATMS led the charge:

Nick Johnson has the potential to thrive hitting in the #2 spot behind Jeter, ahead of Teixeira and ARod. Sure, he’s not gonna run, but then again, Damon batted #2 in 2009 and stole only 12 bases. Was that because of Damon or because Girardi didn’t want to run himself out of an inning with the horses up behind Damon?

Johnson, assuming he can remain healthy, will be a nice fit for this team.  He doesn’t have to play every game.  Will he quickly adjust to playing only half the game, and after that, only 4-5 times a week instead of 6-7?

Like I said up top: I like Nick. I like what he could bring this team.  I just don’t get why, if Cashman wanted a “pure” DH, he didn’t re-sign the one he had for the last seven years, the consummate professional, the one who is the reigning World Series MVP.

Jason and I tweeted back and forth a bit about this last night and our opinions are actually closer on the subject than they’re about to appear.

There’s a few X factors here that we are not aware of, the biggest being Matsui’s desire to play the outfield at least part time.  The Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim California rather unwisely think that they may be better off if Matsui could play the outfield a few days a week:

Matsui played all 142 of his games last season at designated hitter, and though Scioscia would prefer to rotate his other three outfielders — Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera — through the DH spot and give Matsui an occasional start in left field, he will not force the issue.

“It’s much more important for us to have him in the lineup swinging the bat every day rather than forcing him to play the outfield,” Scioscia said. “That being said, it would make us deeper if he could play the outfield two or three times a week.”

Some sources have said that “logic” was part of the reason Matsui jumped at the Angels offer.  Brian Cashman may have been considering Matsui but, given the fact that Matsui never touched a glove in 2009, it was pretty apparent his only role would be that of designated hitter.

Given the Yankees needs and Matsui’s wants, the Yankees may not have been a match to re-sign Hideki at this stage.

Comparing Matsui and Nick Johnson head to head, we find these numbers:

Nick 2009 30 133 574 457 71 133 24 2 8 99 84 .291 .426 .405 .831 122
Matsui 2009 35 142 526 456 62 125 21 1 28 64 75 .274 .367 .509 .876 131

And their career splits:

Nick vs RHP 702 2306 503 122 3 73 361 376 .266 .394 .450 .844 .297
vs LHP 397 810 190 43 2 16 126 147 .292 .424 .438 .863 .354

Matsui vs RHP 824 2644 669 146 6 100 309 317 .291 .375 .490 .865 .299
vs LHP 552 1172 308 50 5 40 107 168 .294 .359 .465 .824 .315

The big question mark with both players is health.  The Yankees had to drain Matsui’s knees a few times last year even though he never played the field.  Nick the Stick has been an injury magnet for most of his career, the zenith being a broken leg at the end of the 2006 season that forced him to sit out 2007.

If I were a gambling man, I’d have to bet on the guy who is five years younger when it comes to health risk.  The Yankees have been closer to Matsui than anybody since he entered the majors and know more about the day to day pain and treatment his ailing legs needed.  They obviously have some doubts about whether Matsui could sustain his 2009 performance for another season.

Likewise, Matsui broke 140+ games for only the second time in four years in 2009, most likely due to the fact that he wasn’t playing the field.  The Yankees must hope that the same tactic as applied to Nick Johnson will improve his durability over the course of the season.

Looking at the numbers above, the big discrepancies between the two players lay in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.  Nick has always been an on-base machine.  Matsui has put up good OBP numbers while slugging much better than Johnson.

Again, we look at these numbers through the health microscope.  If Matsui does take a sharp decline in 2010, his power will go right along with it.  Johnson is 31 this year and figures to have at least a couple of effective seasons left in him.  Chances are, his OBP will maintain.  His SLG has never been great and could see a boost from the new Yankee Stadium.  If it stays where it is, the Yankees will still be happy to collect his walks.

Of the two players, then, Johnson is probably the lower risk.  The five year age difference alone is a big sticking point, one that could lead Matsui to other health issues besides just his knees.

The question remains: where does Johnson fit on this team?

There has been a lot of talk about Johnson being the #2 hitter behind Jeter.  That’s a possibility.  His OBP certainly makes him a guy you would like hitting in from of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.  That would push newly acquired Curtis Granderson toward the back of the lineup, possibly dropping into the two spot when Johnson isn’t playing.  Chances are, the Yankees aren’t looking at Johnson to play 145 games this year as they want to get more rest for Jorge Posada and others while keeping their bats in the lineup.

The reaction to these moves, picking up Granderson and Johnson, has left some Yankee fans a little befuddled, thinking their team has taken a step backwards.

Well, I think the case can be made that Johnson proves a better risk for this season than Matsui and possibly shows a bit of upside if the new stadium helps his swing.  What about the trade-off of Damon for Granderson?

Another chart, this one Damon and Grandersons last three years:

Granderson Total 1796 325 497 87 44 75 211 195 58 11 .277 .350 .499 .849
Damon Total 1638 295 467 90 10 53 216 201 68 11 .285 .364 .449 .813

It’s worth noting that Granderson put up these numbers as a centerfielder with above average UZR numbers over three years while Damon posted average to bad UZR numbers in left field.*

* Damon’s 2007 and 2008 seasons showed positive UZR ratings in left but only covered a combined 119 games over the two seasons.  His first full season in left, 2009, Damon posted a -9.2 UZR and -12.1 UZR/150.

With these two moves, the Yankees have improved their lineup but they’ve also improved their defense, a concept that has been lost in some of the talk.  Last season, the Yankees didn’t feature the greatest outfield with Nick Swisher in right, Melky Cabrera in center, nad Johnny Damon in left.  Melky and Swish are both adequate, but Damon was horrible.  By shifting Melky and Gardner to left and depositing Granderson in center, their defense should benefit greatly which only adds to the upgrade in offense.

Everyone says this is the end of Johnny Damon in New York and that’s probably true.  It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Damon could still return under the right terms.  I don’t understand speculation that Matt Holliday and Jason Bay are still possibilities and not Damon.  I find Damon to be a much better risk at two years around $20 million than four years for Bay or possibly six for Holliday.  Holliday is a very good player with very good defense, but his stats while playing at Coors Field were greatly inflated.

Here’s Holliday’s home and road splits during his tenure in Colorado:

2004 Home 63 56 229 204 43 69 18 3 10 36 20 29
Away 58 53 210 196 22 47 13 0 4 21 11 57
2005 Home 63 60 264 241 43 86 13 4 12 52 19 45
Away 62 61 262 238 25 61 11 3 7 35 17 34
2006 Home 78 78 334 295 70 110 24 2 22 78 26 44
Away 77 76 333 307 49 86 21 3 12 36 21 66
2007 Home 82 82 363 327 67 123 28 5 25 82 28 58
Away 76 76 350 309 53 93 22 1 11 55 35 68
2008 Home 73 73 327 286 62 95 23 2 15 59 36 54
Away 66 66 296 253 45 78 15 0 10 29 38 50
2004 Home .338 .406 .603 1.009 .355 140 158
Away .240 .287 .367 .654 .319 57 74
2005 Home .357 .409 .593 1.002 .400 131 160
Away .256 .313 .416 .729 .270 69 98
2006 Home .373 .440 .692 1.132 .381 132 185
Away .280 .333 .485 .819 .322 69 116
2007 Home .376 .435 .722 1.157 .400 126 195
Away .301 .374 .485 .860 .352 72 130
2008 Home .332 .413 .584 .997 .367 110 158
Away .308 .405 .486 .892 .351 89 145

Holliday’s road numbers steadily improved towards the end of his stay in Colorado, but look at that BAbip!  That type of consistency goes a bit beyond luck and seems to indicate that Holliday hits the ball hard. Can that type of high BAbip continue?  It has to this point but if it dropped anywhere close to .300, his numbers would take a steep hit.  I don’t know that Holliday warrants the supposed six years he’s hoping to get.

Could the Yankees benefit from Matt Holliday?  Of course they could.  But right now, the Yankees have built a lineup that is probably better than last year’s while improving their outfield defense.  That team scored 915 runs, took the AL East by 8 games and won the World Series.  Adding Holliday is probably not necessary and a bit greedy.

Nick 2009 30 133 574 457 71 133 24 2 8 99 84 .291 .426 .405 .831 122
Matsui 2009 35 142 526 456 62 125 21 1 28 64 75 .274 .367 .509 .876 131
Tags: Alex Rodriguez, Bobby Abreu, Brian Cashman, Curtis Granderson, Jason Bay, Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada, Juan Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Matt Holliday, Melky Cabrera, Nick Johnson, Nick Swisher


  1. nick blasioli says:

    why not sign holliday….then they would be set for a while….forget next years free agents…this team with holliday is tops and practically unbeatable…

  2. Scott Ham says:

    Because the backend of Holliday’s deal could be risky. Cashman viewed Teixeira as a more sure thing than Holliday and I agree with him. He’s the type of contract the Yankees are trying to avoid.

  3. Blame Damon and Boras for failure of the Yankees to sign Matsui. The greed of Damon and Boras has stalled negotiations with the Yankees forcing Matsui to look elsewhere.

    The Yankees are just lucky that Nick Johnson is still available at the right price. Nick is not a superstar but he has decent numbers, one that the Yankees will benefit from.

    That’s the way the ball rolls. You win some, you lose some.

    • Scott Ham says:

      I don’t think you’re giving Cashman enough credit. I would have liked to have seen the Yankees re-sign Matsui, but there is a good possibility his knees (or other ailments) will get worse at his age. The Yankees lived with it more than anyone and know the maintenance it took to keep him on the field.

      That’s not to say that Nick doesn’t have his issues, but he hasn’t had any chronic issues. Most of his injuries have been one-off injuries that are not related to each other, save an injury to his right wrist and later his right hand.

      I think Cashman had Matsui at a certain price point but Matsui expressed interest in playing the field. Cashman said no and Matsui sniffed around. If Cashman wanted Matsui back, Matsui would have been back.

  4. Ian says:

    I know people will look at Nick’s SLG and HR totals from last year and think we’ve essentially installed a singles hitter at the top of the lineup, but I don’t necessarily agree. Smart guys like Will Carroll seem to think wrist injuries sap power, and last year was Nick’s first following wrist surgery. He has a career .447 SLG and in his last season before the wrist injury, he hit 23 HR and slugged .520.

    I think it’d be wild to expect him to fully return to those levels, but I think he can improve upon and possibly even double his HR total of 8 from last season, especially in his new home park which appears to be a boon for left-handed power. Combine that with his extraordinary patience, and I think he’s a more than suitable replacement for Damon’s bat. Then you’ve got the power-hitting lefty Granderson replacing Matsui’s bat and (hopefully) providing above average defense, and – call me crazy – this team could be nearly as good offensively as they were last year.

    I say nearly because Tex, Swisher, Jeter, and even Posada have tough acts to follow. Let’s add a starter and head to Spring Training already.

  5. pon says:

    Your logic (age) must tell that the Yankees should let Jeter walk next year toghether with A-Rod, Mo, Posada.

    Your logic (Matsui will decline just in a year) has no reason.

  6. Scott Ham says:

    That’s incorrect. I never said Matsui “will” decline in one year; I said he “could” decline. I also said I would have re-signed Matsui for a year so the conclusion you have drawn doesn’t match what I wrote.

    Cashman had to judge risk against cost in this situation and he didn’t feel Matsui could repeat last year’s performance based on what the Yankees knew about his health. Matsui is certainly a capable hitter who can put up good numbers which is why I wanted him re-signed. But if he can’t stay healthy or effective, he isn’t very helpful.

    Johnson is a risk as well but he’s a lower risk because he doesn’t have a chronic injury, he’s younger and cheaper. And he can play defense which Matsui can not.

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