Tuesday, April 6, 2010

By David Saltzer - AngelsWin.com Senior Writer

On December 16, 2009, the Angels announced that they had signed the former World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to be their new Designated Hitter (DH). On December 21, 2009, Angelswin.com published an article analyzing the signing by the numbers. As part of our ongoing coverage of the team, Angelswin.com plans to revisit the Matsui signing with a monthly series to analyze the decision to sign Matsui and the effects that he has had on the team.

When the Angels signed Hideki Matsui, they knew that it meant the departure for the fan-favorite Vladimir Guerrero. No longer capable of playing the field on a regular basis, Vlad had been relegated to be the Angels’ de facto DH, a position he did not relish playing. When the Angels signed Matsui, they were interested in making a more dramatic change to the team—one that would have an impact on the team beyond the 2010 season.

Under Mike Scioscia, the Angels primarily filled the DH spot in the lineup by committee. He used the spot to rest players over the course of the season, and, in doing so, it showed in the offense. Since 2002, the collective DH's for the Angels only posted an OPS (On-Base Percentage plus Slugging) over 800 twice in seven years. Considering that the American League average during that same time span was approximately 790, the Angels had been woefully underachieving from their DH spot in the lineup.

But, more importantly, where the Angels really needed improvement was in their plate discipline. Up until last year, the Angels offense was best known for being a lineup filled with free-swingers—a bunch of hacks at the plate. This often resulted in periods where the offense would struggle when the team couldn’t hit their way on base.

Last year, the offense improved dramatically with the addition of Bobby Abreu. Not only was he a patient hitter at the plate (seeing 4.21 pitches per plate appearance), he also taught others in the lineup how to do the same. His skills rubbed off on the rest of the lineup and it showed. With a more patient approach at the plate, the Angels set a franchise record last year for total runs scored in a season in 2009, scoring a total of 883 runs. The slumps that used to plague the offense became much shorter and occurred less often.

In watching the effect that Bobby Abreu had on the lineup, Mike Scioscia made some decisions to implement a more patient approach at the plate. An edict went out from the parent club throughout the Angels Minor League system that players needed to work the counts more in order to get into better hitting counts. Players who wanted to play for the Angels needed to be more patient at the plate.

When the Angels made the decision to sign Matsui instead of Vlad, it was in no small part due to the difference in their approach at the plate. While both Matsui and Vlad were injured and both were limited to playing as their team’s DH, Matsui saw 3.93 pitches per plate appearance whereas Vlad only saw 3.24 pitches.

As Rex Hudler used to say, “from his nose to his toes, that’s how Vladdy goes.” While that led to many years of incredible success for Vlad, it was impossible for Vlad to teach any of the other players on the Angels how to replicate his results with his approach. And, Vlad’s approach no longer fit into the new Angels offense.

Matsui, on the other hand, was the perfect fit. Not only would Matsui be the first regular DH since Brad Fullmer, he would also be the best DH to occupy the spot in our lineup since Chili Davis held the spot. As a left-hander, he brought balance to a right-handed lineup. And, as a patient hitter, Matsui brought the skills to demonstrate to the younger Angels players how to be more lethal in each at bat.

The 2010 season for the Angels is a transitional year. Only one player, Scot Shields, is left from the 2002 World Champion team. Very few players from the Opening Day team in 2006 are still left to start for the Angels. In short, the Angels are retooling their team for the next decade without sacrificing any championship talent.

By signing Matsui, the Angels made a down payment on their future by bringing in another veteran who will demonstrate and teach patience at the plate. Not only will Matsui post powerful numbers to help fuel the 2010 offense, he, along with Bobby Abreu, will help the younger players on the Angels develop the skills to make the most out of each at bat. This will make future Angels teams more successful and future Angels offenses more lethal.

More importantly, though, Matsui will bring the Angels’ offense back towards the American League style of play. The 2010 Angels will have more pop than any Angels team since 2000. It will have the power to generate runs in a hurry as well as the speed to generate runs on the bases. It will have more overall balance, and should be more lethal.

In watching Matsui last night during the Opening Day game, the skills that made the Angels want to sign him were readily apparent. As he shook his head in his first two at bats, it was clear that Matsui recognized that he was pressing not working the count as well as he should. In his third at bat, Matsui made the necessary adjustment and lined a single to give the Angels the go-ahead run. And, in his fourth at-bat, he got a pitch up and gave the fans a treat—his first homerun as an Angel. Matui’s homerun was quickly followed by another homerun from Kendry Morales—one of the next wave of Angels players who will need to learn the plate discipline that Matsui and Abreu have mastered in order for the Angels to succeed over the next decade.

Being able to make adjustments at the Major League level is one of the toughest things to do. But, it is also one of the biggest differences between those who succeed at the Major League level and those who do not. Seeing a master, such as Matsui, do it on a regular basis will only help all the younger players on the Angels develop into mature hitters in the future, it will also make the 2010 season that much better.

At the stadium, fans held up a sign saying “Matsuiland.” Matsuiland isn’t just the place in the stadium where he will hit his homeruns. Mastuiland is the place in the lineup that he will occupy, showing Scioscia the importance of a true DH in the lineup and the younger players how to exhibit patience in each at bat.
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