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Friday, July 18, 2003

SPORTS SCOPE

Matsui at midseason: Top scout likes what he sees


With the second half of the major league season set to get underway on Friday, I thought now would be a good time to get an expert's opinion on the progress of the New York Yankees rookie outfielder Hideki Matsui.

News photo
Hideki Matsui had some tough times during the first half of the major league season but was able to battle through them because of his mental toughness and emotional control, according to a top major league scout.

The former Yomiuri Giants slugger, who has played in 93 games this season, is batting .299 with 66 RBIs and nine home runs and has made some outstanding plays in the field as well.

Legendary scout Ray Poitevint, who has signed more than 200 players that have made it to the majors, and now runs the International Scouting Bureau, predicted stardom for Matsui in an interview with The Japan Times last November.

Poitevint gave me his insights on Godzilla's performance this season in a telephone interview from his home in Glendale, Calif., earlier this week.

Poitevint cited Matsui's control over the mental side of the game as the reason for his success thus far.

"This guy has what the winners all have -- mental toughness and emotional control. He wants to do something when the count is two strikes and no balls. He still thinks he can drive a ball somewhere for a double, a winning base hit or a home run. He has visions in his head of what he is going to do, and he goes ahead and does it.

"Let's say for example, you have two .300 hitters and they both have 400 at-bats and they have the winning run on base 70 percent of the time. One guy drives in 60 runs and the other guys drives in 28 runs. Why is that, when they are both identical players in the same situation?

"It gets down to the mental toughness and emotional control. Matsui excels at that. He always will. I think that if he did something else in life, he would do the same thing. I think his inner confidence is the key ingredient."

Poitevint -- who said in November if he were starting a new team and had a chance to pick between Ichiro Suzuki and Matsui, he would take the latter -- says Matsui's results have come as no surprise to him.

"Everybody in the world knows he has physical talent. He signed with the New York Yankees. Real baseball people know he has got that. Maybe they didn't see him enough before to know it. But I have seen him play a lot.

"When he excelled in Japan, it wasn't because he was superior to Japanese baseball, it was because he has total control in the emotional control and mental toughness end of the business. You can say the same thing about Ichiro.

"The biggest difference between these two guys -- and you can say 'Ichiro runs faster,' but I'm not talking about that -- is driving in runs. The hardest thing to find in Major League Baseball or pro baseball on any level in a hitter, is a player that is an RBI guy. You will give away true prospects for those guys, because there are only a few of them. Matsui happens to be one of them."

Poitevint mused over comments he has heard from fellow scouts this season about Matsui, especially when he was struggling: "Some scouts are saying, 'If you throw it inside and under his hands, you can get him out.' But that is nonsense, because if you throw that to anybody and they go for it, you can get them out.

"Remember that the greatest hitters in our business fail 70 percent of the time. They only hit .300. If you throw Matsui a pitch that misses half an inch, he hits it over the right field fence."

Poitevint says that in addition to his statistics, Matsui's good interaction with the media has been a big hit.

"Matsui is a first-class guy. He answers every question from the media. He is trying to satisfy everyone. You see him interviewed after every game. He has something inside that most guys don't have.

"Wait until he gets used to the pitchers. The pitchers may say, 'Wait until we get used to him,' but I will bet on him.

"Matsui is going to hit for average and have power at the same time. He doesn't swing at too many pitches and miss. He may have some strikes called on him, but he doesn't swing and miss very often."

In spite of critics, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who panned Matsui's performance during the first two months of the season, Poitevint says the Ishikawa Prefecture native is progressing just about as Poitevint had expected.

"I thought he got off to a good start. I wasn't expecting him to be Joe DiMaggio overnight. First of all, he had a lot of experience and had good character. He was so intent on trying to perform, and satisfy everyone, that he was carrying a lot on his shoulders.

"Slowly, Derek Jeter and David Wells and some of the others loosened him up a bit.

"The Yankees have an inner system in their organization and their clubhouse and within their players, where they do pull for each other. I can't say that is true about all major league teams, but the Yankees are an exception."

Poitevint, who has directed the international scouting operations of three major league teams (Boston Red Sox, Anaheim Angels, Milwaukee Brewers), feels that, despite the high expectations and pressure, Matsui is with the right team.

"Matsui fits into a Yankee uniform. The slow start was just a number. When he first started, I wasn't hung up on what his batting average was. I didn't expect him to start out at .300.

"You also have to take into account other factors. How much has he played left field before? They put him in left, right, then in center when Bernie Williams got hurt.

"To me, he has done great."

Poitevint, foresees Matsui's power numbers growing with experience.

"I would look for him to hit somewhere between 18 and 22 home runs this season. Next year he will hit 27-28 homers. I think he will hit 30 home runs by his third season and it still won't interfere with his hitting.

"Yankee Stadium is perfect for him. It's large in the left-centerfield alley.

"As a left-handed hitter, he drives the ball the opposite way and gets a lot of doubles. Then there is the short porch in right field, when he pulls the ball, he just yanks it right out of there."

The injury to the Yankees' perennial All-Star center fielder had an affect on Matsui's power numbers, according to Poitevint.

"Matsui might have had some more home runs by now if Williams didn't get hurt. He would have had a bit less pressure on him. He is batting in the center of the lineup, so there is going to be pressure, but if you look at his RBI total, you can see he has done very well."

All things considered, Poitevint thinks several teams might have put out significantly more money in the pursuit of Matsui if they had another chance to.

"I don't think enough teams really knew what Matsui could do and focused on what kind of character he had when he was being courted to go to the majors. I am very high on him.

"He is a tough out. We knew that when he was in Japan. He saw a lot of forkballs in Japan, so he is used to that. In the majors he is seeing faster pitches, but with that short stroke he can overcome any fastball."



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