Why Rakuten’s Hiroki Matsui, the “most ineffective” defender in the WBC, is attracting the attention of major league scouts. | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Why Rakuten’s Hiroki Matsui, the “most ineffective” defender in the WBC, is attracting the attention of major league scouts.

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Matsui gave up four runs in less than an inning in a send-off game against Chunichi on March 3, before the WBC began (Photo: Kyodo News)

Hiroki Matsui, 28, of Rakuten, a member of Japan’s WBC team that regained the top spot in the world for the first time in 14 years, pitched only one inning in the first round game against Korea, and faced the fewest number of batters of the 14 players who took the mound.

He became the youngest player in history to reach the 200-save mark at the age of 27 years and 5 months. Matsui is the second-highest saves scorer in the league (12) as his team slumps to fifth place in the standings.

Scouts from the major leagues in Japan are now paying attention to Matsui. His pitching style has changed a lot. Regardless of whether he is pitching to right-handed or left-handed hitters, he is now focusing on his fastball and fork, and the percentage of his slider has decreased significantly. In the Majors, there are very few left-handed pitchers who can throw a fork to left-handed hitters. I don’t know if Matsui was aware that he was going to the majors, or if he changed his style after getting information (that there are few left-handed pitchers in the majors who throw a fork to left-handed batters), but I don’t know until ……”

The FA market in the majors is devoid of big-name starting pitchers after this offseason, and Orix’s Yoshinobu Yamamoto has been the focus of much attention in the United States. If Yamamoto is able to challenge the majors this offseason via a posting deal, as many believe, he could fetch a whopping $20 million over seven or eight years, or 22.5 billion yen ($22.5 million at 141 yen per U.S. dollar).

Yamamoto pitched in two games in the WBC in March, the second of which was the semifinal game against Mexico in the home country of the United States. In Matsui’s case, however, he was not given the opportunity to pitch in the U.S., perhaps due to the fact that he had been struck down in a send-off game before the WBC tournament. After returning to Japan, he told Baseball Magazine, “I came home stressed out about wanting to pitch,” and as a result of his frustration, he has been able to reinvigorate himself in Japan and shine in a way that has attracted the attention of scouts in the home country.

In fact, a major league scout who has been watching Matsui’s pitching for some time now reveals, “To be successful in the majors, you have to have the mental toughness to pitch well.

The most important thing for success in the Majors is mentality. Major league batting lines are stronger than those in the NPB, so if you are mentally weak, you will pitch as if you are trying to escape. In that respect, Matsui has been a closer for many years and has a lot of experience, so there is no problem at all.

The fork, which he has been throwing a lot this year, will definitely work in the majors, and his slider is sharp as well. Matsui’s straight line is about average speed for a reliever or set-up man, and his fork and slider are above average. At worst, he can be a reliever, and at best he can be a set-up man for the 8th inning.

If Matsui exercises his FA rights and announces his intention to play in the Majors, how well can he expect to do?

If he can get off to a good start, such as handling the ball, it would not be surprising to see him approach the level of the Mariners’ closer Masahiro Sasaki, who made 37 saves in his first year with the Mariners. As in Japan, there is a need for left-handed pitchers over there as well, and salaries paid to relievers are rising quite a bit now, so teams that really want Matsui will pay at least 500 million yen for him.

Will the small, 174-centimeter-tall guardian god, who declined to say anything specific after acquiring FA rights, saying, “It’s April, so I don’t have any particular thoughts,” be able to use the ordeal to seize a big opportunity?

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