There is a former World Series MVP who has hit more than 500 home runs in his career and has not been implicated, whether by test or suspicion, in any PED scandal. Over 20 seasons, the outfielder was a .293/.387/.521 hitter with 2,655 hits, 496 doubles, 508 homers, and 1,654 RBI.
It would seem a player of this caliber would be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and yet somehow that player has yet to receive a single Hall of Fame vote.
That player is Hideki Matsui.
Now, the aforementioned stats were a combination of the stats Matsui accumulated in his time in Japan and the United States. Admittedly, his stats in the US are not Hall of Fame caliber. In his 10 MLB seasons, Matsui was a good, but not quite great player.
Matsui would retire as a .280/.360.462 hitter with 175 homers and 760 RBI. That’s an MLB career that Matsui should be proud of, but it’s not a Hall of Fame one.
However, that wasn’t his full career. From 1993 – 2002, Matsui would become the premiere power hitter of the Japanese Leagues. He would play 10 seasons for the Yomiuri Giants until he finally reached free agency. Unlike Japanese stars like Ichiro Suzuki or Shohei Ohtani, Matsui was not posted. Rather, he would spend the bulk of his career in Japan.
There are a number of reasons for this least of which NPB rules and a gentleman’s agreement between MLB and the NPB.
As detailed in a 2012 New York Times article, once a Japanese player is drafted by an NPB club, the team has from late October until the end of March to sign a draft pick. There is nothing preventing an MLB team from interceding and signing a player, but due to an unwritten agreement between both leagues, MLB teams do not interfere. If a player goes unsigned, an MLB team can then sign that player without a posting fee. However, and this is important, those players are always signed. As a result, unless posted, a player will spend the first half and most likely the prime of their careers in Japan.
It is really a system set up to benefit both NPB and MLB teams. It allows the NPB to stay more relevant as a league, and it allows MLB teams to take on less risk when signing a player from Japan. However, when you have generational talents like Matsui, they suffer.
No one knows if Matsui would have been a Hall of Fame player if he spent his entire career in the United States. What we do know is if you combine his stats, he most definitely had a Hall of Fame career. However, that will not result in his enshrinement in Cooperstown.
This is not too dissimilar from players who have defected from Cuba. Pitchers like El Duque may have been capable of being Hall of Famers if they were able to spend their entire careers in the US. However, for reasons outside their control, they were kept from competing at the highest level, and therefore robbed of their chance of going to Cooperstown.
Now, there is a precedent for non-MLB players to get inducted into Cooperstown. As we know, the Baseball Hall of Fame has tried to right many of the wrongs of segregation by honoring and inducting Negro League legends like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. Players like Satchel Paige, who was not good enough for induction into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his MLB career, were inducted on the strength of their Negro League careers.
We can argue whether it is fair to compare segregation to the cruel Cuban dictatorship or the exclusionary policies of the NPB, which are aided and abetted by MLB. What we do know is like the Negro Leaguers, Cuban and Japanese players have not been given an opportunity to play in the US through no fault of their own, and as a result, they are not going to get their shot at Cooperstown. That is, unless, they are freaks like Ichiro.
When Ichiro is inducted in the Hall of Fame, he will be the first Japanese player elected. Tony Perez remains the only Cuban born player inducted.
By the looks of it, no one will be joining them anytime in the near future, and the major reason for that is their countries will not permit them to compete at the highest level, at least not during their prime. There may not be an easy solution to this, but in the end, it seems that someone like Hideki Matsui, who has had a great professional baseball career, would deserve some consideration for Cooperstown.
He hasn’t, and he won’t. That’s a problem.