With baseball’s status as a truly international game, it’s no secret that JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” Zoom calls have become a stomping ground for former players and managers alike. Whether it’s legendary skippers Bobby Valentine or Trey Hillman, or superstar import players like Matt Winters, Craig Brazell, and Scott Mathieson, the hits just keep on coming, allowing JapanBallers to get a unique in-depth look at the Japanese game.
Bringing in even more hits, however, is our latest guest: Matt Murton, who played with the Hanshin Tigers from 2010 to 2015 and broke Ichiro Suzuki’s record for hits in a single season with 214 in 2010. Murton joined “Chatter Up!” on March 5 to discuss his time in Japan, including his thoughts leading up to and after the record-breaking knock:
“I honestly had gotten to the point where I recognized later in the season that if I didn’t break it, I almost felt like I was a failure, because it was sitting there right in front of me, and all that had to occur up to that point in order for me to have that chance; the odds of that ever occurring again were slim to none, so now I’ve got to take it to the finish line,” Murton recalled. “I was lucky enough to be up with the bases loaded, there was less than two outs; I really simplified the game, as I just want to knock this guy in from third base… I ended up staying up the middle of the field and getting a hit, and got the record anyway. So it was kind of a sense of relief to be honest with you, and then once it was processed, there was obviously a respect for what all I had been through, all of the people that have supported me to get there.”
Like most “Chatter Up!” guests with playing experience, Murton took the time to discuss his time in both Major League Baseball (MLB) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Having the rare distinction of having played in front of two of professional baseball’s most historic fanbases with the Hanshin Tigers and Chicago Cubs, Murton distinguished between them, even being asked who was more dedicated to their teams:
“In Wrigley Field, the joke used to be that if you turned the seats around backwards, they would still sell out, because at the end of the day, they’re just there to have a good time,” Murton said. “On the reverse of that, when I was at Koshien [Stadium], I was just taken aback by the fact that from the first pitch, almost legitimately to the last pitch, it never stopped. And in the outfield, I was trying to sit there watching all of the fans in the outfield, and trying to define what that was. It’s got to be some mix between Southeastern Conference college football, and international soccer… So between turning the seats around backwards, and going home dog tired from a long nine inning game? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll be the judge of that.”
Murton also discussed the differences he noticed in the two leagues’ speed, making contact, and strike zones, noting that in transitioning between NPB and MLB, he had to mentally re-adjust himself to the newleague. In doing so, Murton mentioned both his own observations between playing in each league, and his advice to players and prospects making the same journey he had:
“I would say for most of the athletes, from a physical standpoint, that come from Japan to the US, there’s a few things that occur,” Murton said. “One of the biggest struggles I had when I first got to Japan that I had to work through in spring training, was the reality that a lot of pitchers in Japan have hesitations within their windup. So they’re constantly pausing or stopping or changing the pace at which they deliver the baseball. So for a guy in the U.S., who’s used to a cadence of a pitcher, lifting his leg and delivering the ball, you kind of get used to that. And all of a sudden [in NPB], now your body is prepared to hit, and the ball’s not there yet. So a lot of Japanese hitters have these like gathering points, I would say, within their swings that help them combat that style of pitching, and when they get to the U.S., they tend to not get their foot down in time, so they need to learn how to more efficiently get on time with a pitch.”
Murton, who was a top prospect and first-round draft pick for the Boston Red Sox in 2003, took on questions as he often did pitches: with a steady eye and plenty of analytics. Going beyond specific at-bats, Murton discussed his approach to different games and pitchers, and what he believed to be the healthiest balance between statistical analysis and pure player instinct:
“There were some trying times for me in Japan,” Murton said. “I was very fortunate to have a lot of success, but 2012 was a very difficult season, ‘15, the last year I was there, I felt like I was fighting against it the entire season. And a lot of times for me, it was like staying up late at night watching videos, constantly analyzing everything that was going on, almost to a fault. So I think sometimes when you get into a slump, one of the best things you can do is almost just like go back to being a kid, and go out there and compete, and just literally lay it out on the field. Because my mind is super analytical, I’m always trying to figure out the whys, where sometimes it’s probably better if I were just going out and play.”
With this philosophy in mind and a couple of years working for the Chicago Cubs’ front office under his belt, Murton looked ahead optimistically to his next post-paying career steps, mentioning his desire to stay in the game.
“For your whole life, you’ve been kind of told where to be when to be there, the whole nine yards, it’s all been defined for you,” Murton said. “And now you have the space and I’m getting older, we’re getting into this trying to figure out, ‘okay, like, how do I like to define that space?’ So I’m working on it… I do love the game, I do love people, and the transition off the field the last three years, to be able to evaluate and listen to the conversations built around analytics, and R and D has been really healthy for me, I think. If more than anything, it certainly broadens my background, and can give me a different perspective.”
Murton also took the time to mention his favorite memories at both Koshien Stadium and the not-Tiger-friendly Tokyo Dome, his work with legendary baseball executive Theo Epstein, and his experience with the curse-breaking young core of the 2016 Cubs. To read these excerpts, you can check out the full transcript, or listen to the full discussion on our YouTube channel.
From Koshien to Wrigley, Matt Murton is a hit in all regards, and we hope he continues to provide a fantastic lens of the game for all involved.