Part 4 of Sponichi’s series of interviews with the “BIG 4” title holders sees Katsumi Hirosawa interviewing batting title holder Matt Murton. They discuss Murton’s elite hitting techniques as well as his strong desire to contribute to the team’s first championship in 30 years.
Hirosawa: How are you doing physically these days?
Murton: Well I hurt my leg but other than that, I’m exactly where I think I should be.
Hirosawa: Well you still have a month until opening day so I hope you take your time and get back to 100%. As I look back on last season (and I was able to watch all 144 games, some after the fact), the most surprising moment was Game 2 when you hit a home run off (Giants’ reliever Scott) Mathieson in the 8th inning*. From that moment on, Mathieson really was not able to bounce back all season. I was surprised though because I have never seen you hit that kind of home run before. Were you sitting back waiting on his fastball?
Murton: He’s got the fastball but also a slider and forkball. But in that situation I thought he’d bring the heat, so I was ready for it. Still, just in case he threw something offspeed, I was ready to adjust my swing accordingly. The pitch before, I swung a little too hard and knew I needed to relax and make an adjustment just to make good contact with his fastball. He got better in the second half, but I was able to get a good hit off him before he turned things around.
Hirosawa: Since coming to Japan, you’ve set the record for hits in a season and are seen as one of the most clever batters in the game. But as I’ve been watching you all these years, the most amazing thing to me is your bat speed. Any thoughts on that?
Murton: I just want to effectively maximize the power I have, and the byproduct of that is a fast swing.
Hirosawa: I’ve seen a lot of foreign players come and go, but Japanese baseball has never seen the likes of you, Matt. What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to hitting.
Murton: Again, probably the most important thing is getting the most of the power you have. Some of it comes down to adjusting to what you’re thrown or “trying to get hits” but really just doing what you can to get the most of your abilities up there. Of course it’s not going to result in a hit every time, though.
Hirosawa: Actually, not many batters that most their back foot early get a lot of hits. You are an exception to that rule, which is pretty amazing. Looking at former greats like Sammy Sosa (Cubs), Mark McGwire (Cardinals), Barry Bonds (Giants) or Derek Jeter (Yankees), none of them moved that back foot. Only one great hitter who does that comes to mind: Ichiro (Marlins). You’re like a right-handed hitting version of Ichiro. I call that genius.
Murton: I’m not sure if it’s the best way to hit the ball, but getting your butt facing the pitcher a little, and using that built up power against the momentum of the pitch seems to work. Maybe that causes it to look as though my back foot is moving forward.
Hirosawa: From your amateur days right through to the pros, you were pretty good at hitting the inside pitch. Did you have problems with outside pitches?
Murton: Inside pitches were tough but pitches towards the outside were easier. The reason is that I made the effort to avoid opening up my stance too much by keeping my left shoulder in place. So it was hard to get to the inside pitch. To remedy that problem, I started to focus on using my butt muscles a little more, which enabled me to handle inside pitches a little better.
Hirosawa: Last season you were quite aggressive with your base running whenever the catcher had problems handling one-hoppers from the pitcher. How much of that was premeditated?
Murton: I was always told from a young age that getting to the next base was crucial, so I’d watch for what angle the ball would bounce away from the catcher. In America coaches will always tell you, “If you think you can make it, go!” So I was just trying to do what I’ve been taught all along.
Hirosawa: So not just “quite aggressive” but extremely aggressive! As we watch you on the base paths, we can really see how you’re trying hard to contribute to the team.
Murton: If I can get to the next base, it gives us a better chance of scoring runs. I hope to keep doing it this season, too.
Hirosawa: Let’s talk about batting order. I’m sure you’ll say “I’ll hit anywhere in the lineup” but do you think you’re going to end up hitting 5th again this year?
Murton: The manager is the one who looks at each player and decides what order will produce the best results for everyone. I can’t really say anything here. I just put on the uniform and compete. It’s the manager’s job to decide what batting order will get us the most runs. Of course the guys who are getting more hits should be closer to the top of the order so you get more baserunners and more scoring chances.
Hirosawa: What players did you look up to growing up?
Murton: I think pretty much everyone in my generation looked up to Ken Griffey Jr (Mariners)**. I’m from Florida so I liked Jeff Conine, but I also had cable so I watched a lot of Braves games and saw a lot of Chipper Jones and (former Rakuten Eagles) Andrew Jones.
Hirosawa: These days in Japanese baseball, no one measures up to you as a hitter. This coming year are you looking to do anything different, like increase your RBI or home run totals?
Murton: I just want to contribute to the team winning. If I can do that, the numbers will follow. Rather than focusing on numbers, I want to think about what I have to do each at bat in order to help the team win. I might have won the batting title last season, but there are a lot of great hitters in the Central League. I can’t win that title on my own. I just want to concentrate on that things that are within my control, focus on every game and compete hard. Maybe it’s important to look at the big picture and have goals, but I think focusing too much on those goals throws you off, too. The numbers are a result of concentrating on that one at bat, that one pitch, that one moment. If you set the goal of batting .300 but only end up with a .260 average at the end of a month of play, you missed your mark by 40 points and you start to get out of sorts. You can’t raise your average to .300 in one at bat. Whether you’re hitting .320 or .260, your job doesn’t change.
Hirosawa: If you could keep up the hot streak you had going last April*** for three months or so, you could probably set a ridiculous record in hitting, and maybe even lead the team to the pennant and Nippon Series title.
Murton: Yeah, if Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers) played at his peak for the whole season, he could easily hit 70-80 home runs, too. It’s impossible to play at that kind of pace for a whole year in baseball, though, but baseball is all about the pursuit of getting the most of your ability for as long as you can. I play with that kind of mentality, and when you’re on your game, baseball is a lot of fun. Some players are naturally gifted, but really the difference between great athletes and not-so-great athletes comes down to whether or not you can stay consistent all year. The difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter over the course of a 500 at-bat season is only around 20-25 hits. Some players put up crazy good numbers over a short period, but the greats can put them up for just a little longer.
Hirosawa: You’re exactly right. The difference between “Good job” and “Better luck next year” is 24 or 25 hits a season.
Murton: So if you calculate that out over a month, it’s 4-5 hits, which means one extra hit per week. It adds up.
Hirosawa: I only realized that after I retired (laughs). You know your stuff, Matt!
Murton: Four hits a month seems like a small number but it’s huge. If I go 0-for-4 in a game, I don’t want it to end there. I want that fifth plate appearance. That one chance is so important to me, especially if it can help contribute to the team winning. Each hit, each at-bat becomes that much more important.
Hirosawa: Hanshin made it to the Nippon Series last season but the team’s lone title came in 1985. The fans are hungry for another title, and are looking to you to lead the team to victory. What are your final comments to the fans?
Murton: I’m sure you all know just how hard we worked just to get to the Nippon Series, but still we were unable to win. I’ve put in a lot of work training this offseason, hoping to somehow finish what we started last year. Because you guys are such great, supportive fans. I’m going to do my best this year again. Playing in the Nippon Series was a lot of fun, really exciting. We’ve finished in 2nd place three of my 5 years with the team. We haven’t won the pennant, but it’s not easy because there are lots of good teams out there. Still, I want to win it all. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ichi-gun or Ni-gun, winning the championship only happens when every player is contributing. The fans and players all feel the same way about winning. I hope this team can come together as one and win it all this year.
* On March 29 with the Tigers down 3-2 in the 8th, Murton took the second pitch of his 4th at bat, a 146 km/h high inside fastball for a ride to the left field stands, tying the score. The Tigers got 2 more off of Mathieson in the 9th, coming from behind to win 5-3. Mathieson finished 2014, his 3rd season, with a personal worst 3.58 ERA, a 6-6 record and 30 saves.
** Griffey was chosen first overall by the Mariners in the 1987 draft. He was a 5-tool player who finished his career in 2010 with 2,781 career hits and 630 home runs. He is also known in Japan as the player Ichiro idolized.
*** Murton finished March and April 2014 with a .365 average, 6 home runs and 32 RBIs. The monthly MVP award, though, was given to Eldred (Hiroshima) who hit .373 and had 8 home runs. Though Murton is entering his sixth season in Japan, he has surprisingly still never won the Player of the Month Award.