Matt Winters is a professional scout for the Nippon Ham Fighters, with whom he played from 1990 to 1994.
A first-round pick of the New York Yankees, Winters played for Triple-A Columbus from 1983 to 1985. During that time he was a teammate of future American League sluggers Don Mattingly and Steve Balboni and outhit both of them.
He got one sip from a demitasse of coffee with the Kansas City Royals in 1989 before coming to Japan, where he scored 346 runs and drove in 428 with a .376 on-base percentage and a .525 slugging average over 637 Nippon Professional Baseball games.
During his career in Japan, Winters became iconic for his good humor and his willingness to entertain the fans in surprising ways.
In May, Winters spoke at length about his experiences in Japan, his observations and his job as a scout, and the things he’s learned along the way.
Coming to Japan
From his introduction to Hall of Fame manager Sadao Kondo bending over backward to speak English to former Dodger Mike Marshall, Winters spoke of adapting to a new country.
“You’ve got to swallow your ego. Marshall, he complained about every little thing. It’s like, ‘Mike. You’re not in Los Angeles. This ain’t the Dodgers. You’re here. This is what you get. You go along with the system.'”
Weird batting stories
Japanese batting success, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Success, regardless of how unlikely or how ugly or accidental, is often something coaches will often make a big deal about, as Winters explains when a coach tried to get him to try his one-legged Sadaharu Oh approach in a game, or when he got a hit when he could barely see out of one eye.
Experiences with Japanese pitchers and fans
Winters tells of the different pitchers he faced in Japan, Hideo Nomo, whom the Fighters couldn’t knock out even with a line drive to the elbow, to the fan experience and the time he spent cheering with the fans at Tokyo Dome, much to the disdain of his team.
“I just went out to the right-field bleachers and the next thing you know, I’m leading the cheers with the cheer guys.”
Japan, family, language and Hideki Matsui
Winters tells of his family’s adjustment to Japan and issues with the language. I’m sorry for the video in this Zoom clip which seems to have stuck on my ugly mug for most of the time Matt was talking.
“I got back (to the States) and started coaching, and I started talking to the Latino players and I began firing out Japanese at them, and they’d be looking at me like, ‘Huh?'”
This brought to mind the Yankees promo video featuring Hideki Matsui, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge (below).
The indespensable gift of humor
On the subject of the attributes that allow players to succeed in Japan, Marty Kuehnert suggested that a sense of humor could be a huge factor, and something, Winters said, not all his import teammates possessed.
“I remember when (Lotte’s) Mike Diaz came out and we were both dancing with the group that was playing before the game. We had our fun.”
I wouldn’t have signed me
NPB pro scouts have said one thing they sometimes see in prospective signings that can disqualify them for potential service in Japan is a violent outburst in response to failure or an umpire’s decision. Asked about that, Matt said, “Uh oh…”
What does it take to succeed in Japan?
Winters answers this question by starting with a player he rejected out of concerns for his strikeouts, who went on to strike out 616 times over seven seasons in Japan while hitting 133 home runs and driving in 370.
What Japan teaches before players go to the States
We were talking about what allows some players to succeed in Japan but not in the States, and how playing in Japan can be a springboard for some players, allowing them to make the jump between Triple-A and the majors.
It’s all about makeup, and luck
When Winters left Japan he went into coaching and player development until his former interpreter Toshi Shimada rose to be the Fighters’ chief executive–a whole ‘nother long story–and came calling asking if he’d like to scout for them. Winters spoke about what he wants to see in a player but admitted it’s always a roll of the dice.
“With us, makeup is big. If we find there are red flags in makeup, we’ll stay far away from them and let someone else have the headache. You’re still flipping a coin when you send a guy across the ocean. How are they going to adapt off the field. How are they going to adapt to the Japanese style of baseball?”
Scouting: nuts and bolts, and changing times
Since Winters started scouting for the Fighters, things have changed due to organizational needs and the increased diffusion of analytics.
“I’ve learned to scout with your eyes and not your heart. Because there are a lot of guys I root for and I go, ‘Just show me something man, I want to put your name down.’ But then you go, ‘I can’t put him in.'”
The Nippon Ham Fighters, since Toshi Shimada engineered their move to Hokkaido, have reorganized into somethimg more like an MLB team with fewer overlapping roles and more accountability, thanks in part to the input they got from manager Trey Hillman from 2003 to 2007. Winters gives his impression of other organizations prior to his time as a Fighters scout