From 346 MLB games to a legend in Japan

Just like Ohtani, Matt Murton had some adjustments to make

November 22nd, 2021
Design by Tom Forget

When Shohei Ohtani won the AL MVP Award on Thursday night, it marked the pinnacle of what fans dreamed of when he first left Japan to come play for the Angels. At the time, no one was quite sure how he would perform in a brand-new league. His attempt to be a two-way player -- an idea so outrageous it couldn't possibly work, right? -- was originally scoffed at. No one in the sport's history -- even Babe Ruth -- had pulled off what he was going to attempt.

Things didn't look great in his first Spring Training. He allowed eight earned runs and three homers in just 2 2/3 IP and was all of 4-for-32 with no extra-base hits at the plate. Articles and tweets were being written about how the Ohtani experiment was already failing and sports talk radio hotheads filled their days screaming about the Angels' expensive mistake. Now, as we look back on Ohtani's 2021 season, we see how woefully unprepared we were for a truly game-changing talent like Ohtani's. But in 2018? Oh, what fools we were.

It takes time to adjust to a new league and new style of play, while becoming comfortable in your new home. It's something that former Major Leaguer-turned-NPB-star Matt Murton knows well. Murton appeared in 346 Major League games from 2005-09 before joining the Hanshin Tigers in 2010. That very first year, he hit .349 and broke Ichiro's then-record of 210 hits in a single NPB season.

These days, Murton is back at home and is helping coach a high school baseball team loaded with talent on its staff. (Former big leaguer Chase Headley is also there.) Having now played in both leagues and even worked in the front office for the Cubs after hanging up his cleats, he has a viewpoint on the differences between MLB and NPB that few others have.

Murton is not Ohtani and their experiences surely differ. But for some insight into the obstacles that Ohtani had to overcome to win the MVP Award, Murton is able to provide plenty of wisdom from his reverse trip, going from the U.S. to Japan. Here are some notable moments from our recent conversation.

Adapting to a new style of play

Just as Ohtani struggled when he first joined the Angels, Murton also had a hard time early on. At the Tigers' spring camp, Murton was overmatched and, though he wasn't aware of it, his job was on thin ice.

"I was oblivious to stuff, which was good because apparently in spring camp they were crushing me, like, 'This guy can't do it, He's not going to be able to do it.'" Murton said in a recent phone call. "There were people out there not only writing, but on the air saying, 'I don't see how this guy is going to succeed,' because I was having to adjust to the pitching."

Murton is thoughtful and inquisitive -- qualities that were immediately apparent on the phone and helped make him a beloved fan favorite with the Hanshin supporters. Merchandise with his distinctive red hair and the phrase "so-ko-shu" (meaning complete player), were sold in team stores, alongside other pieces denoting his home state of Florida -- "You're not going to go to the team store in the U.S. and see the hometown or the place that they were born all over the merchandise, but that's something they did there," Murton said -- or with the outfielder dressed as a priest because of his open faith in Christianity.

But all of those things were a long way away. First, he had to get his mind around a fundamental change in the pitching style.

"In the U.S., when [a pitcher] falls behind [by] 1-0, 2-1, 3-1 counts, you have a chance to gear up a touch and look for a heater," Murton said. "In Japan, it's the complete opposite. They actually are far more willing to throw something with spin or a splitter or change in those counts than they are a fastball. In fact, like 0-1, 1-2 counts is when they'll throw the heater. For a guy from Japan coming to the U.S. and vice versa, you have to completely change your mentality in both the sequencing and pitching."

If Murton couldn't start making good contact, his time with the team could have been short.

"That was probably my greatest challenge when I first got there, was to understand the depth of the splitter or the fork and having to overcome it," Murton said. "Early in camp, I didn't, I was not performing well. And subsequently I was getting crushed. Now, looking back, if I hadn't gotten out of the gate with success, I was probably done."

Adjusting to a new country

The Tigers did everything they could to help the Murtons settle in. They arranged a place for them to live and provided a translator for both himself and his pregnant wife to help with day-to-day life and things like traveling to doctor's appointments. While these were thoughtful and helpful gestures from the team, there were also expectations attached to them.

While being shown around the team's facilities, Murton expressed his thanks, saying how much he appreciated what they were doing for him and his family.

"Well, I'm glad that you feel that way," the team employee said, breaking into a smile. "Now there's absolutely no excuse for not performing."

Murton knew the reputation that some gaijin -- the term for foreigners -- had for being too arrogant on arrival. There were players that were stuck in their way of thinking and wouldn't change for the new culture. Murton didn't want to be that person. He spoke to former players who had left the U.S. for Japan for insight. He reached out to business leaders who worked in Japan. He even watched the Tom Selleck film, "Mr. Baseball," laughing when he admits it's not a terrible primer.

So, when he joined up for team workouts, he eschewed the easier training methods afforded him.

"There's a distinguishing line between [players who are] 30 and over and the younger kids and the amount of workload they do. And the Americans are generally lumped into the older group regardless of age," Murton said. "I was like 28 at the time that I went over there. I made it a point initially that, nuh uh, I'm doing everything they did. I'm not going to be the guy that is somehow different. I'm going to try to be just like them in that way. It kicked my rear end to be honest with you, but I think it was like one of those things where I think they appreciated the fact that I was at least trying."

There was also someone in the Tigers' clubhouse to help him: Former Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima.

"Because of the fact that he was Japanese, had obviously grown up in that environment, had spent time in the Major Leagues and experienced that, I felt like he had a sense for where I was coming from," Murton said. "[He also] made it a point to reach out to me, which was huge. He was always checking on me, like, 'How are you doing? How are things going?'"

While none of those things were directly responsible for how well Murton did in Japan, they were all small steps that helped Murton feel more at ease.

Then, once he started hitting, he just didn't stop. Murton had always shown the ability to hit in the Majors, but rarely had the regular at-bats to prove it. Now, he was hitting in the center of the Tigers lineup and succeeding.

Breaking the record

Historically, NPB teams would pitch around players like Tuffy Rhodes, Randy Bass or Alex Cabrera whenever they had a chance to break Sadaharu Oh's single-season home run record, not wanting to give a foreign ballplayer a chance to break such an iconic mark. Murton can actually thank Ichiro -- the player whose record he was chasing -- and his 262-hit season for being given the chance to pass it. (Three years after Murton broke Ichiro's record, Wladimir Balentien broke Oh's home run record with 60. He was playing Murton's Hanshin Tigers when he passed Oh with his 56th and 57th.)

"One of the things said to me was that when Ichiro came to the United States, he was basically given 'the opportunity' to break our single-season hit record, in the sense that we didn't hold that from him by how we approached the way we pitched him," Murton said. "They say it opened the eyes of a lot of people in Japanese culture -- the world was becoming smaller, in a sense. We were more aware of what was going on in other parts of the world. And the fact that [MLB pitchers] gave him the opportunity to do it, I think changed the perspective and thoughts of many of the people in Japan."

Instead, all the pressure came from what Murton put on himself. He started thinking about the hits he needed to get, rather than repeating the performance that had led him to this moment.

So, after tying Ichiro's record of 210 hits, the Tigers had a day off. They then returned to play the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

"I remember the first at-bat I rolled over, I think to the shortstop, and that really wasn't my game," Murton said. "I very rarely would roll over a ball to shortstop, not that it couldn't happen. But I did a good job of staying through the middle of the field. There was so much attention on it, I just felt like I was somehow trying to manufacture a hit. And that's not how the game works."

So, he went and spoke with his translator and explained how he needed to get out of his head and stop thinking about the personal achievement.

"For so long, the game is not about what we do as individuals, but how we support our team in the context of winning and losing," Murton said. "And in this particular moment, it almost felt like it was more important that I got this hit than my team won. It was hard for me to swallow, to be honest with you."

Next time he stepped to the plate, the bases were loaded with less than two outs. He focused not on the record, but driving in the run. On a 2-1 pitch, Murton got a changeup. He stayed simple and grounded it back up the middle.

There it was: No. 211. The record was his.

That didn't mean Murton's stress was over. The game was paused to honor Murton's achievement and the Swallows brought out flowers for Murton. He was now on the country's center stage and he wanted to make sure that he didn't embarrass himself or accidentally disrespect his opponents.

"You have this list in your head of like, 'I got to make sure that I do X, Y and Z," Murton said. "Then it actually happens and it becomes a blur. And you're like, 'Man, I just hope I was showing the respect I needed to show.'"

Murton's record didn't last long: Five years after he broke it, and while playing his final season in Japan, current Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama broke Murton's mark with a 216-hit season. Though his name isn't in the record books, Murton wasn't upset.

"I did reach out to him. It was through a third party. And I just congratulated him on the accomplishment," Murton said. "I just knew what I had been through."

Facing Ohtani

Despite being a record-breaking hitter and having faced a (very young) Ohtani up close -- batting against him and hanging around for his BP adventures -- even Murton wasn't prepared for what Ohtani pulled off this year.

"I would have expected pitching over hitting at that time. Which is odd, but that's just being being truthful," Murton said. "At the time, they were still trying to figure out like, how many at-bats do we give him? I think we were wrestling with that in the U.S.

"He was more pitcher first, because he was throwing 95-96 to 100 miles an hour then. So he had a phenomenal arm. ... But if I had bet on him, I'd be like, yeah, I could see this guy pitching. I'd be curious how his offense would turn out. We don't have to be curious anymore."