Last year was a bit of a time warp for Matt Hague.
When Major League Baseball was playing, he was sleeping. When North America was asleep, he was awake, grinding away another day at the ballpark in the Japan Central League. He's been playing catch-up, so to speak, this spring, grateful for the experience overseas but oh so glad to be home.
When last we saw Hague, he was having a career year with the Buffalo Bisons. Dubbed "Matt-VP" (as a play on "MVP") the infielder was named the 2015 Most Valuable Player in the International League while winning the IL batting championship. Hague batted .338 that year, the second highest average in the Bisons' modern era. He drove in 97 runs on 177 hits and had an on-base percentage of .416.
This week he returned to Coca-Cola Field in the visitors' clubhouse, playing third base for the Rochester Red Wings and remembering the spectacular season he had in Buffalo.
"I think looking back on it, when I'm going through it, I’m just extremely focused and trying to not let all the numbers and all the stuff get to my head," Hague said Tuesday morning at Coca-Cola Field. "But looking back on it, it was the best season of my career and I think that was a big platform for what happened in Japan, obviously, but moving forward as well. Along with the stats, a lot of relationships, too, that I cherish. Just a good season, a good group of guys that season. I just had a lot of fun playing here."
Hague's hot-hitting season didn't earn him much time with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was called up for about a week in mid-August, getting only one at-bat, then went back up after the Bisons' season was over.
But his numbers earned him an opportunity to sign with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League and experience baseball in another culture.
"It was just an opportunity I've been wanting to do for three or four years – to go overseas and see what it's like," Hague said. "I think the preparation and the amount of work and the amount of stuff you do is much more intense than here. That's something you have to get used to and try to adapt to. They're extremely fundamentally sound over there – very good at their craft. So it's a lot different than what we're used to here."
One of the adjustments was at the plate where Hague hit .231, driving in 11 runs in 31 games.
"You see a lot of off-speed pitches there so you really have to get good at hitting the other way," Hague said. "It's more crafty-finesse. Over here it's more like power fastballs and power hitters. I think it's just two totally different styles of play but something that helps you in a way for off-speed pitches here."
Hague was in the starting lineup as the designated hitter for the Red Wings on Tuesday, going 1 for 4 with a walk. In his first four games with Rochester, Hague had hit .412 while driving in two runs.
Hague, who started his pro career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, said the Minnesota Twins came calling with a solid offer and a Triple-A affiliate in Rochester that had a good reputation. And he was ready to be back in North America playing in a baseball system that was familiar.
"Everything started happening about a week after the World Series," Hague said. "I had a little talk here, a little talk there from some other teams. The Twins were essentially the first people that made a real offer. I didn't want to waste any more time. I just wanted to be back here. It's a good opportunity here. Good people here.
"I think that's one of the biggest things that appealed to me is that everyone's very good baseball people," Hague said of the Red Wings. "They're very caring not only for baseball but off the field as well. I think they stress the right things – how to play baseball the right way and have fun while doing it."