By: Brian Frank
Bisons hitting coach Matt Hague learned he’d be entering the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame during the first team meeting of the season. Rich Baseball Operations President Mike Buczkowski delivered the news to Hague in front of the team in the Bisons clubhouse.
“It got me a little emotional because I wasn’t expecting it,” Hague said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “It is an honor. They did it in front of the team and made me give a little speech. I don’t even remember what I said because I couldn’t really think. It caught me by surprise. It was pretty good.”
Hague came up through the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system after being selected in the ninth round of the 2008 June Amateur Draft out of Oklahoma State. In 2011, he led the International League in hits with Indianapolis (165). He made it up to the big leagues with the Pirates in 2012 and 2014.
The Bellavue, Washington native first came to Buffalo in mid-August of 2014, when the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers. He immediately made a good impression. In 13 games with the 2014 Bisons, he slashed .377/.411/.566.
“It was kind of a weird time just because I’d been with them (the Pirates organization) for six years,” he remembered. “Up and down for a couple years and then I got claimed by the Blue Jays. I think just trying to get familiar with everyone, new surroundings, new team, new ways of looking at things, new emphasis on certain things. I think just getting here and trying to get comfortable. For me personally, it freed me up. I think I learned to just embrace it. It was a different situation and I was just trying to embrace everything.”
Hague hit .342 in his career with the Herd. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
He spent his first month in Buffalo trying to get acquainted with a new city and a new organization.
“My first thing when I come to a new city is always figuring out where I’m going to eat,” he said. “Just finding some good restaurants and figuring out a different stadium. The setup and everything here was nice. It was all new surroundings and new emphasis on different stuff. Just trying to get a gauge of what they want out of you. They were very clear up front with what they wanted me to do. So, really just trying to put myself in a better position to understand what I do well and try to bring it up more.”
In 2015, Hague had a season for the ages. He hit .342, 31 points higher than anyone else in the league – and the second highest batting average in the Bisons modern era. He led the league with a .416 on-base percentage and 177 hits, both second highest in the team’s modern era. He also led the team with 92 RBIs, sixth most in the modern era. He won the International League MVP, as well as the team’s Stan Barron Most Valuable Player Award and Jimmy Griffin Hometown Hero Award. He was also named a mid-season and post-season All-Star. Combined with his stats from 2014, Hague hit .342 in his time with the Herd - the highest career batting average in the team's modern era.
He credits a better understanding of his swing with some of the reason he had such an incredible season at the plate.
“Getting an understanding of the depth in my swing path and how I move naturally,” he explained. “Some depth in my swing path ultimately led me to cover more things that I wouldn’t have before.”
He also credited his former teammates and the atmosphere in the organization with his historic campaign.
“I had some really good teammates – (Kevin) Pillar, (Chris) Colabello, and some others,” he remembered. “Really good teammates that held me accountable when I wasn’t necessarily doing what I needed to do. I think it’s just accountability, surroundings, good teammates, coaches who let you play free, an organization that lets you play free, and an environment that lets you go explore some things. Self-exploration helped me do some things that I didn’t know I could do before.”
Holding down the hot corner. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
“One of the things I appreciate about the Blue Jays is they let you be yourself. They’re clear up front on why they acquired you and they put you in situations to understand yourself a little bit better. I think it was a freedom for me. I felt free when I played here.”
“And I think just the people around – you really feel the support. There wasn’t necessarily any panic when things were going bad. They had solutions and you went out and applied it yourself. I appreciated that and it led to a lot of freedom to bring out more of myself that I didn’t necessarily know before.”
His incredible season with Buffalo helped lead to him signing with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. Hague remembers talking with Munenori Kawasaki, his Bisons teammate, about Japan and even learning some Japanese words from the charismatic infielder.
“I didn’t really know I was actually going to go over to Japan until after that,” Hague said with a chuckle. “But I was just a big Kawasaki fan. He was such a good teammate. I was just fascinated by the way he did things. I think that was more of the thing – how he held himself and what he did rubbed off on me. I was curious – especially for my situation, my playing career. Of course you have interest in going over there and playing overseas. I think through that process I learned some Japanese. I can’t really remember exactly what he taught me. He definitely got that path going a little bit for me. Just hearing him talk about why he values certain things, It was fun. He was a good guy.”
The Force is strong with this one. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
The decision to sign with the Hanshin Tigers after his big year in Buffalo wasn’t a difficult one.
“The opportunity presented itself and I didn’t really think twice about it - just because of what it would do for me and my family, financially and experience wise,” Hague explained. “Now you have a chance to sit back and reflect, being a part and being around that group (the Blue Jays) in 2015, when we won the A.L. East – it was an unbelievable experience – but I think curiosity kind of led me over there and it just made sense for me at the time.”
The Tigers play at historic Koshien Stadium, a 55,000 seat stadium that was opened in 1924 to host Japan’s national high school baseball tournaments – a purpose it still serves today.
“They pack the house every day,” he said. “Every single game there felt like a playoff atmosphere. They are very passionate about baseball there and it was fun to be in that environment and kind of navigate through Japan and all the unique things that they have there.”
Injuries shortened his time in Japan. He only spent one season with the Tigers before returning to the U.S. Despite only being there a short time, he is grateful for the experience.
“I loved the Japanese baseball environment,” he said. “The country of Japan is so beautiful and there are so many unique things that we don’t get here in the United States. The way they took care of you was unbelievable. It was a really great experience.”
Hague didn’t hesitate when presented with the opportunity to get into coaching when his playing career was over.
“After I got done playing in 2018, I was perfectly fine with just taking a year or two to just kind of see what I wanted to do,” he explained. “There were a couple different pathways I think I could have gone. But Ryan Mittleman, who was our advance guy in 2015, reached out to me to get me familiar with the other side – doing some scouting stuff, doing some swing analyses stuff, doing some player development stuff. The opportunity came – and I knew that I had some experiences I could share with players that could help them grow.”
He quickly realized that coaching was his calling.
“Everything that goes into the day-to-day decisions, the game planning, I kind of fell in love with that,” he said. “And just being around the guys in the locker room, that’s something that you miss when you’re done playing. I think my want to be a coach actually increased when I got into coaching.”
Hitting coach Matt Hague talks with Trevor Schwecke before BP. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He was supposed to begin his coaching career as the hitting coach at Dunedin in 2020 – but the entire minor-league season ended up being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So Hague took the unanticipated free time to reflect on various aspects of coaching.
“I think through that period a lot of the coaches got better in some ways,” he said. “We had time to sit down and dissect – okay what are we trying to do, what things do we want to emphasize, and find the whys to a lot of stuff. I think going through that made me a better coach, even though I didn’t actually get to coach at the time. It was a lot of laying low, a lot of hanging out, a lot of video stuff at home. It actually worked out because we had a newborn. So it was a good time for me.”
He spent the last two seasons as the hitting coach at the Blue Jays Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. He’s also the Blue Jays organizational swing consultant.
“A lot of it is creativity, design, some implementation stuff,” he said of being the swing consultant. “Asking a lot of questions about why we’re doing stuff. Just trying to be creative and be supportive to the overall ideas of what we’re going to try to implement as a system. Like some of the ways we view and use some of the technologies we have. Trying to help bullet proof some of the things that we’re trying to do. A lot of video analyses of swings and stuff like that.”
This season Hague returned to the Queen City as the Bisons hitting coach. Being at the ballpark where he won the 2015 I.L. MVP brings back lots of memories – even if the stadium looks a bit different from the last time he was here.
“It’s been pretty cool, especially seeing all of the (stadium) improvements they did,” he said. “The first week here it was a little bit of a shock seeing how much change has happened here.”
“I think I also have a sense of relief from the fact that when I go back to those years here, there were a lot of solid emotional experiences that I had. I think coming back here sparked and rekindled some of those feelings. You think about it and it just kind of puts you a little at peace. It was a good time of my life and it’s always fun to be back in a spot like that.”
Jonathan Dandes, Matt Hague, and Pete Filson. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Hague is the first player to be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame from the Bisons' Blue Jays era, which began in 2013. His induction class includes pitcher Pete Filson, who pitched for the Herd in 1986, and longtime team executive Jonathan Dandes.
“I think it’s one of those times when you sit back and reflect,” Hague smiled. “It’s a massive honor. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. Thinking about the people who are in the Hall of Fame, the impact they had, what they did for their team and the area. There’s a massive tradition here and just thinking about all those names that are in there – it’s definitely a treat. It’s a very big honor”