A Mixed Showing for International Rookies

The 2012 MLB season began with a very public bounty of international talent — Japanese stars, Cuban expats and even a Taiwanese surprise. With the season dipping into its final six weeks, we are beginning to see both the good and the bad of these international players who made the direct transition to MLB rookie.

SP Yu Darvish — The biggest star from Japan since Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a very Daisuke Matsuzaka season — much despite steady predictions of the opposite. Well, actually, he has an 86 FIP-minus and 94 xFIP-minus. That’s at least a better FIP than Daisuke’s rookie year, but an identical xFIP.

Dave Cameron has written extensively on Darvish lately, noting Darvish has a command problem, the league has realized Darvish has a command problem, and Darvish has a scary group of command problem comparables.

At the same time, though, Darvish has been adjusting his approach to a less-aggressive (compared to the NPB) league. He has been toying with his repertoire, and I would not be surprised if he entered the 2013 season with a streamlined pitch selection that sets up his elite slider (one of the best in the league) more effectively and simply.

So the Rangers got what will likely end up as 3.0+ WAR from a 25-year-old pitcher. They paid $51.7 million just to speak to Darvish, and prorated across the six-year contract he signed, that means they paid $14.1 million this season. At $5 million per win, that’s still in the black, but Darvish has to improve his sophomore year for the Rangers to not be clogged with regret.

CF Yoenis Cespedes — For all the let down that Darvish has been, Cespedes has been as much of a pleasant surprise — and more. La Potencia has a 140+ wRC+ and also has the makings of a strong center fielder. The Athletics may have meant to sign the Cuban defector and then trade him, but his $36 million, 4-year contract has promptly transmuted into a steal for a surprisingly in-contention A’s team.

His contract exceeded the value I had anticipated Cespedes would get, but so has his production. With almost 2.0 WAR coming from his bat alone, Cespedes does a manly job of challenging the Cuban League is High-A Ball theory. He will be 27 next year and could take over the full-time center fielder job if the A’s find an interested party for Coco Crisp.

OF Norichika Aoki — The Brewers’ signing of Aoki got little fanfare, but Aoki has translated his record as a solid hitter in Japan, meaning the 3-year, $2.25 million signing (with a $1.5 million team option) probably deserved more applause than it received. After starting the season as a bench player, Aoki played his way into full-time duties rather quickly. He now has a 114 wRC+ with 6 homers and 16 steals. It might be tempting to name Kosuke Fukudome as a good comparable, but the 30-year-old Aoki has already shown stronger hitting ability than Fukudome and has nearly matched Kosuke’s rookie 1.6 WAR, despite Aoki having under 400 PA.

And even if Aoki is in fact Fukudome 2.0, let us remember that Fukudome averaged 1.9 WAR over his first three seasons. That’s not bad, and when you take out Fukudome’s $48 million contract and insert Aoki’s Quantity Plus deal, it’s even better.

SP Wei-Yin Chen — The Baltimore Orioles quietly built a vastly improved starting rotation this past offseason, and Wei-Yin Chen has been a big part of that. His FIP does not sparkle (98 FIP-minus), but 2.0 WAR from a 26-year-old rookie lefty is more than acceptable. The Taiwan native signed as a free agent out of the NPB — so no posting fee — and his $10.7 million contract (with a $4.75 million team option) makes him an enviable asset. And, given his youth, he could quite conceivably improve over the next few seasons and surpass Chien-Ming Wang as Taiwan’s greatest MLB star.

SP Tsuyoshi Wada — Wada is the other side of Baltimore coin. Whereas Chen has been a diamond in the rough, Wada has been a roughed up diamond. The 31-year-old lefty had posted some of the NPB’s better numbers over the last few seasons, but he pitched one minor league game in 2012 before exploding and going under the knife for TJ surgery. He signed for a $8.15 million, 2-year contract with Orioles, and he could still be worth $8+ million next season if all goes well, but a 32-year-old rookie coming off TJ surgery and transitioning to a new language and culture could hardly have fewer obstacles.

SS Munenori Kawasaki — I’ll be honest: I follow the NPB as much as a non-Japanese-speaker can, and I was quite surprised to see the Mariners sign Kawasaki. If they wanted a shortstop, Hiroyuki Nakajima was available on the cheap (more on Nakajima later), but instead they went with Kawasaki — who had a 101 wOBA+ in 2011, and who said before negotiations began that he only wanted to sign with the Mariners so he could play with Ichiro Suzuki. Kawasaki has -0.2 WAR, but if he gets summoned to regular duty, I imagine he could improve his 36 wRC+ and play above replacement level. But still, that kind of player was quite available elsewhere, so why not pay something less than $625,000 and try out an infielder younger than 31? Oh well, who can delve into the mind of Mariners leadership? (Dave Cameron can, but he’s intimidating, so why ask him?)

(If nothing else, at least Kawasaki makes the job for us NotGraphs contributors immeasurably easier.)

RP/SP Hisashi Iwakuma — I guess with Iwakuma in the mix, the Mariners are batting .500 — a pop out and a bunt single. Iwakuma signed only a 1-year, $1.5 million deal (with $3.4 million in incentives on top of that). The Athletics wanted him in 2011, and nearly paid a $19 million posting fee to get him, but negotiations collapsed and he then joined the Mariners as a free agent.

Iwakuma is an interesting study. Despite the run-crushing powers of Safeco Field, he has struggled with the home run ball — both home and away (over 20% HR/FB rate). Either way, he has a solid xFIP (96 xFIP-minus — almost the same as Darvish) and has been nails since joining the starting rotation (7 starts, 3.73 ERA and 3.85 xFIP). If the home run problem proves to be more fluke than truth, Iwakuma will make great rotation depth for some other team next year.

SS Hiroyuki Nakajima — The Yankees paid, or almost paid, a $2.5 million posting fee for the rights to negotiate with infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima. But the Yanks wanted Nakajima signed to a multi-year contract to play on the bench, while Nakajima had hoped to be treated, shall we say, at a level more commensurate with his NPB accomplishments.

Well, Nakajima didn’t sign, the Yankees missed their chance at a valuable bench player, and now Nakajima has an .867 OPS (.321/.392/.475 with 11 homers) in a league that sports a combined .658 OPS. He will be a proper free agent in 2013 (no posting fee needed), and if he chooses to make the jump across the big pond again, he could make for a quality, 30-year-old infielder for a team.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


17 Responses to “A Mixed Showing for International Rookies”

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  1. Scott says:

    Impressive crop. What do the international free agents look like this offseason?

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    • It’s hard to say what Cuba will offer — guys like Chapman, Cespedes and Soler either appear or don’t appear on the other side of the border.

      Japan will have at least Nakajima coming over, as well as a few others. But this is a situation where — unless the player is a legit free agent like Nakajima — it takes three to tango (the player, the NPB team, and an MLB team). And after the Rangers — who likely overpaid in the first place — got a less-than-bustout season from Darvish, we might see a number of postings go unheralded or without bidding altogether. Also, the new limits on international spending will also put a damper on this field, meaning would could see way more NPB players choosing to stay home.

      A guy like Patrick Newman (@npbtracker) — on the merit of his language skills and location — has a better finger on the pulse than I do when it comes to players interested in playing in the MLB.

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    • Nate says:

      Kyuji Fujikawa – Closer for the Hanshin Tigers. Closest thing Japan has had lately to a Mariano Rivera type. He’s 32, but will be a full free agent, so won’t require a posting fee. Expensive teams that forgot to buy a bullpen should look at him *cough* Angels *cough*.

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  2. Aaron says:

    Jim Hendry had his faults, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t give Fukudome a contract with $21 mil AAV.

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    • Ian R. says:

      True! Fukudome’s contract was actually $48M, plus a $4M signing bonus. That’s a $12M AAV, $13M if you include the bonus.

      Of course, that’s still a LOT more than the Brewers are paying Aoki for similar production, so I think the author’s point still stands.

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    • Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed now.

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  3. Nohd says:

    I’d agree that Cespedes has been a pleasant surprise, particularly because he seems to be a much better all round hitter than was expected.

    I’m much less sure about this statement, “[He] also has the makings of a strong center fielder.”

    His advanced defensive stats are not good. I know the sample is much too small, but he hasn’t passed the eye test whenever I’ve seen him. His range looks like it will be below average even in LF, so how he would be a strong CF is beyond me.

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    • Tim_the_Beaver says:

      yes, I believe there was a post about this within the last week, even soliciting input from those who have watched him. His routes are questionable at best, comically bad at worst. Perhaps they will improve / are improving.
      One plus to his fielding (from my watching)- great arm strength.
      An amusing juxtaposition to Coco Crisp…

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      • Tim_the_Beaver says:

        also, in re-reading your comment, I’d add that his issue with range (which I somewhat disagree with) is definitely not a speed issue.

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      • Nohd says:

        I’ve always been a little puzzled about why speed is not pretty much the only thing that determines range. Having suffered watching Corey Patterson, Eric Thames and Rajai Davis in LF for the Blue Jays the last couple of years, I have seen plenty of evidence to convince me that speed can only do so much to make up for bad reads/routes.

        I would have thought that with enough professional coaching and experience that reads/routes would be of a uniformly very high standard in the Majors, but it seems there’s more variation there than I expected.

        That was a rather long way of saying that I still don’t think Cespedes will become a strong CF.

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      • Balthazar says:

        The read and above all the jump are what separate outstanding out_fielders_ from toolsy ball corrallers. A great deal of this is vision, being able to see by the trajectory of the pitch and the swing path of the batter what is about to happen. It’s been observed many times down the years that some of the best outfielders will break on the jump even before the ball is hit: they can see it coming. Reading the fall off the bat is also critical; is there backspin, was it not hit square and so likely to die, does the bat path suggest the ball will hook? And so on. Coaching can’t (so far) give one better visin. Coaching only makes a limited impact on the desire of the player to learn his pitching staff, learn the opposing batters and focus like a laser beam on every pitch. Great fielders have that desire, but plenty of other guys don’t so much.

        Then there’s the whole thing with running optimal routes. Coaching will impact that some, but a lot there is also in the neuro-visual cortex of the player. Some guys never get the sense of the proper angle, while for others they’re born with it.

        Then there’s the issue of ‘run back under the ball and wait for it to come down,’ where some guys who are in principle fast don’t have the kind of flexibility to get that blink-quick turnaround and go.

        The point is that some guys will _never_ be good outfielders; they simply lack the vision and neurological skills to put it together, physical tools regardless. It’s not a question of being stupid, though, to be clear. Regardless, the common assumption that ‘anyone can play leftfield’ or any outfield position doesn’t walk. A team may be willing to accept atrocious defense from a player, but that’s the not the same thing. If Cespedes hasn’t been able to learn to run routes by the age of 27, I wouldn’t suggest anyone plan on him ever running routes well. Center is probably not his position, but his tools might play better in a corner.

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      • rory says:

        @Nohd.

        Yeah, it’s a bit counter-intuitive that speed and range aren’t more closely correlated, but when you think about it, it makes sense.

        Hitting, after all, should be only about strength, and bat speed… But not really. Hitting is about seeing the ball, figuring out where it’s going to go, and having the strength and bat speed to get the bat where the ball’s going to be.

        Fielding is the same. You have to see the ball off the bat, figure out where it’s going to be, and have the speed to get the glove there. Cespedes, so far, hasn’t shown much skill in judging the trajectory of a ball, but he runs really really well. If he can figure out how to judge the ball better, he could become a great center fielder, but he really isn’t much of a defensive outfielder while he’s having such a tough time figuring out which direction to run.

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    • I actually wrote that article. And the impression I got from the readers is that he has struggled with his routes, but by his own admission he is still getting accustomed to the much larger American stadiums that have higher lights the he is used to in Cuba.

      Either way, he’s not even a full year into his UZR stats, so I’m not will to say he is a true talent bad center fielder. If anything, his gun arm and great speed suggest he will — perhaps with better coaching — at least be a serviceable center fielder.

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  4. Toasty says:

    I consider watching Nori Aoki to be an honor and a privilege.

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