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More NPB Prospects You Should Know

Picking up where I left off last time

Norichika Aoki (OF, Yakult Swallows, 28) – In a post-Ichiro, post-Matsui NPB, Aoki reigns as the consensus top hitter. I’d actually go so far as to say that he”s the best pure hitter Japan has produced since Ichiro. Aoki is a line drive hitter with occasional power who uses the whole field. He’s also a disciplined batter, walking about as often as he strikes out, which is rare in Japan. Aoki is short and somewhat stocky at 5’7.5, 182 lbs, but is a good runner with tremendous range in the outfield. The only knock on his game is his rather weak throwing arm, which may limit him to left field at the MLB level. For video, I dug up some batting and fielding highlights and a breakdown of his swing on YouTube.

Hiroyuki Nakajima (SS, Seibu Lions, 28) – Nakajima gets my vote as Japan’s second best hitter, behind Aoki. Nakajima doesn’t quite match up with Aoki’s pure contact skill or plate discipline, but is still very good in both categories and adds a bit more gap power to the equation. Nakajima is a back-leg hitter, with a big stride that he will occasionally shorten up. On the turf, Nakajima plays a solid shortstop, among many good shortstops in his league. The best video I could find of Nakajima was this one, of him hitting an opposite field home run off Dicky Gonzales (I know, not the best competition). Also of note in the video, you can see that he’s made friends with teammate Dee Brown. The high-five routine they do after home runs shows up on Japanese highlight shows.

Wei-Yin Chen (LHP, Chunichi Dragons, 25) – Last offseason, Chen was probably the more outspoken about wanting to be posted than any other NPB player. Chen is Taiwanese, but signed with Chunichi as an amateur out of high school, apparently without any provisions to make him a free agent if he and the team can’t agree to a contract during the annual negotiations (as veteran foreign players who sign from 3A or Korea usually do). This is an unusual situation, but not unprecedented, as the first couple postings for Dominican players the Hiroshima Carp had signed as amateurs, including current Giant Ramon Ramirez. Chen does appear to be serious about MLB, as he hired agent Alan Nero last offseason, and I expect him to push to be posted again this year.

Chen features NPB’s top lefty power arsenal, primarily throwing fastballs and sliders, while mixing in occasional forkballs and the random big, loopy curve. His fastball reaches 95 mph or so, but usually sits around 90-92, while his slider breaks in on righthanded batters and sits in the 85-87 range. Chen has been letting his pitches get up in the zone much more this season, and is showing more of a flyball tendency than he did last year.

The Chen video I have is two hours of game footage from his August 17 start, against Seth Greisinger and the Giants. The video occasionally switches to a Yokohama game, but still gives you a better sense of what Chen throws than a 10-minute highlight reel will.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAyoigqsLt8

NPB Prospects You Should Know

You’ve heard plenty about Yu Darvish and Matt Murton. Over my next couple posts, I’ll be introducing some MLB prospects currently active in Japan that you might not be aware of, but should be. These are guys that mostly likely won’t be coming over this offseason, but have sufficient upside to make them interesting prospects if/when they do.

My criteria for selecting players to include in this series:

* must be good
* must be on pace to become eligible to move to MLB by age 30 or so
* must be playing at the NPB level already

Kyuji Fujikawa (RHP, Hanshin Tigers, 30) – We’ll start with Japan’s top relief pitcher. Fujikawa has been a strikeout machine since getting healthy in 2005, hovering around 13 K/9 each year. This year he’s racked up 63 Ks in 45.1 innings of work, for a 12.51 mark. Fujikawa gets it done with a rising four-seam fastball that sits in the 93-96 mph range, and a hard forkball that frequently finds it’s way into the dirt. On the downside, Fujikawa has tweaked his delivery a bit over the years, and isn’t always consistent with his mechanics. Fujikawa has been known to be interested in moving to MLB for quite some time, but Hanshin has made it clear that they intend to hang on to him, so we’ll have to wait another two years or so before he’s eligible to make the jump via free agency. Here’s a video clip of him entering a recent Tigers game.

Takeya Nakamura (3B, Seibu Lions, 27) – Like Ryoji Nakata, Nakamura is, um, large. His nickname is “Okawari-kun,” “okawari” meaning “another serving” and “kun” being an informal version of “san.” Unlike Nakata, Okawari-kun is good. He’s struggled this season with injuries, but led Japan in home runs in 2008 and 2009, with 46 and 48, respectively. He also led Japan in strikeouts, with 162 and 154, again respectively. Despite his girth, Nakamura plays a respectable third base, with a good first step and a quick release on his throws. At the plate he’s a pull hitter, as you can see in this clip of all his 2008 home runs (including on at 1:29 off Darvish). I don’t really see Nakamura as an MLB prospect, but he’s a fun player nonetheless.

Munenori Kawasaki (SS, SofBank Hawks, 29) – Kawasaki is the consummate small-ball player: he makes contact, steals bases, puts bunts down, and plays good infield defense. Kawasaki typically hits for average, as well; he’s currently fourth in the Pacific League with a .327 mark. Unsurprisingly, the one thing Kawasaki has never done much of is hit for power. His next home run will be his fifth of the year, and a new personal best. Kawasaki has qualified for NPB domestic free agency, meaning that he can file for free agency and move to another NPB team this offseason. No one expects him to do that, though, and with another year of service time he’ll be eligible to move overseas. He’ll be an interesting prospect if he chooses to, I kind of see him as an infielder version of Scott Podsednik. YouTube didn’t turn up a lot of great results for Kawasaki, but there is this one.

I’ll be back shortly with another round of prospects to look it. Got questions? You have the floor.


Trades in Japan

While hundreds of thousands of MLB fans stay glued to mlbtraderumors.com in anticipation of July 31’s non-waiver trade deadline, another trade deadline will pass, probably uneventfully, on the other side of the Pacific.

Earlier this week, the Yomiuri Giants and Rakuten Golden Eagles consummated NPB’s ninth* in-season trade this year, exchanging pitchers Masafumi Togano and Hideki Asai. This may not seem like a huge number, but it’s the most in-season trades I’ve seen in any season since I started following Japanese baseball closely. For comparison’s sake, last year NPB saw a single in-season trade: Seibu acquiring pitcher Taiyo Fujita from Hanshin for futility infielder Keisuke Mizuta. 2008 had four in-season trades.

I can’t quite explain the increase in activity. Many of the deals that happened this year were for teams to address depth problems caused by injuries. It’s unusual in Japan to see established players traded for prospects. Accordingly, the players that have changed hands this year were either bench players, relief pitchers or non-prospect fringe players. In my view, Orix pulled the heist of the season when they got Masayuki Hasegawa, a starter with a good arm but a poor medical record, and Go Kida, a proven pinch hitter; in exchange for Yuichiro Mukae, a 28 year-old outfielder with a career .180 batting average.

In spite of the activity this year, trades happen much less frequently in NPB than MLB. Why is that? For me it starts with the impracticality of them. NPB has 12 teams split between two six-team leagues, which is akin to an MLB division. Of the nine trades this season, only two have been intra-league, and one was Chiba Lotte sending outfielder Kenji Sato to Nippon Ham for nothing in return (musho trade, a uniquely NPB phenomenon). Beyond that, teams rarely have their hands forced by impending free agency or unwieldy contracts — though Yomiuri did move Hideki Okajima to Nippon Ham for two younger players a year prior to his free agency a few years ago.

An additional reason is that players moving from one team to another is less ingrained culturally in Japan than it is in the US. It’s not unusual for a player to spend his entire career with the team that drafted him. And when Seibu traded Mizuta last year, his teammates saw him off with a ceremonial douage, despite his insignificant role on the team.

* Edit, August 1: There were actually 11 trades made in season. I missed one and mistakenly identified another as having happened during spring training. For a full list please see here.


From Yahoo to FanGraphs at the Touch of a Button

Another Edit: Some comments, like this one, have asked about the author of the script. The universally positive feedback for this goes to Justin Swift.

Edit: Commenter CJett pointed out that this script can be readily installed on Google’s Chrome browser as well as FireFox. I’ve edited the post slightly to reflect this addition.

Disclaimer 1: This has nothing to do with my previous post on the Yahoo Fantasy Sports API.

Disclaimer 2: You must be using FireFox or Chrome to enjoy the script described in this post.

Disclaimer 3: I didn’t write the script, so I won’t take credit or blame for it (though it deserves the former).

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get on with business.

Greasemonkey is a FireFox browser extension that allows users to manipulate web pages after loading them. Why is that cool? Because it lets you add a link to FanGraph’s beside each player’s name on Yahoo’s Fantasy Baseball page, like this:

Here’s how to give it a try:

0. If you’re on FireFox, proceed to step 1. If you’re using Chrome, skip ahead to step 2.

1. Install the Greasemonkey plug-in into FireFox. If you don’t have FireFox, I recommend checking it out; it’s a free, high-quality browser. Once you have FireFox, installing Greasemonkey is a one click process, but it does require a browser restart.

2. Install the FanGraphs link script. Before doing so, please be sure to read the userscripts.org disclaimer. If you’re cool with the disclaimer and terms of service, head over to the link script’s page. Click the “install” button and you’re all set. If you’re so inclined, you can check out the script’s source code.

3. Head over to Yahoo Fantasy Baseball, and try clicking the small FanGraphs icon that should now appear beside each player’s name. It should open a link to the player’s FanGraphs page in a new browser tab or window.

4. If you ever want to remove this script from your browser, perform the following steps: on your browsers menu bar, choose Tools > Greasemonkey > Manage User Scripts; highlight Yahoo Fantasy – FanGraphs Link in the list of scripts; and click the uninstall button.

Another disclaimer: I tried this script on two computers, one Windows and one Linux, and it seems to work fine and the source code looks safe to me. But as a rule of thumb, be careful with what you install on your browser. If you aren’t sure if something is safe to install or not, my recommendation is not to install it.

How’s it work?

In a nutshell, after you load a web page in your browser, you have a full html document loaded on your computer for the browser to display. Greasemonkey uses this premise to provide a means to customize the html in your browser. The script that we just installed works because of Yahoo’s good html design. Each player’s name is placed in a container called a <div> which is further defined as “name” (<div class=”name”>). So the script looks for the player names identified in the html, grabs the name from inside the <div> container, generates a link to FanGraphs, and appends it to the original <div> container.


Interesting New Import Pitchers – Pacific League

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on a few pitchers that are new to Japan’s Central League. Judging by the response the post got, the names were a lot more interesting to me than anyone else, but I promised a Pacific League edition, and here it is.

Bill Murphy (LHP, Chiba Lotte Marines) — Lefty Murphy has been a success story this season: he started the season in the bullpen, where he did well, and was moved into the rotation where he won his first six decisions. He’s K’ing nearly a batter an inning and has been a reliable 6-7 inning starter for the surprising post-Bobby Marines.

Juan Morillo (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) — “Explosive fastball, no command” was the book on Morillo in the US. It was more of the same in Japan at first, as four walks in his first five NPB innings earned him a trip to Rakuten’s farm team. He made a promising return after a month, striking out four in 2.2 innings, but left his May 23rd complaining of elbow discomfort after facing two batters, and hasn’t been heard from since.

Bobby Keppel (RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Keppel has had the most success of all the new import pitchers in Japan this year, posting a 10-1 record and a 2.72 ERA. This is for a team that hasn’t had much success in the win column — Keppel is credited with 10 of the team’s 36 wins. So are we looking at the next Colby Lewis? Probably not. Lewis’s command of the strike zone really set him apart in Japan. Keppel hasn’t been nearly as impressive, with a 48/28 K:BB ratio in 86 innings pitched. Keppel also padded his numbers a bit in interleague games, which are over for this year.

Buddy Carlyle (RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Carlyle is an interesting case, as he spent his age-23 and age-24 seasons in Japan with Hanshin back in 2001-02. After bouncing around Triple-A, the majors, and Korea for the last eight years, he’s back in Japan with Nippon Ham. This return engagement hasn’t gone well — 31 hits and 10 walks in 22.2 innings over four starts earned him a quick demotion, and he’s fared even worse at the minor league level with a 7.14 ERA.

By my count, four pitchers currenly on MLB rosters were under contract with NPB teams last season: Lewis, Scott Atchison, Brian Sweeney, and Chris Resop. Each took a different path back to MLB, so despite the varying results of the pitchers highlighted in this post, we could see some of these guys re-emerge in MLB.


The Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API

Today, I’m going to take a look at Yahoo’s Fantasy Sports API. If any of the details are unclear, just leave a comment and we’ll clear ’em up.

The Fantasy Sports API, announced on June 2, 2010, appears to be the only published and freely available API of its kind on the web. Currently baseball and football are included in the API, with basketball and hockey coming later in the year. From here we’ll take it FAQ-style.

What is an API?
In a general sense, an API (Application Programming Interface) is a piece of software that exposes functionality for other software to leverage or integrate. More specific to the web realm, APIs allow sites and applications to retrieve and post data from external services. APIs are the glue that holds Web 2.0 together: mashup sites that incorporate a live Twitter feed or Google Map, buttons that let you “like” a blog post on Facebook, and similar things are all taking advantage of APIs.

So what does the Yahoo Fantasy Sports API do then?
In a nutshell, this API fulfills requests for information with structured data responses. So, if your app wants to know what Barry Zito did in a specific game, or the draft results of a fantasy team, it makes a call out to Yahoo’s API, and gets the requested data back in either an xml or json response. The data in either response format is the same and structured the same way, but have different uses. Xml is a markup language and superset of html, while json is an object notation designed for use with Javascript, but that can be decoded by any popular programming language. The Fantasy Sports API is primarily a read-only tool at this point, but there is an API call post transactions to a team as well.

What data is available?
I’ll admit I haven’t fully sunk my teeth into this yet, but from reading the documentation, it’s mostly metadata associated with running fantasy leagues: draft results, team rosters, ownership status, etc. Individual player stats are available, but which ones specifically isn’t included in the documentation.

Can I set it in action?
Given that the API was only released less than a month ago, there don’t seem to be many live examples yet. The only one I’ve found of a site or app using the Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API is the Pickemfirst app, which I haven’t tried since I am not participating in any fantasy leagues this year. On top of that, usage of this API is limited to non-commercial tools and applications, which may act as a deterrent to potential developers. The hobbyist community is capable of producing great things, though, so it’ll be interesting to see what emerges from the release of this API.


Pitch Counts in Japan

A post I wrote last week over at NPB Tracker got me thinking about how many pitches NPB starters actually throw, so I queried the data I’ve collected for this season. Here are the results:

Read the rest of this entry »


Interesting New Import Pitchers – Central League

Each year, the 12 NPB teams carry a total of 60-70 foreign players on their rosters. For a variety of reasons, this group usually turns over by more than half from year to year. Partially because of this turnover, we see a lot of players with interesting backgrounds come through Japan. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the more interesting pitchers who are new to the Central League this season.

  • * Chih-Lung Huang (RHP, Yomiuri Giants) – Hailed by some in the Japanese press as the next Chien-Ming Wang, Huang is a 21 year-old righty out of Taiwan. He grew up a fan of NPB, and last offseason spurned MLB interest to sign an ikusei contract with his favorite team, the Giants. Ikusei is a special roster designation usually used for younger players; the word itself means “training” or “development”. Huang performed well in his farm team appearances this season, and was promoted from his ikusei status all the way to the top roster to make an emergency start last weekend. He was quickly demoted after two appearances, but showed a promising sinking fastball, and it looks like he’s a solid prospect.
  • * Casey Fossum (LHP, Hanshin Tigers) – Fossum failed to crack Hanshin’s opening day rotation over concerns with his velocity, but joined the team a couple weeks into the season and has been a serviceable mid-rotation arm. He’s got a 3.88 era in 46.1 innings with 41 K’s and 21 BB’s.
  • * Gio Alvarado (RHP, Hiroshima Carp): If I had an NPB All-Joy team, Alvarado would definitely be on it. After kicking around the low minors, Mexico and the Indy Leagues for 10 years, Alvarado earned an NPB contract with back-to-back strong seasons in Salt Lake City and Albaquerque, two of the tougher pitching environments in AAA. He opened the season in the number two spot in the Carp’s rotation, but was quickly demoted after allowing 12 earned runs in his first 16 innings pitched. Alvarado is back with the top team, and took his first NPB win on June 12.
  • * Dioni Soriano (LHP, Hiroshima Carp): Another All-Joy type, Soriano took the path less traveled to Japan: he played at the Carp Academy in his native Dominican Republic, moved on to China, and then spent a few years in Japan’s Independent Leagues before signing an ikusei contract with the Carp last season. Soriano reached the top level in May. Though he’s only made three appearances so far, Soriano shows solid velocity and could become a much-needed lefty option for the Carp. Fun facts: the Cubs have two other products of the Carp’s Dominican Academy: Esmailin Caridad, who was also an ikusei player; and a slightly more famous Soriano.
  • * Chris Bootcheck (RHP, Yokohama BayStars): Bootcheck fits the good velocity, poor command reliever mold that some NPB teams have been able to work with. So far, the velocity has been there, and he’s throwing strikes, as evinced by his 11:0 K:BB ratio, and the fact that he’s given up 17 hits and three home runs in 9.1 innings of work. Most of that hit total comes from two bad outings, so hopefully he’ll get a chance to sort things out.

In an upcoming post I’ll take a look at a few interesting guys in the Pacific League.


NPB Notes: Arm Slots & Other Updates

First a correction/retraction. In my most recent FanGraphs post on Junichi Tazawa, I re-ran a snippet from a post I published on NPB Tracker over a year ago, discussing the young righty’s time in Japan’s Industrial Leagues. One observant reader caught the improbability of this quote: “in his last appearance [Tazawa] didn’t allow any runs, but was nicked for 7 hits in 2 innings”. I did a little digging and couldn’t find any evidence of such appearance, so it looks like I was mistaken on that specific item. The Japanese site Draft Reports, however, has Tazawa’s pitching lines from 2008, and in general he was more hittable in relief appearances made after several starts (duh). So I’ll stand by the observation that Tazawa wore down after heavy workloads in Japan, but admit that I backed it up with incorrect data.

I brought up the submariner Shunsuke Watanabe in our chat last week, and here’s a little more on him: video of an appearance against Yomiuri in a 2009 pre-WBC warm-up match and velocity data from over the last year or so. With a fastball that maxes out at 80mph, Watanabe is perhaps the softest throwing starter in Japan. At the other end of the low arm slot scale is Yakult closer Chang Yong Lim. Some of you might remember Lim from last year’s WBC, when he closed for Korea and surrendered the eventual game-winning hit to Ichiro. Lim isn’t a submariner, but throws from a side-arm slot and runs his fastball into the mid-90’s. Here’s some video and velocity data.

How is the ‘Fat Ichiro’, Ryoji Nakata doing? Not well — .231/.268/.359 slash line through 42 farm team plate appearances. Nakata is perhaps a victim of NPB’s single-level minor league system — he’s behind two other first base prospects who are performing much better.

Matt Murton has taken to Japanese baseball like a fish to water so far, sporting a healthy .351/.400/.529 line as of May 31 Jeff Fiorentino, on the other hand, has struggled to a .235/325/.324 line.

Yu Darvish is striking more guys out this year, 95 in 86 innings pitched so far. Overall he’s in the midst of a frustrating season with a pedestrian 4-4 record despite a 1.67 era, while his Nippon Ham Fighters languish in last place. Darvish has surrendered seven unearned runs in his 11 starts this season, which is surprising given that Ham’s fielders won seven Gold Gloves last season, winning every position except pitcher and one outfield spot.


Tommy John for Tazawa

Greetings Fangraphians. I have awakened from my six-week Fangraphs slumber to bring you… analysis of Junichi Tazawa’s surgery.

Last month, the Red Sox learned that Tommy John surgery would knock their #3 prospect out of commission for the next 12 months or so. Let’s take a look back at how they got here.

Tazawa signed with Boston in November 2008, after a four-year career with Shin-Nihon Oil Eneos of Japan’s Industrial Leagues. The Industrial Leagues are comprised of amateur teams fielded by Japan’s corporations, such as Toyota and Yamaha. I’m sure someone will ask how the Industrial League compares to the American minors in terms of talent, but to me it’s an apples and oranges situation in that the Industrial Leagues have a mix of NPB draft prospect talent, and guys with corporate jobs who happen to play baseball. That said, I’d say the better Industrial League teams probably grade somewhere around Indy Leauge ball.

I was probably more impressed than most to see Tazawa reach the Bigs last season. Based on the observation that it usually takes younger Industrial League pitchers at least a year or two of pro seasoning before they begin to perform at the top level in Japan, I expected Tazawa to hit a wall at some point his first pro season. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote last February:

[…] In America, he will have to adjust to the reality that even in 2A there will be guys capable of hitting his best stuff. This will challenge him to improve on his approach on the mound and preparation for the game.

It turned out that 2A wasn’t a huge challenge for Tazawa, and he did well in two 3A starts before finding the wall I envisioned at the MLB level. The Industrial Leauges are a long way from the pennant race in AL East, and that got that far in 10 months was quite an achievement.

So hindsight being 20/20, was he rushed?

In the post I referenced above, I also made a note about the mileage on Tazawa’s arm coming into the Red Sox contract:

Looking at last year’s Intercity Championship, which Tazawa’s Eneos won, Tazawa started on Sept 1, Sept 4, pitched relief on Sept 6, started again on Sept 8, and finally closed out the tourney with two innings on Sept 9. That was a total of 28.1 innings in nine days, with no more than three days rest in between apparances. I don’t have pitch count data, but I recall reading that he had gotten around 150 in one game last year* (not sure if it was this tournament or another one). And he did wear out down the stretch — in his last appearance he didn’t allow any runs, but was nicked for 7 hits in 2 innings.The upside here is that the Red Sox certainly won’t put this kind of strain on Tazawa’s arm. He’ll be put under pitch counts and watched carefully. The adjustment he’ll have to make is pitching on a regular, routine basis, instead of the short, extreme bursts of activity with long breaks in between.

* In researching today’s post, I found an article that said he had thrown 158 pitches in the September 4, 2008 game.

One thing I didn’t foresee was that Boston have him pitch from the windup. Tazawa always worked from the stretch in Japan, probably because he spent most of his Industrial League career as a reliever. His workload also increased from 103 Industrial League innings to 134.2 across three levels in the States.

So was he rushed? I have the sense that injury problems were to some extent inevitable, but yeah, it does feel like the Red Sox were aggressive with him.


The Fat Ichiro

A few weeks ago, Alex Remington published an article covering a Harvard study overweight baseball players. Had Harvard expanded their study to Japan, they could have included Ryoji Nakata, Japan’s portly rookie.

When Nagoya’s Chunichi Dragons drafted Nakata out of Asia University in the third round of last year’s NPB draft, he immediately took over as Japan’s roundest player. At a Fielder-esque 5’6 (171 cm), 260 lbs (118kg), Nakata inherited the distinction from Japan’s previous reigning heavyweight, Seibu’s Takeya Nakamura, who is comparatively svelte at 5’9 (175cm) and 224 lbs (102kg). Nakamura’s game matches his size: he’s a third baseman was a good first step, who has led Japan in home runs each of the last two seasons (46 and 48 respectively).

Nakata is different. He’s a first baseman, and lefthanded-hitter who relies on contact skills and strike zone control. In college, he was a gap hitter with a career slash line of .278/.355/.438, though this was dragged down by a horrible .102/.185/.184 Autumn 2008 season. You can get a sense of what he looks like at the plate in this spring training at bat against Orix reliever Daisuke Kato. Like many Japanese contact hitters, Nakata kind of turns himself towards first base on his follow through, which I think will make him vulnerable to NPB-level fastballs over the outside part of the plate. On the plus side though, he motors to second on the left fielder’s misplay, and advances to third on a sacrifice fly.

Skills aside, conditioning and stamina are the obvious concerns here. While Nakata appears to cover short distances surprisingly well enough, I doubt he’ll hold up over of the course of even a professional farm team season. He was visibly winded after running a sprint in a video I saw, and was finished a 4k run three laps behind his rookie teammates. And it will remain to be seen how the duration of the season affects his physique, and how that in turn affects his game.

So for me, putting it all together, Nakata has “pinch hitter” written all over him. He’s an unconventional player and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops with Chunichi’s farm team this season.


Yu Darvish: Real Deal?

Author’s note: Minor edit toward the end.

Yes. Here’s why:

– Darvish has had three straight seasons better than than any one Daisuke Matsuzaka managed in Japan. In each of the past three years, he’s posted a sub-2.00 era and a whip of 0.90 or better. Matsuzaka never achieved either figure during his time in NPB.

– NPB batters find him nearly unhittable. Over the last three seasons, he’s hits/9IP were: 5.84 (2009), 6.10 (2008), 5.33 (2007). Nippon Ham’s strong defense plays a role here, as Darvish’s BABIP was .241 last year. But Darvish keeps the ball on the ground, and his number was well ahead of the team average of .291.

– He throws six or seven pitches for strikes in game situations. According to my un-trained scouting eye, five of them are potentially above-average MLB pitches: his fastball, slider, forkball, curve and shuuto (two-seam fastball). To get a sense of how Darvish mixes things up, take a look at the velocity chart his opening day start.

– He’s got velocity. Darvish usually works his fastball in the 92-93 range, but is capable of running it up to 95-96.

– He changes speeds. Darvish’s curveball bottoms out at under 60mph, and he has other offerings in the 75-85mph range.

– Darvish is young (not yet 24), and “projectable” (6’5, 188 lbs).

– He eats up innings. Darvish has averaged about eight innings per start over the last three years.

Darvish does have a few minor areas of concern:

– He throws a lot of pitches. Darvish threw 147 pitches on opening day, in a complete game losing effort. Back in July 2008, Darvish threw 165 pitches in a loss.

– He hasn’t put up a truly dominant strikeout season. Over the last three years, Darvish has been in the 8-9 K/9IP range, but given his stuff and the number of pitches he throws, I’d love to see him put up 12-13 K/9IP season.

– The amount of mileage on his arm is somewhat of a concern, though not as much as it might be. Darvish throws a lot of pitches and goes deep into games, but gets plenty of rest between starts. His career high for innings is 207.2, in 2008. Matsuzaka, on the other hand, was abused to the tune of 240.1 IP during his age 20 season. Still, Darvish missed the last month of the 2009 season with lower body strains.

The question I most commonly receive from readers is “when will Darvish come to the majors?” The answer is that Darvish has been outspoken about not wanting to make the leap to MLB. This is a stark contract to most other NPB stars — Koji Uehara, for example, talked for years about his dream of playing MLB ball before he actually did.

This is where Darvish’s ethnicity comes in to play. Darvish is half Iranian, but born and raised in Japan. He said in an interview prior to the 2007 Japan Series that growing up, he tried to fit in and gain acceptance with the other kids by performing on the baseball field. This in turn fueled his desire to succeed as a pro in Japan. I’ve also heard speculation that he’s reluctant to play in America because of a possible perception of anti-Iranian sentiment*, but I can’t remember seeing a quote attributed to him on the subject.

In any event, all the MLB teams will have an eye on him, just in case.

* a little disclaimer here: I’m not meaning to comment on the possible presence of anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States; I’m merely attempting to underscore the fact that Darvish’s background is uncommon for a ballplayer, which may make his situation a little more complex than we’re used to as fans.


Top 5 MLB Returnees

With Colby Lewis and Scott Atchison returning to the majors this season, I thought I’d take a look at the players who have had the most success after spending time in Japan.

Honorable Mention: Pedro Feliciano (2005, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks)

5. Julio Franco (1995, 1998, Chiba Lotte Marines) Went to Japan along with guys like Darrin Jackson and Kevin Mitchell after the 1994 MLB strike; left after the Marines fired Bobby Valentine, but returned after a front office change. After time in Korea and Mexico, made a lengthy MLB return in the 00’s.

4. Lee Stevens (1994-95, Kintetsu Buffaloes) Put up better numbers in MLB return than he did in Japan; played in late-90’s Texas division winners.

3. Rafael Betancourt (2000, Seibu Lions) Pitched 28.2 middling innings in Japan in 2000, has been steadily worth 1+ WAR since sticking at the MLB level in 2003, including an excellent 2007 season.

2. Matt Stairs (1993, Chunichi Dragons) Didn’t make an impact in his one season in Nagoya; post-Japan career needs no introduction.

1. Cecil Fielder (1989, Hanshin Tigers) After hitting 38 jacks with Hanshin, changed his Tigers to Detroit and ushered in the 90’s power era, presumably without the aid of ped’s.

Note: this doesn’t include non-Japanese players who started their professional careers in Japan, so former Carp players Alfonso Soriano, Timo Perez, and Ramon Ramirez weren’t considered. I’ll also give Melvin Mora a nod for the time he spent in Taiwan prior to breaking out with the Mets.

The closest thing to a trend here is that Stevens, Betancourt, Stairs and Fielder were all on the right side of 30 when they played in Japan. Franco is an exception because he went over following the strike. Aside from that, this is a scattered group. Stairs and Betancourt didn’t play much in Japan, and needed several more years of minor league seasoning before breaking out at the MLB level. Stevens got his MLB shot after a great year in 3A in 1996, Franco was already an established MLB player, and Fielder had been blocked by Fred McGriff prior to playing in Japan.


The Paths Traveled

Every year, a couple of players make the journey from Japan to Major League Baseball. Those who do come on one of many paths. In this post I’ll walk through what those paths are, and which players could be headed down each this season.

Free Agency
The path most traveled is that of free agency. International NPB free agency is difficult to attain, requiring nine years of service time, where a year is defined as 150 days on the active roster of a top level team. Time spent on the injured list usually does not count toward free agency, though sometimes players are credited retroactively for time missed.

Put it all together and you have a system that allows very few players to attain free agency privileges before age 30. The 2009 class was weak, with only Ryota Igarashi commanding an MLB deal, and the 2010 class doesn’t figure to be any better. Nonetheless, there are a couple names to keep an eye on.

  • Tatsuhiko Kinjo (OF, Yokoham BayStars) — had an unreal season in 2000, but has been a pretty average contact hitter in recent years. Would be an MLB 4th outfielder.
  • Hiroyuki Kobayashi (RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines) — under-appreciated righty is coming off a couple rough seasons and will be moved to the bullpen in 2010.

The Posting System
I’ll take it for granted that most readers of this site have heard of the posting system, which allows NPB teams to auction players who are not free agents to MLB teams. If you haven’t, check out the Wikipedia page on the topic. In the 11-year history of the posting system, only 10 players have been successfully posted, and none since Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, and Kei Igawa in 2006. The last attempted use of the posting system was in the 2008-9 offseason, when Seibu twice honored lefty Koji Mitsui’s request to be posted. There were no takers.

Why would an NPB use the posting system? In some cases it has been a courtesy to the player; other times the team is trying to get something in return for an obviously MLB-bound player, just like MLB teams trade impending free agents.

Two star pitchers have made it known that they want to move to MLB sooner rather than later. It is, of course, up to the team to agree to post them.

  • Wei-Yin Chen (LHP, Chunichi Dragons) — Chen is a 23-year-old Taiwanese lefty with an electric arm, coming off a breakout season in which he put up a 1.54 ERA over 164 innings. Chunichi doesn’t want to let him go, but he’s putting pressure on the team through the media and has retained agent Alan Nero with an eye toward an MLB move.
  • Kyuji Fujikawa (RHP, Hanshin Tigers) — Fujikawa is Japan’s top closer (86 Ks in 57.2 IP in 2009), and has been talking on and off about moving to MLB for years. Hanshin has consistently said “no way,” but he keeps asking, and maybe they’ll cave before he hits free agency.

Released Players
Japanese teams release players every year, just like their MLB counterparts. You wouldn’t expect a player who’s failed to perform well enough to stay employed in Japan to be much of an MLB prospect, but increasingly Japanese players see the US minor leagues as life beyond NPB. A recent notable example is Ryohei Tanaka, who put up better numbers at Double-A in the Orioles organization than he ever did for Chiba Lotte’s farm team.

Amateur Free Agency
For many years, MLB and NPB were bound by an unofficial agreement barring MLB teams from signing draft-eligible amateur Japanese players as free agents. Then Junichi Tazawa came along in 2008 and disrupted the system. High school lefty Yusei Kikuchi might have followed suit in 2009, but NPB put on a full court press, and he gave into social pressures and wound up getting drafted and signed by the Seibu Lions.

Slightly beneath the surface, less celebrated Japanese prospects have been signing with MLB clubs for years, though only two (Mac Suzuki and Kazuhito Tadano) have reached the majors. This last offseason, the Mariners signed high school player Pedro Okuda and the Indians inked college righty Takafumi Nakamura. So we’ll see a range of talent sign as amateur free agents; from 1st round draft-level talent to more raw players with some upside.

My opinion is that it’s a matter of time before we see another top NPB draft prospect challenge the system and sign with an MLB club. It could happen this year, as we’re looking forward to a deep draft class. I won’t speculate on any specific names just yet; that will come once the high school and college seasons begin.

Returnees
In a given year, the 12 NPB teams collectively have about 70 foreign players under contract, the vast majority of whom arrived in Japan via MLB affiliated ball. Turnover tends to be very high, and a good number of those players (30%-50%) won’t be back for another season. Most of the players returning Stateside after playing in Japan wind up on Triple-A rosters, but occasionally a few gems come through. This offseason, Colby Lewis and Scott Atchison both got MLB deals after playing two years in Japan.

While I don’t see a talent of Lewis’s caliber on the horizon, there are a couple of interesting relievers to look out for:

  • Brian Falkenborg (RHP, SoftBank Hawks) — Falkenborg fits the fringey MLB reliever with good velocity and middling control profile that NPB teams like. His first year in Japan was outstanding, running a 1.74 ERA and 61:9 K:BB over 51.1 innings pitched.
  • Juan Morillo (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) — Morillo has yet to throw his first pitch in Japan, but he has Brian Wilson-esque velocity still has some upside at 26. If he can learn to throw strikes in Japan he’ll get MLB attention.

Takahashi, Take Two

2009: Mets add a veteran lefty Japanese pitcher named Takahashi who is represented by Peter Greenberg.

2010: Mets add a veteran lefty Japanese pitcher named Takahashi who is represented by Peter Greenberg.

Unlike Ken last year though, Hisanori went straight to New York rather than taking a detour through Toronto.

So, what do the Mets have with this Takahashi?

I’ve written that I see Hisanori as an MLB reliever, but he doesn’t agree with me and was adamant about getting a chance to start during his negotiations. Hisanori has mostly been a mid-rotation starter in Japan, usually putting up respectable rate statistics but doing so in rather limited work. Only three times in his ten-year career has he logged more than 160 innings, most recently in 2007 when he threw a career-high 186.2. Last year, Hisanori threw 144 innings over 25 starts, putting up solid 7.88 K/9IP and 3.5 K/BB rates.

Durability seems to be one of the things that most obviously suffers when Japan-trained pitchers transition to MLB. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kenshin Kawakami all saw their number of innings pitch drop in MLB, in terms of both total innings over the season and innings pitched per start. Hisanori isn’t as good as any of those guys, and given that he will pitch this season at age 35, and that he’ll be adjusting to a new culture, new scouting data, a more demanding travel schedule, a different diet, and a more challenging league, it’s reasonable to expect a regression from him.

On the plus side, Hisanori is lefthanded and throws a good screwball. This is a low-risk move for the Mets — they aren’t committing a 40-man roster spot or a ton of money to him right off the bat, and he was the only free agent starter left on the market without health question marks. Still, the Mets have a long history of acquiring middling Japanese talent, and the smart money is on Ryota Igarashi to buck that trend, rather than this year’s Takahashi.


Answers, Part 3

Okay, time for the final installment of the Q&A series. You know the drill by now.

Kirk says: January 22, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I’m interested in the following:

– how prevelant is sabermetrics in Japanese baseball (in the fans, press, front offices)?

– there have been a lot of looks into how Japanese players and their stats translate over in the MLB, but it seems like a missed opportunity without examining how major or minor league players perform over in Japan. This would especially be useful for players like Julio Franco who went back and forth.

– I would imagine Oh has to be consensus GOAT, but has there been other, say, top 50 players of all time lists?

– how many MLB games are on Japan’s national TV (i.e., no specialty or strictly regional cabel channels) regularly?

1. I’ve talked a little bit about sabermetrics already, but there’s enough interest that I’ll put together an entire post on it at some point.

2. Clay Davenport has done some work in this area.

3. Sadaharu Oh is definitely the greatest of all time (868 home runs!). For a longer list of top players, I will again turn to Jim Albright’s work, which is in English and has a documented methodology behind it. I may have a nit-pick or two with his ordering, but it reads like a who’s who of Japanese baseball history.

4. I can’t say what the current status is based on personal experience. When I was living in Japan between 2000-2003, I only saw playoff and World Series games televised live on national terrestrial TV.

Malemute says: January 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Thanks.

What are some of your favorite player nicknames?

Did the Japanese writer who didn’t give Mauer a first place MVP vote this year ever give an explanation as to why he thought Cabrera was better?

Nickames: One of the fatter players, Takeya Nakamura, is known as Okawari-kun, which means “another round.” Michihiro Ogasawara is known as “Guts”, and my all-time favorite is “Gun”, which was Akinori Iwamura’s Yakult Swallows-era nickname.

If that writer ever explained voting against Mauer, I missed it.

Chris says:January 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

It would be awesome if you put together a database where you could see potential stars in Japan and what year they are eligible to come to the US, or even an article highlighting a few guys over the next couple of years.

I have published lists of impending free agents and posting candidates at npbtracker.com for the last two years, and plan to do so again this year. And you’ll see content along those lines here as well.

Grady says:

I have a Bum Ho Lee jersey from when he was still with the Eagles. If I were to wear it in South Korea, would I be murdered? How closely does this compare to a rivalry in the MLB (a la Johnny Damon BOS to NYY scenario)?

Probably not. Lee left an absolute doormat of a team to take a huge pay raise in Japan. I don’t think Korean fans will begrudge him for that. That said, the Japanese and Koreans love beating each other. NPB has pretty much swept KBO in the league-vs-league games that have been played, but Korea has fared a little better in national games, winning the gold in the 2008 Olympics and going toe-to-toe with Japan in last year’s WBC. Last year’s WBC final was a huge event in both countries.

Ivan Grushenko says:

How competitive with MLB would the Japanese leagues (and Korean ones) if they eliminated the 2 foreigner limit? Could the Kyojin for example then field a team as good as the Phillies or even Yankees? Do they have that level of resources/fan support?

Actually, NPB teams are allowed to have up to four foreign players on their active rosters, with three in the game at any one time. There is also no limit to how many foreign players a team is allowed to have under contract, so most teams have a couple of foreign players in their farm systems. And finally, foreign players no longer count against the limit under certain conditions, such as after accumulating enough service time, or living in Japan for a certain number of years before turning pro. Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez, and Alex Cabrera have all played in Japan long enough to shed their “foreign player” status. The Korean teams are, as you said, restricted to two foreign players.

However, even if the limit were dropped, Japanese and Korean teams still wouldn’t be able to/try to compete with MLB clubs. Japanese teams have plenty of fan support, but there’s no way Alex Rodriguez’s best offer would ever come from Japan. Korean players are in a much lower tax bracket than their Japanese counterparts. The maximum KBO salary a few years ago was about $200k, I believe it’s gone up in the last year or two but salaries still max out in the mid-six figures. Last year Japan had over 100 players making $1m or more.

Alex says: January 27, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Hi Patrick,

I had the opportunity to spent about 2 weeks in Japan over the summer, and I got to see some games on TV. One thing I noticed was that in-game strategy seems to be much more conservative there. Especially in the later innings, if the leadoff man got on, the next few batters would all try to bunt him around the bases and play for that one run as opposed to going for a big inning. Is this a small sample size issue or do most teams play this way?

What you saw was very much reflective of the way most NPB teams play. There have been some recent exceptions, such as Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines and the 2008 Seibu Lions. This is actually a common source of culture clash between the standing NPB brass and Americans who manage NPB teams.

Matt B. says: January 27, 2010 at 8:58 pm (Edit)

What is the general reaction to the modest struggles (mostly) of Dice-K in North America? From what I have heard, he was a near legend over there and looking at his Japan numbers, I see why, but overall (IMO) has been a bit disappointing over here.

Matsuzaka was a very good professional player in Japan, but his legend status really came from his performance in the national Koshien high school baseball tournament. I’ve had more than one Japanese person tell me he looked out of shape in last year’s WBC and MLB season. I watched him a number of times in 2008, when he was actually pretty good, and what I noticed was that he still has good stuff, but he had a tendency to nibble until he had runners on base. I think that if he’s in shape in 2010 and is more aggressive on the mound, he’ll have a good year.

BGriffith says: January 27, 2010 at 11:46 pm

What would you recommend as a good, english websites for Japanese baseball? Basic stats, standings, that kind of thing.

Self-promotion time: right here of course, and my own site, www.npbtracker.com. For stats and standing, start with these two:

About once a year I do a post on other English-language Japanese baseball blogs, so look out for that on NPB Tracker.


Answers, Part 2

Okay, time for another installment of the answers series. I did part 1 last week, and the original questions post the week before. I’m planning to do one more installment and then get back to regularly scheduled programming. If you have a question that I haven’t answered so far, you can always reach me at npbtracker@gmail.com. I may use your question in a future post.

Time is of the essence, so let’s get rolling.

ryan says: January 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Welcome aboard!

1) Are there any rule differences between American and Asian baseball? Is the DH used?

2) Is there an arbitration process, and how does team control and free agency work?

3) Can you comment on the skill level differences between Japanese and American ball? How would you expect a .300/400/500 hitter to perform coming here from Japan?

Regarding item #2, as others have pointed out, there actually is an arbitration/inter-mediation process for teams an players, but it is rarely used.

Colonel Kurtz says: January 22, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I was wondering the difference of playing levels between Japan-Korea-Taiwan and now China. And if there’s an American equivalent talentwise i.e. Taiwan = Single-A

Also, there was a very good Korean player who was playing in Japan, lefty bat, great swing (maybe a Young or Kim <– yeah, I know). Will he come to the States?

A number of readers asked about the how the levels of play compare to MLB/MiLB ball. I find it somewhat problematic to make a direct comparison, because the intent of professional teams in Japan and Korea is to win games and championships, while MiLB teams focus on developing young players as well as win games. But that said, the main difference to me is depth. There is certainly MLB-caliber talent in Japan and in Korea, but the talent level drops off quickly as you move down teams’ rosters. It’s pretty generally accepted that the level of skill in Japan is somewhere between Triple-A and MLB. I haven’t seen nearly as much of the Korean League, but based on the fact that quite a few foreign players who don’t do well in Japan find their way to Korea, I’ll say the talent level is a step lower.

The Korean player I believe you are referring to is Seung-Yeop Lee, who is a lefthanded power hitter (here’s a video of him facing Yu Darvish in the 2009 Japan Series). Lee had a great pro career in Korea and a fantastic 2006 season in Japan, but has struggled the last two years. He’s made overtures toward MLB in the past, and his contract expires after this season, but his best days appear to be behind him and he’s not much of an MLB prospect at this point.

Sean D says: January 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

What do you think of Tsuyoshi Nishioka? In the 2006 WBC he seemed like one of the better prospects among Japanese players. I read that he’s been banged up over the last few years. Is he injury prone or is there a chance he overcomes those types of injuries some day? Is he the type of guy that would be interested in playing in MLB? Japanese players have 10 year contracts, so that would make him a free agent in 2013?

He’s a talented player who runs and fields well, and has developed some power and patience at the plate over the last two years. I haven’t paid close attention to his injuries, but my brief research suggests that he’s had some nagging leg, wrist and neck problems, so we’ll see how he does in 2010. It’s worth noting that the playing surface at his home Chiba Marine Stadium is notoriously bad. I could see him making a move to MLB, probably as a utility guy, but haven’t read or heard that he’s specifically interested in making the jump.

Joe R says: January 22, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Are Japanese teams beginning to run and model themselves in the same way that MLB teams have, sabermetrically? I ask this due to the number of monsters from Japan that average-ify state side.

Eric says: January 22, 2010 at 1:46 pmThis is more about the baseball community than the game itself, but is there a sabermetric community over there like there is here? By that I mean are sabermetrics more/less prominent over there, and if they are, is there similar hesitation to accept more advanced statistics like there is in the US? It might be ignorant to think that the world of statistics would differ from here to Japan, but I’m curious as to how player evaluation compares.

There certainly wasn’t the scouting vs sabermetrics argument that we had in the States a few years ago. I don’t great visibility into the inner-workings of NPB teams, but from the outside it doesn’t appear that they are specifically implementing sabermetric systems. One of the big differences between NPB and MLB is that there are many, many fewer player transactions in Japan than there are in MLB. So Billy Beane’s moneyball approach doesn’t really exist at all. When a league’s free agency market is only a couple of guys and there are only a handful of trades per year, there are no market inefficiencies to exploit.

Player salaries are, for the most part, negotiated yearly. I think defense and team performance plays a bit of a bigger role in player evaluation in Japan than it does in the US, but aside from that NPB teams have a lot of the same tendencies MLB clubs have — highly valuing metrics like wins, saves, and batting average.

At a fan/media level, it feels like there is more data available in Japan via traditional means. Newspaper box scores usually show what happened in each at-bat, and it’s normal to see batting average with runners in scoring position and shutouts with no walks allowed listed with all the normal stats MLB fans are used to. There are also a lot of observations in the media that you wouldn’t see in US. One example that sticks out for me was reading about which player reached safely in the most games one season.

Dan says: January 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I’m curious about what an expert on Japanese baseball would have to say about Yu Darvish:

1. How does his stuff translate to some of the best in MLB? Is there a similar ML counterpart we can compare him to?

2. When can we expect him to come to the US? if at all?

3. If he does post, what kind of fee will the winning team have to pay?

4. How big a contract can he get?

1. Darvish has a fastball that he threw around 90-94 mph most of the time in 2009, a slider, a curveball, a forkball/splitter, a two-seam fastball, and the occasional change-up. You can get a sense of his repertoire and velocity on my data site. The first five pitches I listed are all well above NPB average, particularly his slider. As for an MLB comp I’d probably go with Tim Lincecum or Jake Peavy, though Darvish is taller than both and skinnier than Peavy.

2. He has adamantly denied any interest in moving to MLB, but I suspect he’ll change his mind. He has four more years of service time left to go before becoming eligible for international free agency. If he were to be posted it would almost certainly be his last year before free agency.

3. That’s pretty impossible to predict. The Japanese media was talking about $30m for Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he wound up going for $51m. The interesting thing about the posting system is that it’s a blind auction, so it forces teams to evaluate players in isolation of the overall market. So it only takes one high bid to drive the price way up, yet the teams can’t knowingly bid against each other.

4. It obviously depends on his health and performance, and the economic climate when he signs. If he had been a free agent this offseason though, I think he would have easily beat out the $30m Aroldis Chapman got.

That’s all for today. I’ll have more next time, then start working these back into regular posts.


Answers, Part 1

Last week, I asked you for questions regarding Japanese & Asian baseball. There were more replies than I expected, so I’m going to have to split my responses into two or three posts. So let’s get started with part 1.

Ed says: January 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I’d be interested in how often pitcher arm injuries happen in Japan/Asia versus how often they do in MLB/MiLB. On that subject, what the average pitch speeds are as well in comparison.

My casual observation is that there are more Mark Prior-style, one-year wonder flameouts in Japan than in MLB. Without giving it too much thought, I can come up with Kazumi Saito, Futoshi Yamabe, Kenjiro Kawasaki, Shinji Imanaka, Tomohiro Kuroki… each of whom had one or two outstanding seasons before succumbing to injuries. Imanaka, who threw 249 innings of 2.20 ball at age 22 and his last pitch at age 30, recently said in the news that “rest is important”.

On velocity, there are fewer pitchers in NPB who throw 95+ mph than there are in MLB. You can get a sense for what pitchers throw and how hard at my NPB Tracker Data site. It doesn’t compare to the pitch f/x data we have on Fangraphs, but it will give you a sense of how NPB pitchers mix it up.

mymrbig says: January 22, 2010 at 1:04 pm

I’ve read that baseball used in Japan are a slightly different size than those in the US. Does this pose much of a problem for pitchers moving either way, or is the difference small enough that it doesn’t really matter?

Did you realize that early-90s hair metal stragglers Mr. Big enjoyed quite a following in Japan? Anyway, commenter KaminaAyato provided a solid answer for this question in the comments of the previous post, but I will add that I do think it makes a difference for some pitchers. Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s forkball hasn’t survived the move across the Pacific, Yu Darvish had trouble throwing his curve with the WBC ball, and Kenshin Kawakami said he spent more time working on his breaking pitches early in spring training in 2009 than he would have previously. But then again, guys like Hiroki Kuroda and Takashi Saito have seemed to adjust just fine. Keiichi Yabu seemed about the same in the US and Japan too.

The Frankman says: January 22, 2010 at 1:13 pm

How big is the impact of the different strike zones is it for a pitcher coming from Japan? I’m wondering since guys like Ryota Igarashi will have to deal with it.

Chris says: January 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Yeah, I would like to hear this one. I always hear that the strike zones are bigger in Asian baseball — any truth to that?

My (unofficial) translation of the official rule is “the strike zone’s upper limit is the point mid-way between the batter’s shoulders and the top of his pants, the lower limit is the bottom of the batter’s knees, and covers the area over homeplate”. So that’s not too far off the MLB strike zone. In practice, I have noticed that the umpires can get a little generous at times, the most obvious example that comes to mind being that Koji Uehara always seemed to get the close calls.

MetsFan says: January 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Is there some sort of MLE for pitchers, or certain statistics that are more predictive than others of MLB performance? For hitters, it seems like it might be harder to do because of how power translates

There were a couple of questions on this, so I’ll point out Jim Albright’s work in this area again.

Jon says: January 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Thanks for doing this! I’m intrigued.

1) What is the average $(or yen)/WAR in Japanese baseball? Significantly lower than MLB I assume, but do you have any data?

2) I’ve heard pitchers are used differently in Japan (tactically, that is). Pitch Counts? Side sessions? Bullpens? 5 man rotations? What’s the story?

3) Is Japan typically a lower run scoring environment than MLB? If so, is that due to different offensive strategies (sacrifices, “small ball”, etc.)?

4) Is there pitchfx data in Japan?

I have more, but that’ll do for now.

Thank again!

I already posted a reply to this, but I’ve given question #1 a little more thought. The problem is the “R” out of WAR — I don’t think anyone has translated the concept of replacement player to NPB. If the expected performance of a replacement-level NPB player could be nailed down it should be possible to apply the rest of the concept to NPB. Another approach would be to look at the foreign players who move to NPB each season, what their MLB projections are and how much they make in Japan. Projected MLB WAR isn’t necessarily a good predictor of NPB performance, but it might give some insight into how much NPB teams pay to import talent.

That’s all for this round. If I didn’t get to your question this time, I will in an upcoming installment.


Ask Away

Edit, Friday night: Thanks everyone for your questions. There are more questions here than I anticipated getting, and many of them tread similar ground, so I’ll answer anything I couldn’t get to today in my next post.

Being FanGraphs’ new resident Japanese baseball guy, I’d like to get a better sense of what this audience wants to know about that aspect of the game.

So, if you have any questions about Japanese or Asian baseball, leave ’em in the comments.

I will make my best effort to answer all (serious) questions. I’ll check back periodically throughout the day, and answer whatever I can off the top of my head immediately. Questions requiring more research will be answered in a later post.

Okay, enough of the ground rules, fire away!


Rhodes’ Run

For whatever reason, John Sickels’ final sentence of his prospect retro for Brooks Kieschnick has stuck with me since I first read it: “In an alternate universe somewhere, the Cubs let [Kieschnick] play in ’96 and ’97 and he ended up having a decent career.”

I suppose you could make a similar statement about a number of players. One of them is Tuffy Rhodes, who got a longer look from the Cubs than Kieschnick did, but wound up spending most of his career in the alternate universe of the Rising Sun.

Rhodes is in the Japanese news a bit as he doesn’t have an employer for 2010. His team for the last three years, Orix, offered him a substantial pay cut for 2010, and has reportedly been waiting two months to hear back from him. I don’t blame Rhodes for having a bad taste in his mouth; despite missing about 60 games in 2009 he still hit 22 home runs with a .308/.402/.583 slash line. I don’t buy it, but there is some speculation that he could call it a career.

If this is the end of the line for Rhodes, has he done enough to get into the NPB Hall of Fame? Conventional wisdom says yes. It’s tempting to compare Rhodes to other foreign-born NPB hitters, but his numbers hold up against the top Japanese sluggers. Forgive the lack of advanced metrics here, but Rhodes is 12th all time in home runs (464), 23rd in runs (1100), 54th in hits (1792), 16th in RBI (1269), 16th in walks (958), 22nd in total bases (3509), and 4th in slg pct (.559). Most of the players that are ahead of Rhodes in the power categories have put up their numbers in 20+ seasons; Rhodes has played 13 so far in Japan, and another productive season would move him a couple of notches up the chart in each category.

But the rub is that the Japanese universe Hall of Fame is tougher to get into than its American counterpart. Players who would be considered first-ballot material in the US often wait years in Japan, and three-time Triple Crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai’s demeanor with the media still overshadows his on-field credentials. It’s possible that when the time comes, voters will look at Rhodes’ acrimonious departure from the Yomiuri Giants in 2005 and his sub-par glove work, and decide to leave him off their ballots.

Regardless of what happens next, it’s been quite a run in the alternate universe for Rhodes.