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Lewis to Texas

Assuming he passes his physical, Colby Lewis is returning from Japan to his Texas Rangers roots.

Nothing has been written about Lewis this year without mentioning his two outstanding seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, most notably his other-worldly walk rate. But was it Lewis or Japan? We won’t really know until we see Lewis take to the hill in Arlington, but I can pass along a little insight from this NPB Sabermetric guide I picked up on my recent trip to Japan

Let’s start with that K:BB ratio. Lewis posted 9.79 K’s for every BB in 2009. The next best control pitcher in all of Japan was Chiba Lotte’s Yoshihisa Naruse at 5.57, and Yu Darvish, for comparison, posted a 3.71 rate. Lewis pitched in the DH-free Central League, where hitters accordingly struck out more than in the Pacific League, but the gulf between him and anyone else was so wide I’m going to say that this one was more Colby than Japan. Somewhat weirdly though, Lewis plunked 14 batters in ’09, nearly as many as the 19 he walked.

Thanks to his mastery of the strike zone, Lewis managed a .99 WHIP and a league-leading 2.53 DIPS figure, despite a .317 BABIP which was a bit below the Central League average of .298. And 2009 wasn’t exactly a fluke, as Lewis put up similar numbers in 2008.

Lewis’s success over the last two years recalls Koji Uehara‘s excellent 2002-3 seasons, when he posted K/BB figures of 182/23 and 194/23 respectively. Uehara finally got his wish of playing in MLB last year, and despite being injury-prone and past his prime, still put respectable numbers in his limited number of starts. Lewis is doesn’t have Uehara’s injury history and is coming of the best seasons of his career. So there are reasons to be optimistic, and Lewis is definitely an interesting, low-risk alternative to guys like Jon Garland and Carl Pavano.


Imports & Exports

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Newman, and this is my first post here at FanGraphs. Some of you may be familiar with my blog, npbtracker.com. If you haven’t seen it before, I write about Japanese baseball, covering current events and analyzing top players. Starting today, I’ll be doing the same here on a semi-weekly basis.

Every year, players move back and forth between the top leagues in Japan and North America. So let’s kick things off by looking at a few of the guys looking to change leagues this offseason.

Imports

This year’s NPB free agent class is the weakest we’ve seen in quite some time, but there are some interesting arms making the MLB leap this offseason.

The head of the class

  • Ryota Igarashi (signed with the Mets)
  • Colby Lewis (destination unknown)

Igarashi and Lewis make for an interesting contrast — Igarashi is a power reliever with middling control; Lewis, though no slouch on velocity, is a starter who’s shown pinpoint command in his two NPB seasons. I’ve casually observed that raw velocity usually survives the journey across the Pacific, while control typically suffers.

Will Igarashi’s command degrade at the MLB level, and if so will it hurt his effectiveness? And was Lewis’s dominant K:BB performance a function of pitching in Japan, or an improvement he made?

The other candidate

  • Hisanori Takahashi (destination unknown)

Takahashi is the only other MLB-caliber player out of Japan seeking MLB employment at this point (we may see someone posted later in the offseaon). Takahashi is a lefthanded garbage baller with good sinker/screwball, but a sub-par fastball.

Exports

Over the course of a typical season, the 12 NPB teams will employ a cumulative 70-80 “foreign” players. Note that “foreign” is in quotes because it’s NPB’s own definition of the word. Tuffy Rhodes, for example, is no longer considered a foreign player because he’s accumulated enough NPB service time to qualify as Japanese player under NPB’s rules. JapaneseBaseball.com has a rundown of the rules governing foreign NPB players.

Back to the point, most foreign players in Japan only stay for a year or two, so there’s a high degree of roster churn each offseason, opening up opportunities for a new group of players.

In most cases, Japanese teams prefer “hungry” types, guys with years of AAA success who haven’t gotten extended MLB looks and still have something to prove. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’s a look at a couple of the more interesting players making that leap this year.

Contact-hitting outfielders

Though Murton has significantly more MLB experience, these two outfielders head to Japan with the same minor league profile: good contact skills, good strikezone judgement, gap power. Their 2009 Triple-A slash lines are virtually identical at .324/.389/.499 (Murton) and .312/.387.510 (Fiorentino).

Despite their similarities, the two are going to very different environments. Murton joins the Hanshin Tigers, a team whose last two American outfielders (Kevin Mench and Lew Ford) were miserable busts, and with a demanding, yet supportive fanbase that expects to win. Fiorentino will find himself in a different situation in Hiroshima, a team with an air of optimism in a beautiful new stadium, but one that has not been in contention this decade.

Hard-throwing, wild relievers

Perhaps due to the success of Marc Kroon, pitchers with plus velocity but control issues that have kept them off MLB rosters have become a popular target for NPB teams. All three of the guys listed can run their fastballs into the mid-90s and Morillo tops out in triple digits. 2010 will tell whether any of these guys becomes another Kroon, or flames out like similar hard-throwers Chris Resop and Scott Dohmann.