Free Agent Bargain: Japanese Position Players

If there’s one group of free agents that, over the last five years, has been the most consistently undervalued by the market, it is clearly position players from Japan. Take a look at the following players who have come over, how much their teams paid them per season (posting fee included if applicable), and their average WPA/LI during the contract.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners – 2001 to 2003, $9 million – 2.0 WPA/LI per season
Kenji Johjima, Seattle Mariners – 2006 to 2008, $5 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season
Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees – 2003 to 2005, $7 million – 2.1 WPA/LI per season
Tadahito Iguchi, Chicago White Sox – 2005 to 2007, $2.75 million – 1.1 WPA/LI per season
Akinori Iwamura, Tampa Bay Rays – 2007 to 2009, $4 million – -0.1 WPA/LI per season
So Taguchi, St. Louis Cardinals – 2002 to 2004, $1 million – 0.0 WPA/LI per season
Kazuo Matsui, New York Mets – 2004 to 2006, $7 million – -0.2 WPA/LI per season
Kosuke Fukodome, Chicago Cubs – 2008 to 2011, $12 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season

Obviously, WPA/LI doesn’t adjust for position or defense, but the conclusion is still obvious – as a group, these guys have been a massive success. The original contracts for Ichiro, Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura, and Johjima especially were ridiculous bargains. Not one of them cost their team more than $10 million per season, and all of them were above average players, including Ichiro and Matsui proving to be all-star caliber players. Even the so called busts, such as Kaz Matsui, were reasonably productive players at a not ridiculous price.

Maybe Fukodome’s contract from last winter signaled a shift in how teams view Japanese position players, and they’ll be fairly valued going forward, but there was a huge undervaluation of Japanese players for six solid years, and it’s hard to imagine that it all disappeared in a single winter. While I’ll leave the specific names of potential bargains to those who know NPB ball better than myself, it seems wise that teams looking for a good bargain would target that segment of potential free agents as an opportunity to find a quality player at a lower than expected cost.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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