Hiroyuki Nakajima in Context

Because of what he does, we know a lot more about Hiroyuki Nakajima than we know about the average stranger. We don’t so much know anything about Nakajima’s personality, but we know about his performance at work. Yet because of what he does and what he’s done, we also know a lot less about Hiroyuki Nakajima than we know about the average major-league baseball player. It isn’t necessary to have profiles for every player who plays in Japan, but now that Nakajima has signed with a major-league organization, people want to know more. People want to know what Nakajima’s going to be, before Nakajima makes it evident with his performance what he’s going to be.

We know that Nakajima has signed with the Oakland A’s, for two years and $6.5 million. Nakajima was a free agent, able to sign with anyone. We know that Nakajima is 30, and right-handed, and a shortstop, and projected to be Oakland’s regular shortstop as long as he’s not terrible. We know that Nakajima has a killer bat flip. We know that my Firefox initially identified “Nakajima” as a typo and suggested “Nakedness” as an alternative. And we know Nakajima’s Japanese statistics. When attempting to evaluate a player you’ve never seen, or even a player you have seen a bunch of times, nothing’s more important than the numbers.

With Nakajima, people will form their own opinions, and they’ll listen to the word of various scouts, but they’ll also analyze the statistics, because those are the living record of Nakajima’s baseballing performance. Past performance is how you project future performance. Now, those of you who have paid attention to Japanese baseball can probably just skip the rest of this post, but when looking at Nakajima’s recent statistics, there’s something that you absolutely have to keep in mind.

Here’s a graph of the raw numbers, between 2008-2012. We’ve got batting average, on-base percentage, and isolated slugging percentage. You know, the same crap as always usual.

Batting average remains fairly stable, with some drop. On-base percentage sees some drop. Isolated slugging sees a big drop in 2011 and only a very small rebound in 2012. Here’s Nakajima’s ISO by year:

2008: .196
2009: .184
2010: .197
2011: .136
2012: .140

Immediately, that’s a red flag. Something must have happened to Nakajima’s power. But what happened to Nakajima’s power happened to everybody’s power. That’s the part that you already knew about, if you follow Japanese baseball even casually. Here’s the same graph as above, only for the Pacific League overall:

There was some power, and then, there was not any power anymore. Offense in Japan got miniaturized, and it presumably has something to do with the standardization of baseballs. That took place prior to the 2011 season. I’ll cut and paste an excerpt:

The new Mizuno ball for this season has been called the noncarrying ball, a reference to the effect of the lower-elasticity rubber that encases the cork center. Not surprisingly, pitchers like the new ball for that and other subtle changes they can use to their advantage.

“It breaks better, moves more advantageously for the pitcher,” Hisashi Iwakuma of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, speaking in Japanese, said of the new ball.

Rather than ever looking at numbers in isolation, it’s critical to look at them in context. Here we’ll place Nakajima’s numbers in context by dividing his BA/OBP/ISO by the league BA/OBP/ISO and multiplying by 100 to create “plus” metrics. This tells a better and far more accurate story of Nakajima’s Japanese career.

That’s what stability looks like, more or less. His BA+ remained between 116 and 125. His OBP+ remained between 115 and 125. His ISO+ remained between 132 and 148. In 2008, Nakajima posted a .196 ISO, good for a 141 ISO+. In 2012, Nakajima posted a .140 ISO, good for a 147 ISO+. Accounting for context, you can understand that Nakajima hasn’t slipped at all, at least not at the plate. You can understand that he’s long been one of the better hitters in the whole country.

And interestingly enough, here’s Nakajima’s strikeout rate:

2008: 17%
2009: 18%
2010: 17%
2011: 15%
2012: 13%

The league’s strikeout rate in 2012 was 92% of what it was two years prior. Nakajima’s strikeout rate in 2012 was 80% of what it was two years prior. The evidence suggests that Nakajima has gotten better about making contact, and he hasn’t really sacrificed his walks. This guy, he’s been a productive bat. As recently as last season, and now he’s not old, and he’s getting paid a little more than Ty Wigginton money to be Oakland’s starting shortstop. You can see why the A’s think this is worth the gamble.

Evaluators seem to be less than effusive with praise of Nakajima’s defense, and many wonder whether his swing will translate to the highest competitive level. Just because we’ve placed Nakajima’s numbers in context doesn’t mean now we can translate them over easily. Japanese imports are absurd to predict. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was amazing before he sucked a lot. On the other hand, Norichika Aoki just posted a 115 wRC+ over nearly 600 trips to the plate. Aoki was a worse hitter in Japan in 2011 than Nakajima was, by a fair margin. You don’t have to do a ton to stick as a shortstop, so Nakajima has a real chance.

In terms of what they mean for major-league performance, Japanese statistics are something of a mystery. But by placing them in the proper context, we can make them at least a little less mysterious. Hiroyuki Nakajima might not work out with the A’s, he might not work out at all, but in that event, we won’t be able to glance at his Japanese numbers and see a decline we overlooked. He was terrific all along.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Patrick Newman
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3 years 6 months ago

This is pretty much exactly right. So much so, in fact, that I don’t feel bad about not having much time to write any more.

nickolai
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nickolai
3 years 6 months ago

As an A’s fan, I’m thrilled at this deal. Even though the youtube vids don’t look all that promising, the bar at SS was set so low in 2012, with:
– Pennington, .243 wOBA across 350 PA’s as a SS
– Drew, .310 wOBA in 172 PAs – decent, but not enough to justify $10m/1year

Really shouldn’t be hard for H.N. to improve on that black hole in the batting order. Right?

Jeff Sullivan's Editor
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Jeff Sullivan's Editor
3 years 6 months ago

“Tsuyoshi Nishioka was amazing before he sucked a lot.”

Sage S, 12 years old
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Sage S, 12 years old
3 years 6 months ago

I hate the new baseballs in the NPB! Now the home run leader in the Central League just has 31 homers.

JS7
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JS7
3 years 6 months ago

Hiroyuki Nakajima’s personality will never match Munenori Kawasaki’s.

BX
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BX
3 years 6 months ago

His press conference indicates that he’ll be challenging that though.

Dejected Yankee Fan
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Dejected Yankee Fan
3 years 6 months ago

I hate that the Yankees didn’t negotiate some deal with him last year. If he could play some 3B in addition to SS, it was a no-brainer to sign him to fill in for a predictably-to-be-injured Rodriguez and/or Jeter.

pkdryan13
Member
3 years 6 months ago

Excited to see him play. Even though I’m doing exactly what the article says can’t be done (with any accuracy) I’m guessing .267/.330/.397.

M W
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M W
3 years 6 months ago

If he hits .265-.330-.395 with adequate defense it’s a win for Oakland, anything more that that is a huge win.

Gregory
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Gregory
3 years 6 months ago

I’m still not convinced that Billy Beane gives a hang about defense, especially infield defense with the pitching staff he has assembled. Jarrod Parker is the only one in the bunch who has shown a propensity for inducing ground balls.

I agree with you that Beane is looking for a SS who can get on base and hit some balls into the gaps. That was Stephen Drew’s m.o. until he fell victim to the Drew family malaise and the diabolical greed of Scott Boros. The A’s had replacement level performance from the SS position last year. The bar is pretty low for Nakajima.

Brad Pitt
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Brad Pitt
3 years 6 months ago

How are we going to replace Pennington’s RBIs?

Gregory
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Gregory
3 years 6 months ago

That makes no sense. Ken Medlock played the fictive version of Grady Fuson in the movie, and Ken Medlock could never be confused with Brad Pitt.

Ned Yost
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Ned Yost
3 years 6 months ago

But had he used the user name “Ken Medlock,” only you would have gotten the reference. So not only are you overly touchy, you’re obviously quite greedy. I thought it was fine.

simon
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simon
3 years 6 months ago

Japanese shortstops have never successfully become MLB shortstops. Something about the grass and throwing arm maybe. It’ll be interesting to see if Nakajima will be able to pull it off, or he’s gonna be playing second or third.

Timb
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Timb
3 years 6 months ago

Yes, because we have soooo many comps to chose from.
It’s also crazy that no left handed Venezuelans born in 1988 have become decent CFers.

Bab
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Bab
3 years 6 months ago

Agree with Timb here. Sure, many unknowns about him, but assuming a player will not measure up due to “grass” and “throwing arms” is spurious.

Drew definitely does not have a + level arm from SS and did reasonably well despite limited range. In fact, I would be surprised if Nakajima didn’t surpass Drew offensively this year, even if not spectacular, and managed to equal Drew defensively.

wobatus
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wobatus
3 years 6 months ago

Y’all are being a little harsh on Simon. He never claimed there were a lot of comps, nor did he assume it was a grass and throwing arm issue. He just said “maybe” it was. Given Ichiro’s arm, seems like the make some good ones over there, but of course he is slightly singular. Of course, Hideo Nomo had a nice arm, too.

Regardless, for whatever reason, Matsui and Nishioka didn’t cut it as ss here. Matsui actually had some decent years at the plate for a middle infielder, but he couldn’t play ss here. Even though he had a decent rep coming over, and Bobby V thought he could cut it here. I believe Nishioka had a decent fielding rep coming in as well. On the other hand, Nakajima is already coming in with a so-so ss D rep due to supposedly diminishing range. So Simon is right in one respect, it will be interesting to see if he can make the grade at ss. His bat will certainly need to play up some if he is a -10 or so fielder. That may surpass what Drew did last year for Oakland, although given his injury Drew may improve some this year. It is also true that the bar was set quite low by oakland’s ss last year.

Certainly from a fantasy perspective, Nakajima looks like a nice sleeper. And in reality could be a nice step up for Oakland.

TiensyGohan
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TiensyGohan
3 years 6 months ago

99.9999% of Americans have never successfuly become MLB shortstops.

wobatus
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wobatus
3 years 6 months ago

I believe he is talking out of the universe of plausible ss, ya know, guys in the majors, in the high minors, or AAAA like the NPL. Relatively speaking. Not like he is trolling Japan. There have been Japanese players (very few) who came here with reps over there as decent ss, and UZR suggested they couldn’t measure up versus the .000001% of people who make it as major league shortstops. I don’t believe Simon is saying it isn’t possible. So just having a decent fielding rep over there won’t mean they will measure up versus the world’s elite fielders, and Nakajima already has some question marks. Doesn’t mean he won’t be ok at it, and his hitting looks promising.

Blake
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Blake
3 years 6 months ago

Simon may have a point. Most Japanese stadiums have turf infields. Shortstops can learn to bounce throws there that can’t be bounced here.

Also, there’s much more emphasis in Japan on not making errors than there is on having great range. Cultural thing. Errors = seppuku.

MaineSkin
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MaineSkin
3 years 6 months ago

Tsuyoshi Nishioka went to turf in Min & couldn’t cut it from 2B let alone SS.

Jaames
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Jaames
3 years 6 months ago

Ik weet niet alles is wat er is ruimte voor discussie vanuit het oogpunt deze beweging nog steeds Blue Jays. Ja, voor een enkele werper, het zuigt op te geven (of liever 2 van 3) de vooruitzichten van de twee beste van hen in een enkele handeling. Maar als dat zo is, kun je net zo caster niveau, doe het dan op een premie ook. Ook, ik denk dat ik wil, en hebben een lagere waarde voor het team Jays zowel TDA en Syndegaard als Mets. Als je pot twee van hen, voordat het produceert de resultaten in de Toronto Star, (in het bijzonder een veilige gok bijna een Als je een pitcher van de bal), zal het twee of drie jaar misschien zelfs. Op dat moment, de pers in hun mid-30s, heb ik gezien de bestaande kern. Niet aan het feit vermelden dat (de Yankees en komt uit de periode dat zijn gesneden salarissen om onder de fiscale luxe in het bijzonder), misschien wel de Red Sox en de Yankees, die tot nu toe is gebracht. En het gaat over de verbetering van de Orioles en de Stralen zeg niets. Ik denk dat je de divisie te winnen, als het het beste team in honkbal dat je niet de play-offs te maken als een team van Jays in het recente verleden niet tevreden bent met een jaar, het is de ezel en de andere helft Ik ben vastbesloten om te gaan na divisie dat veel betekenissen aan vele soorten heeft. Is het bouwen van een team dat niet kan in de play-offs krijgen alleen door het indrukken van het puntje van zijn allemaal op de tafel, als u uw opname, is het beter, ze zijn weinig als je er bent geluid maken. Ik ben er vrij zeker van dat het zal de vooruitzichten voor elke gelegenheid om de World Series te ervaren handel. Het is niet de bedoeling om de vooruitzichten en de spelers in het algemeen ophopen?

ataraxia_
Guest
ataraxia_
3 years 6 months ago

Google translate:

I do not know all there is room for discussion from the viewpoint this movement still Blue Jays. Yes, for a single launcher, it sucks to give up (or rather 2 of 3) prospects of the two best of them in a single operation. But if so, you might as caster level, do it at a premium as well. Also, I think I want, and have a lower value for the team Jays both TDA and Syndegaard as Mets. If you pot two of them, before it produces the results in the Toronto Star, (especially a safe bet if you almost a pitcher of the ball), it will take two or three years maybe. At that time, the press in their mid-30s, I have seen the existing core. Not to mention the fact that (the Yankees and comes from the period that are cut to salaries under the luxury tax in particular), perhaps the Red Sox and the Yankees, who until now has been charged. And it’s about improving the Orioles and the Rays say nothing. I think you win the division, as the best team in baseball that you do not make the playoffs as a team of Jays in the recent past are not satisfied by one year, it is the donkey and the other half I am determined to go after division that many meanings to many species. Is to build a team that can not get into the playoffs only by pressing the tip of his all on the table, if you want your recording, it is better, they have little if you’re sound. I’m pretty sure it will be the prospects for any occasion to the World Series experience trading. It is not the intention of the prospects and players in general accumulate?

mooks
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mooks
3 years 6 months ago

lololol

wobatus
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wobatus
3 years 6 months ago

Didn’t he say something about chips?

Ivan Grushenko
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Ivan Grushenko
3 years 6 months ago

So basically we have no idea how good he is, other than he’s worse than Jeter and A-Rod.

Bab
Guest
Bab
3 years 6 months ago

Great article, Jeff. You were definitely interested in writing this one.

Funny thing about this deal is that, almost no matter what, A’s win.

I’ll make a bet that Nakajima adjusts intelligently and at least matches Drew’s offensive performance. Drew was not amazing defensively and may be a wash in comparison. Even with that, the A’s pin down a veteran team SS for two years minimum at just over half the cost of Drew for one year. Sure, might not work out, but this is an insightful and smart risk by Oakland.

And it’s not the kind of contract that will strand the guy in America as an overpaid pariah in case he completely fails. Judging from his comments, Nakajima is excited and motivated and adds to the international Oakland flair. These things matter more than you may think.

A bit speculative, but it will be interesting to see if Oakland has figured out something about international prospect development. Cespedes, by the way, was second fiddle in the Cuban league ended up getting the MLB contract.

SecondFiddle
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SecondFiddle
3 years 6 months ago

Cespedes had just set the Cuban league home run record before coming over.

Bab
Guest
Bab
3 years 6 months ago

Yeah, totally. Was for some reason thinking specifically of his rookie year in Cuba.

I’m not knocking Drew at all, he’s a solid player who came up with some nice plays late in the season. It’s just that Drew and Nakajima are right around the same age. Drew priced out Oakland even though no one is sure how high his performance levels project post-injury.

I think this article also shows, in addition to his consistency, Nakajima was able to adjust to changes in the game and did not suffer statistically inordinately more than the rest of the league. This ability to adjust is obviously one of the most critical factors for success for MLB batters, and Cespedes had already demonstrated that he knows how this game works. May be that the best foreign imports are, so to speak, ‘students of the game.’

JBallAllen
Guest
JBallAllen
3 years 6 months ago

Very sound. Nakajima experimented a lot with different styles. A big issue for Japanese middle infielders is the violence at second base. You rarely see hard outs there on potential double plays.

Noreen Giarretto
Guest
3 years 5 months ago

I was reading another article on Nakajima that made reference to this one. Obviously, considering that it’s January 16, I’m a day( in this case a month) late as usual.
Another very interesting signing by Billy Beane. I just love Billy but you never know if he’s going to be a pragmatist, who only offers very short term contracts to players, managers, etc. or a mad scientist who throws caution to the wind, trading away most of his proven young talent for slightly younger prospects. One thing that is consistent, Billy rarely makes mistakes and that’s why I trust his judgement. Will Nakajima pan out as a SS, only time will tell but if Billy is using the same crystal ball he used last season, the odds are in the A’s favor.
Good article Jeff Sullivan and I’m happy you didn’t come to any conclusions about Nakajima like you did with Cespedes last year. Is that partly due to the fact that the A’s had success with a bunch of rookies, including Cespedes, in 2012?

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