According to Baseball-Reference’s Place of Birth Report, there are 13 major league players currently active who were born in either Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. Of those 13, only four are position players — Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, and Shin-Soo Choo. Major League Baseball has historically been more willing to bringing pitchers across the Pacific, and that remains true today. However, the performance of the nine active pitchers currently working in the big leagues suggests that perhaps the discount rate being applied to pitchers from those regions might still be too high.
Here’s how those nine pitchers have done in the first five weeks of the 2013 season.
To put that in context, here’s the total 2013 line for those nine pitchers, compared to Justin Verlander‘s performance over the last calendar year.
All told, the 2013 active pitchers from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have put up the near equivalent of one Justin Verlander season. Darvish is obviously driving the numbers up with his ridiculous start to the season, but Iwakuma, Kuroda, and Ryu have also been excellent in their own right, while Chen is succeeding by keeping the ball in the ballpark, at least for now.
And then there’s the Red Sox duo of relievers, Tazawa and Uehara, who have combined to strike out 35 batters while issuing three unintentional walks. These crazy high strikeout-to-walk ratios are nothing new for Uehara, who already owns the best K/BB in the history of Major League Baseball. Tazawa, meanwhile, has been absolutely spectacular for the Red Sox after returning from Tommy John surgery last year, running a 63/8 K/BB ratio of his own since the start of the 2012 season.
And yet, besides Darvish, the rest of the gang pretty much still flies under the radar. Kuroda has quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball since arriving in the U.S., and even after shifting to the American League East at the age of 37, he’s shown no signs of slowing down. Iwakuma signed with the Mariners for a few million dollars last year and got buried in long relief until mid-season, when the team finally put him in the rotation and let him show what he could do; since then, opponents have hit just .222/.277/.355 against him. The Dodgers were criticized for overspending on Ryu over the winter, since there was concern about whether he could succeed in the big leagues with an average fastball and a mediocre breaking ball. As Bradley noted yesterday, he’s destroyed National League hitters with ease so far.
The lingering memory of failures like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, and Kenshin Kawakami still loom in everyone’s memories, but this current crop of pitchers from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are dominating Major League Baseball right now. It could be that Major League scouts are just getting better at identifying which pitchers will succeed in the U.S., or perhaps these pitchers are just more ready to succeed in the highest levels than the pitchers who came before them.
Regardless, it’s time to recognize the great success that teams have had in plucking pitchers out of Pacific Rim countries. While they still get classified as prospects because of the lack of track records they have against Major League hitters, the performance of pitchers from these countries far outstrips anything we see from pitching prospects getting promoted through the minor leagues here in America. Of the nine active pitchers on the list, you could make a legitimate All-Star case for six of them right now. The success rate of this crop is absurdly high.
Now, we can’t simply say that because Darvish, Iwakuma, Kuroda, and the rest are all pitching extraordinarily well in MLB that every pitcher in a professional league in Asia is ready to make the jump any more than we can say that the success of Shelby Miller means that every pitcher in Triple-A is ready for the show. However, I do think it is fair to ask whether MLB teams are applying an inappropriately high discount rate to pitchers from these leagues. The emphasis on velocity and breaking balls in international scouting may very well be causing teams to underestimate the success that pitchers with average fastballs but great splitter/change-ups will have on this side of the ocean.
Darvish and Tazawa are the only two pitchers on this list that don’t feature a split or a change-up as their best off-speed offering, but these pitches are often the most effective at neutralizing opposite-handed hitters. By also commanding an average fastball and taking advantage of natural platoon advantages against same-handed hitters, the combination of skills has proven to be quite successful. 88-92 with a plus change-up/splitter might not profile as a top-end pitcher as well as throwing 95 with a knockout slider, but there’s no question that this skillset works in Major League Baseball, especially if you have top shelf command.
I think it is certainly possible that the types of pitchers that are successful in Pacific Rim countries are also the types of pitchers that are underrated in Major League Baseball. You could point to guys like James Shields, Doug Fister, and Tommy Milone as American versions of this same skillset, and none of them were considered top prospects coming up through the minors either. I don’t think this is so much a race issue as it is a skill valuation issue. But, at some point, we have to reevaluate what kinds of skills we’re placing an emphasis on, if pitchers with a different type of skillset are regularly outperforming our expectations.
Given their complete dominance of Major League Baseball right now, it’s probably time to recalibrate our expectations for pitchers from that region of the world.
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