NPB Stats: Looking for Japan’s Next Great Import

The MLB season is drawing to a close, which means it’s about time for rampant speculation about next year’s free agents. One of my favorite off-season storylines is that of the east Asian baseball markets both giving and absorbing talent.

This past off season, we witnessed the likes of Chad Tracy, Wladimir Balentien, and Micah Hoffpauer head west to the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league while Japan sent Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Ryan Vogelsong Minnesota and California’s way.

Let’s look at the present NPB league statistics, so we can start writing our wishlists and dreaming about next year’s rosters.

(Odds are: You will need to refresh the page to see the Tableau document. Don’t ask me why; I just work here.)

NOTE: I constructed the players’ FIPs and wOBAs using our typical MLB numbers (as in a 3.2 constant and this wOBA equation), but this is only for internal comparison purposes. An average wOBA in Japan is actually in the .280s and an average FIP is 3.45.

Also NOTE: The darkness of the bar indicates the size of the sample — whether it’s innings pitched or PAs.

Thoughts, observations, and fast-paced bullets:

  • * First, let’s start with a big thanks to Patrick Newman, NPB analyst and Fangraphs writer extraordinaire. His website, NPB Tracker, is a must-read resource for fans of international baseball, and he and his site were and continue to be an excellent resource to me.
  • * Secondly: Yu Darvish. For the first time ever, Newman suggested Darvish might come to America this next season. Looking at the statistics, we can see Darvish is on a plane of his own in the NPB. If he indeed does get posted this coming winter, he may prove to be the finest Asian baseball import in the history of the game.

    If the Nippon Ham Fighters elect to post Darvish, I expect a media storm twice as frenzied as that which Daisuke Matsuzaka received.

  • * Takeya Nakamura. The stocky third baseman is on base to hit 50 homers this season — a feat not accomplished since Hideki Matsui played for the Hanshin Tigers Yomiuri Giants. Could Nakamura make it in the majors? Well, Newman has addressed the question in the past, concluding Takeya is fun, but not an MLB prospect.

    In a recent converstaion, Newman confided to me: “I would be stunned with a capital S if he got posted though. He’s short (5’8) and fat (230 lbs or so) and won’t stick at 3B in the Majors, but I wouldn’t mind having him at 1B in Oakland.” I can’t help but think of a Hideki Matsui and Pablo Sandoval hybrid, but he’s still in the Seibu Lions’ tight grasp for two more years. Sigh.

  • * American imports Matt Murton started the season rather cold, but chalk it up to jet lag I guess because he’s now in the company of the top 25 hitters in the league. Murton, as he was in his time in Chicago’s northside, is a high-average, low-power hitter. He broke Ichiro’s hit record last season and is in the running for the old school batting title again this year, second in the Central League with a .304 batting average.

    Meanwhile, Wladimir Balentien has shown some of the power and patience that made him a saber favorite while toiling away in the Reds’ and Mariners’ minor leagues. Last year, Fangraphs writer and Man of Ethnicity, Carson Cistulli, suggested Balentien would make a suitable fit for the Rays open DH position. At this rate, the Rays seem unlikely to retain Johnny Damon, making Wladimir a viable option once again.

  • * Take note of Masahiro Tanaka. He’s only 23 years old, and therefor like a billion trillion years away from even considering the majors, but he’s worth keeping an eye on until then.
  • * Takuya Asao appears to be among the best, if not the best, reliever in the NPB this year — yet he’s not a closer. I only read Chinese (#humblebrag), so I have no idea why this 27-year-old would not be closing games, but it may mean a crafty MLB team might get him on the cheap.

    Asao throws a fastball in the mid to low 90s, as well as a slider, forkball, and something NPB Tracker calls “special” (which may mean palmball Newman does not list him in the 2012 free agents / posting candidates list, so we can assume he’s another just-keep-watching-from-afar kinda guy.

    UPDATE: Patrick tells me Asao is behind Hitoki Iwase (38.2 IP, 1.63 ERA, 1.88 FIP), which explains why he’s not getting saves. Iwase, says Patrick, has expressed interest in the MLB in the past.

  • * Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty Wei-Yin Chen are on Newman’s list, however, but Iwakuma (99 IP, 2.77 FIP) missed two months with a significant injury this year and Chen (127 IP, 3.33 FIP) has a more pedestrian FIP (considering league average is 3.45). In 2009, the Taiwan-born Chen led the league with a 1.54 ERA (he had a strong 3.00 FIP that year too), but has yet to repeat that success.

    My wager is, since Chen will only be 27 next year and Iwakuma appears elite despite the injury, they still get to the majors. Fo sho.

Any other thoughts?

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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