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, The Hardball Times, Cubs Stats, DRaysBay and Homebody Abroad. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

28 Responses to “NPB Stats: Looking for Japan’s Next Great Import”

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  1. Oh, I’d like to throw in a shout out to Bobby Scales, long time Cubs minor leaguer, who has hit rather well in part-time infield duty.

    I’m not sure if his PAs are so low because he’s a part timer or if got cut somewhere along the ling, but kudos to him for excelling everywhere except in Jim Hendry’s perception.

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  2. Telo says:

    Any reason why are we looking at such small samples? (Guessing you just don’t have the data?) Because I’d rather have standard career numbers than single/partial season FIPs and wOBAs. We can do those in our heads close enough by looking at a stat line, but trying to make a serious case for anyone based on this amount of data just isn’t very compelling or interesting.

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    • Yeah, it comes down to availability. It took me — literally — hours upon hours to compile just even this data and make it presentable.

      If I could’ve found multiple seasons, compiled them easily, filtered out retired players, felt confident about it’s accuracy, and presented in a way that users could examine single season if they so wanted, then by all means, I would have posted it instead. Thanks for the suggestion, though.

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      • Telo says:

        Well, my point was, maybe a better use of time would’ve been to compile 3-5 years of data without any sort of calculations or leg work, since that would be more valuable in assessing talent than a partial year of “processed” data.

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  3. Ballens says:

    I’m launching the bandwagon for the Cubs to bring back Matt Murton. Anyone else want to join me on it?

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  4. Nate says:

    What do you think about Kyji Fujikawa this year? Or am I just missing him on your list? Ever since I started paying attention to NPB after the last WBC, he’s struck me as a someone who could be a dominant MLB closer. I think Chen might be better suited as a relief prospect too, unless he develops some more pitches.

    Darvish will no doubt get an incredible amount of hype, but I’m curious to see if that will actually affect the price interested teams are willing to pay to talk to him. I have my doubts after the last few SP postings.

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    • Fujikawa missed my cutoff by 9 and 1/3 innings. I may go back an adjust that.

      Looking at his stats (1.08 ERA, 1.28 FIP) sans context, I can say he same like a relief ace for sure. Further investigation is certainly warranted, though.

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      • Okay, I’ve expanded it to include relievers with 40 innings or more.

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      • Nate says:

        Sweet, thanks! I was just curious if he’d been injured or something because it seems I haven’t heard anything on him in a while. Do you know his contract situation? I know he’s expressed interest in being posted before.

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      • That’s a question better aimed Newman’s way. I know where to look for that info, but I can’t read a lick of it.

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      • Nate says:

        Yeah, the language barrier is a problem for me too. :(

        I talked to Newman about him and several others last year for an article I wrote, but can’t remember what he said about his contract. I seem to remember him being a domestic FA, but I’m not sure.

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  5. Adam W says:

    Wow, a Terrmel Sledge sighting. Long live “the Hammer”!

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  6. FP says:

    “If he (Darvish) indeed does get posted this coming winter, he may prove to be the finest Asian baseball import in the history of the game.”

    I think Ichiro sets a pretty ridiculously high standard for that.

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    • Llewdor says:

      Yes he does, but Darvish is ridiculously good.

      I would like to point out that Darvish has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to pitch in America, and would rather stay in Japan. Now, that might just be PR – he’s faced some friction for being insufficiently Japanese (note the Persian surname), but it’s certainly something bidding teams might take into account.

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  7. TK says:

    Crowdsourcing Yu Darvish has to be at the top of the Fangraphs postseason to-do list.

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  8. Cubs Fan says:

    Hideki Matsui played for the Yomiuri Giants, not the Hanshin Tigers. The Giants are on par with the Yankees/Red Sox in Japan, the Tigers are more like the Cubs. Might want to revise.

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  9. Mike B. says:

    One of the oddest stories of the year for NPB was the Brian Bannister hubbub. I haven’t read any updates about his fleeing Japan and skipping out on the Yomiuri Giants contract, though I assume he’s heading toward early retirement and maybe a wee bit of regret for being such a chicken.

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  10. gradygradychase says:

    I really miss not seeing Yoshio Itoi, arguably the best player not named Darvish, on the whole article even if he hasn’t expressed to cross the ocean at all.

    Who the heck isn’t excited in a player who bats about 180 wRC+, has maybe + defense at CF, runs well on the diamond? (though his true talent is more toward 140 to 150 wRC+, but still too awesome given his good fielding as CF and running) My quick calc some days ago spitted out around 7 WAR on pace this season.

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  11. Michael says:

    I THROW SPECIAL BALL!!

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  12. Leif says:

    Can you explain to a layman why Nishioka hits worse than some starting pitchers I could name?

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  13. do you have any idea if norichica aoki is going to be posted.

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  14. Padre in Japan says:

    The reason why Asao is not closing is that his team’s got Iwase, one of the greatest closer in NPB history. Iwase is a veteran lefty and does not have his best delivery anymore, but as recorded 300th save this year, Iwase stays as a closer of Dragons.

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