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Torii Hunter: All Japanese pitchers have “same style”

Yesterday, ESPN’s Mark Saxon asked Torii Hunter how he felt about facing Yu Darvish this year, and Hunter gave him an interesting reaction:

Torii Hunter said the early edge will be Darvish’s, but time is on the hitters’ side. He said he gradually became more and more comfortable facing Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, another mega-star to emerge from Japan.

“All of the Japanese pitchers have pretty much the same style,” Hunter said. “They throw almost the same breaking pitches, almost the same off-speed stuff, pitch in the same way. In fastball counts, they throw a lot of off-speed stuff and they have an explosive fastball. It might be 92 (mph), but it has a little extra get-up.”

There are a couple of ways to hear that quote. It might just be gamesmanship: maybe Hunter is just razzing Darvish. It might be ignorance, with a faint whiff of prejudice, which is how a few of my friends initially reacted. Or maybe… just maybe, he might be onto something.

By my count, Torii Hunter has faced 17 Japanese pitchers, out of the 1004 pitchers in his career. They are: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo, Tomo Ohka, Hideki Okajima, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Mac Suzuki, Shingo Takatsu, Yoshinori Tateyama, Koji Uehara, and Yasuhiko Yabuta. This constitutes more than half of the 33 Japanese pitchers who have played in MLB to date, according to baseball-reference.*

* As of the 2011 season, according to B-R, there were 38 people born in Japan who have played in the majors, but five of them did not grow up in Japan: Steve Chitren, Craig House, Jeff McCurry, Micheal Nakamura, and Steve Randolph. Of the 33 Japanese nationals who grew up in Japan and then played in MLB, all but one played in NPB — Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese equivalent of MLB — first. The odd man out is Kazuhito Tadano, who was raised in Japan but was not drafted in the NPB due to a gay porn scandal; he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and pitched in American baseball for five years, and then returned to Japan to play in NPB for the first time. For the last three seasons, Tadano has been on the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Including postseason play, Torii Hunter has 81 plate appearances against Japanese pitchers, the majority of them against Daisuke Matsuzaka (19 PA), Mac Suzuki (12 PA) and Koji Uehara (10 PA). In his plate appearances against Japanese pitching, he has hit .289/.333/.487, which, for what it’s worth, is slightly better than his career mark of .274/.332/.467, though it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from such a small number of plate appearances.

In particular, with only 19 PA against Matsuzaka, it’s hard to assess his statement that he got more comfortable against Matsuzaka over time, because the sample size is miniscule. But it is true that he began his career 0-4 against Dice-K in one game in 2007; in five games from 2008-2011, Hunter is 5-14 with a walk, a homer, and four singles. So it’s certainly possible that he did.

I asked a few writers and observers of Japanese baseball what they made of Hunter’s statement. What I heard from them: it’s not completely crazy. “Yeah, there’s something to this,” said Patrick Newman, a former Fangraphs blogger and writer for NPB Tracker and JapaneseBaseball.com. “It can be frustrating to watch a guy who’s overall having a great day get ahead of a hitter, and then nibble until he gets to a full count. Many Japanese pitchers like to throw a little of everything — two-seamers, sliders, forkballs, curves — rather than really mastering a specific pitch.”

Newman agreed with Hunter’s statement that most Japanese pitchers throw a lot of off-speed stuff, though he stated the obvious: “I think Torii’s perceptions are based on the 17 guys he’s seen in MLB, rather than the hundreds of Japanese pitchers that have been active in NPB over the last 10 years.”

A new Fangraphs contributor, Chris Benson, pointed out that while Hunter’s comments may apply to past Japanese pitchers in the majors, Darvish is cut from a very different cloth, both physically and personally:

His seven pitches get mixed up pretty well. Lots of Japanese imports have crossed over to the states and failed miserably. Yu seems poised to break that pattern. His 60 percent GB rate being a large part of why. His personality and willingness to be who he wants to be is another reason…

Remember, he knocked a girl up before they were married. His divorce was filed as he was negotiating a MLB contract. He’s a wild man based on Japanese culture. He’s not the standard baseball player from there.

The basic upshot: Hunter may be right that there were some similarities between Japanese pitchers who have pitched in MLB till now. But Darvish is not like them, and it isn’t just that he’s half-Iranian. It also bears mentioning, once again, that Yu Darvish is very, very good at baseball. In all likelihood, Torii Hunter will not enjoy facing him. Generalizations about players based on country of origin are often pretty tricky but they’re not always false — for starters, it happens to be true that many right-handed Canadian hitters, like Justin Morneau bat lefty because that’s the way the handedness works on a hockey stick. As Newman writes, many of the Japanese pitchers who have come to the majors have tended to nibble. Darvish may well break the mold — but that means that there’s a mold to break.

Hunter’s comments may raise eyebrows at first glance. But there’s something to them.

UPDATE: Since I wrote the article, I have heard from two other experts in Japanese baseball, Jim Allen and Jason Coskrey, who both confirmed parts of what Hunter said. Both Allen and Cockrey write at JapaneseBaseball.com; Allen is a columnist for the Daily Yomiuri, and Cockrey is a reporter for the Japan Times. Allen told me:

What he says is not inaccurate–particularly throwing breaking pitches in fastball counts, because there are few fastball counts in Japan. Pitchers are expected to be able to throw their breaking pitches for strikes when they are behind. Another issue is that pitchers here are allowed to pitch away from contact so much, so nibbling is endemic.

As for pitch selection, that is kind of silly because individual deliveries vary so much. Some guys simply have lousy curves or changes or forkballs.

Japanese pitchers, however, used to be instructed to throw to batters’ weaknesses–if a team identified a hitter who can’t hit forkballs away, the team would try to get every pitcher to get him out there, whether or not the pitcher could execute such a pitch. As a result, guys were expected to throw: a 4-seamer, shoot (running fastball), sinker, slider, forkball, curve. The optional pitches here are: cutter, change.

Cockrey added:

For what it’s worth, I think he’s underestimating Darvish a bit because he has a wider variety of pitches than most guys, but for the most part, he’s partially right about the counts at least. Japanese pitchers aren’t afraid to run the count to 3-2, 3-1 and throw an offspeed pitch. That just seems to be the general mindset for many, but not all, here and it’s something foreign hitters all said was something they really had to adjust to.