The chapter began with the Minnesota Twins signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka to be a starting middle infielder. Two years later, the chapter ends with the Twins releasing Nishioka at his own request. There remained another year and some millions of dollars on Nishioka’s contract, but Nishioka has chosen to forfeit all of that and walk away. Reports say the news didn’t come as a surprise to the Twins organization, and, clearly, just from reading this paragraph, it’s evident that things didn’t go how they were supposed to go at the start.
There was promise, once. In Japan, Nishioka won awards for his defensive work. In 2010, he led his league in hits. That year Patrick Newman liked Nishioka as his Pacific League MVP. Obviously, the Twins thought they were getting a pretty good player. In Japan in 2010, Nishioka batted .346/.423/.482. In Japan in 2010, Norichika Aoki batted .358/.435/.509. With the Brewers, Aoki’s been successful. With the Twins, Nishioka was a nightmare.
We should note now that Nishioka batted just 254 times in the major leagues — 14 times in 2012 — so we can’t conclusively say he never would’ve cut it. Maybe Nishioka just needed a little more time to get comfortable, I don’t know. But evaluators frequently observed that Nishioka never looked comfortable, and this year in the minors he posted a .639 OPS. Nishioka’s offense didn’t make the transition, and his defense didn’t make the transition, either. It’s funny now to read near the bottom of that Patrick Newman post:
If the Marines do post him, he’ll have the benefit of being a part of a rather weak class of middle infield free agents. At 26 he has some upside left, but overall I see him as a Ryan Theriot/Chone Figgins type.
Here are the lowest WARs between 2011-2012, setting a minimum of zero plate appearances. These have been the least valuable players in baseball.
- Chone Figgins, -2.2
- Felix Pie, -2.2
- Tsuyoshi Nishioka, -1.8
Chone Figgins-type, indeed. We’ll never know how things might’ve worked out for Nishioka had he not had his leg broken early on in his Twins career, and we’ll never know the effects of Nishioka’s off-the-field divorce, but as a big-league baseball player, Nishioka never hit a home run or a triple. He seldom walked and he was caught stealing twice as often as he successfully stole. He drew more jeers than cheers for his defense. Let’s just say that Tsuyoshi Nishioka very infrequently looked as if he belonged. Sometimes teams make the wrong evaluations. Sometimes teams make the right evaluations, and a player’s true talent just changes. For the Twins, Nishioka is just one of many things to go dreadfully wrong of late.
Just about every big-league career, though, has its highlights, and Nishioka’s career is no different. On August 12, 2011, Nishioka posted his highest single-game Win Probability Added, of +0.29. That day in Cleveland, the Twins were playing the still-surprising Indians, and Nishioka finished 2-for-3 with two runs driven in. The Twins scored just the two runs in what wound up a one-run contest. In the top of the third inning, Nishioka faced Justin Masterson and brought home Ben Revere.
In the top of the eighth inning, Nishioka faced Masterson and brought home Danny Valencia.
The first hit broke a 0-0 early tie, and the second hit broke a 1-1 later tie. The second single was the biggest hit of Nishioka’s entire career, with a win-expectancy swing of nearly 27 percent. You watch those highlights and you see how Nishioka could’ve been successful. You see the upside. Hard-hit low liner to left; hard-hit higher liner to right. Nishioka might’ve been lacking in power, and he might’ve just been a guy capable of spraying singles, but Nishioka wouldn’t have been the first Japanese import to have success with that style. With regular contact and line drives, a whole lot is possible.
Yet like many stories about Tsuyoshi Nishioka as a major leaguer, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. Shortly after Nishioka singled in the top of the third inning, he was thrown out trying to steal second. And for Nishioka and the Twins, the bottom of the sixth was a catastrophe. I present to you four .gifs starring Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
In the first one, Nishioka can’t handle a ball in play off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo. In the second one, Nishioka boots a grounder and settles for one out on a potential double play. In the third one, Nishioka can’t get the ball out of his glove in the turn in a potential double play. In the fourth one, Nishioka boots a roller off the bat of Travis Hafner. The Indians scored in the inning, and Nishioka basically gave away four outs. All of these plays happened in consecutive plate appearances, and none of this is taken into consideration by Nishioka’s Win Probability Added. In the biggest offensive game of his major-league career, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was an absolute defensive wreck.
Nishioka put the Twins up 2-1 in the top of the eighth. In the bottom of the eighth, the Indians scored twice, and in the top of the ninth, the Indians held on. The talk after the game wasn’t about Nishioka’s solid hitting; it was about missed opportunities in the field, and how those mistakes cost the Twins a win.
There’s precious little to celebrate about Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s major-league career, except for the fact that he had one. For some players, that would be enough. I don’t know if Nishioka is among them.