Coming to America: Kenji Jojima

I have long been intrigued by the idea that there are star-caliber players in places other than MLB. I’m not talking about overlooked guys who are stuck in Triple-A, but rather the dozens of impact players currently playing in Japan. The first wave of Japanese players to come to America were pitchers, and Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Akinori Otsuka, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Shingo Takatsu, Hideki Irabu, Kazuhisa Ishii and Masato Yoshii, among others, have had varying degrees of success here.

Of late, position players have also begun coming over. While many people were initially skeptical about Japanese hitters doing well in the majors, Ichiro! and Hideki Matsui quickly quieted those concerns. Add in Tadahito Iguchi, who had a very solid rookie season for the White Sox this year, and slowly but surely it is becoming more accepted to consider both Japanese pitchers and Japanese hitters potential stars in America.

While he didn’t receive the same sort of headlines as Paul Konerko or Johnny Damon heading into the offseason, Japanese catcher Kenji Jojima is one of the better players from this year’s free-agent crop. Jojima finalized a three-year contract with the Mariners yesterday that will pay him $16.5 million, and he will enter the 2006 season as Seattle’s starter behind the plate.

I’ve done some quick-and-dirty projections for Japanese hitters over the past two years and they’ve been surprisingly accurate, so I thought it would be interesting to do the same for Jojima. First, here are how my rookie-year projections for various Japanese hitters have turned out:

                              PROJECTED                       ACTUAL
PLAYER                  AVG      OBP      SLG          AVG      OBP      SLG
Tadahito Iguchi        .300     .345     .425         .278     .342     .438
Kazuo Matsui           .275     .325     .445         .272     .331     .396
Norihiro Nakamura      .250     .340     .360         .128     .171     .179
Roberto Petagine       .265     .360     .425         .281     .361     .438

The projections weren’t perfect, of course, but they were pretty good considering they were based solely on what previous Japanese hitters had done in their first MLB seasons. The projections for Iguchi and Roberto Petagine were right on the money, the Kazuo Matsui projection nailed his batting average and on-base percentage while overestimating his power, and the Norihiro Nakamura projection, while way off, at least predicted that he would be a flop in the majors.

Here’s what the data set for the quick-and-dirty, Japan-to-America projection system looks like after we add Iguchi’s numbers to Ichiro!, the Matsuis and Tsuyoshi Shinjo (Nakamura and Petagine had too few plate appearances for their stats to be meaningful):

                  AVG        OBP        SLG       IsoP       IsoD
Ichiro!         - 9.6      -17.2      -15.2      -29.6      -57.5
H. Matsui       -14.1      -23.4      -37.1      -58.6      -48.0
Shinjo          - 3.6        0.0      -17.5      -35.7      + 2.4
K. Matsui       -10.8      -10.1      -27.9      -49.2      - 0.6
Iguchi          -16.5      -13.2      -20.2      -25.9      + 4.9
AVERAGE         -10.9      -12.8      -23.6      -39.8      -19.8

What exactly do those numbers mean? In comparing their final seasons in Japan to their first seasons in America, those five hitters collectively saw their batting average drop 10.9%, their on-base percentage drop 12.8% and their slugging percentage drop 23.6%. Looking a little deeper, their Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) took the biggest hit, falling 39.8%, while their Isolated Discipline (on-base percentage minus batting average) dropped 19.8%.

What does that mean for Jojima? Well, if you apply those average declines to the numbers he put up in Japan this year (.309/.381/.557), here is what his MLB projection for 2006 looks like:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD
Kenji Jojima        .275     .333     .425     .150     .058

That projection is remarkably similar to the numbers projected for Iguchi and Kaz Matsui. Basically, Jojima’s numbers in Japan suggest that he can be good hitter in MLB, but not a great one. Of course, .275/.333/.425 is pretty solid for a catcher. In fact, among the 24 MLB catchers with at least 400 plate appearances this season Jojima’s .758 projected OPS would have ranked 11th, sandwiched between Rod Barajas (.771) and Mike Lieberthal (.755).

Here’s how his projection compares to the numbers the other free agent catchers put up in 2005, along with their 2006 age in baseball years:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     AGE
Bengie Molina       .295     .336     .446     .782      31
Ramon Hernandez     .290     .322     .450     .772      30
Kenji Jojima        .275     .333     .425     .758      30
Brad Ausmus         .258     .351     .331     .682      37

If Jojima’s reputation as a quality defensive catcher is true (Matsui’s reputation as a quality defensive shortstop was about as accurate as my reputation as a concise writer), he is certainly in the same class as Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez, and a significant step up from Brad Ausmus. Toss in the fact that the Mariners only had to commit to him for three years, while Hernandez and Molina figure to get longer deals for quite a bit more money, and I think Jojima may prove to be one of the offseason’s biggest bargains.

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