Projecting Akinori Iwamura

He’s no Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Akinori Iwamura could soon be the highest-profile Japanese hitter to land in the major leagues since Hideki Matsui.

He’s no Matsui, either, but for the Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League, Iwamura has hit .300 and slugged at least .530 for each of his last four full seasons. He hit a career-high 44 homers in ’04, and reached 30 in the two seasons since. Hideki Matsui’s first year with the Yankees is a warning for those teams who might expect Iwamura to do the same in the States, but it seems likely he could contribute, if not with a 900+ OPS.

Matsui is enough of an outlier in Japanese baseball history that it seems foolish to make much of a projection based on his experience, but the alternatives are few. There are plenty of American pseudo-sluggers such as Tuffy Rhodes who had great success in Japan, but few Japanese sluggers have even tried. It’s indicative of the situation that, behind Matsui, the highest slugging percentage for a Japanese-born player belongs to Kenji Johjima.

Rose-Colored Swallows

Luckily, there are other tools we can use. Let’s start with Jim Albright’s translations of Iwamura’s NPB stats. In my article last week about Matsuzaka, I used these (rather uncritically) as a high-end projection of what the player could do in the big leagues. Here’s Iwamura’s last three seasons, adjusted Albright-style:

YR      AB      H       2B      3B      HR      BB      K       AVG     OBP     SLG
2004    626     175     22      0       31      66      -       0.28    0.349   0.464
2005    608     181     34      7       20      56      -       0.298   0.357   0.475
2006    624     181     40      3       22      64      -       0.29    0.356   0.449
note: I translated '06 numbers based on an estimation of Albright's method

Albright’s translations are based on those players who have moved between MLB and Japan’s NPB. Therein lies danger: by not considering those players who floundered in Double-A and Triple-A before finding traction in Japan, the sample is biased, and almost doubtless ends up making projections like these look pretty.

As with Matsuzaka, these numbers serve as a nice upper bound for optimistic fans of whichever team signs him. I’ll show you a simple ’07 projection based on these numbers in a little while, but for now suffice it to say that these make him about equivalent to Ryan Zimmerman‘s 2006. Not bad, but even in the best case scenario, such numbers might not make a 28-year-old worth an eight-figure posting fee.

Yakult versus Pawtucket?

We could come up with better translations (I say “we” in the sense that I’m sure Clay Davenport already has), but in the meantime let’s look at some other existing ways to estimate Iwamura’s performance. As a generic lower bound, we can translate his NPB stats as if he accumulated those numbers in the Triple-A International League:

YR      AB      H       2B      3B      HR      BB      K       AVG     OBP     SLG
2004    533     141     16      0       35      55      163     0.264   0.333   0.490
2005    548     154     16      3       24      50      137     0.281   0.341   0.452
2006    546     150     23      2       25      55      120     0.274   0.341   0.461

The IL tranlsations are no more pessimistic when it comes to power—there’s enough of a tradition of players hitting harder in Japan that Albright’s numbers take that into account. However, there’s a 15-point hit on his batting average; in this scenario, he’s 2006 Chad Tracy—a solid player in an off year.

It Gets Worse…

Let’s assume for a moment that Hideki Matsui’s struggles in 2003 were something that all Japanese sluggers can expect to face in their adjustment to MLB pitching. Godzilla’s career SLG in Japan was .582; in his first season in the Bronx, it fell to .435. That’s a bona fide disaster; for a player of less than Matsui’s caliber, it’s a ticket to the minors. Using what I’m calling “hideous” translations (get it?), here’s what Iwamura’s numbers would’ve looked like as if he was making the first-season switch to MLB pitching:

YR      AB      H       2B      3B      HR      BB      K       AVG     OBP     SLG
2004    533     151     18      0       15      38      117     0.283   0.331   0.403
2005    548     165     18      2       11      35      99      0.301   0.343   0.398
2006    546     160     25      1       11      38      87      0.294   0.340   0.405

As we might’ve expected, knowing the translations are based on Matsui’s disappointing season, this isn’t what MLB teams will be bidding on. Aside from a prettier batting average, Iwamura could—for a season, at least—look just like David Bell.

…and Then Gets (a Little) Better

Of course, Matsui wasn’t a disaster; after his first-year, he settled in nicely. He’ll never hit 50 home runs in a season, like he did in Japan, but he resumed slugging in the .500 range, and has even topped a .300 batting average the last two years. Still, the way his power numbers have taken a hit is instructive; these translations show what Iwamura’s stats would look like in MLB if his overall adjustment (career in Japan to career in MLB) took the same route Matsui’s did:

YR      AB      H       2B      3B      HR      BB      K       AVG     OBP     SLG
2004    533     157     17      0       23      46      122     0.294   0.350   0.457
2005    548     172     17      3       16      41      103     0.313   0.361   0.443
2006    546     167     24      2       17      46      90      0.305   0.359   0.449

I’m running out of comps here, but these numbers are a lot like Jeff Cirillo in his prime—minus a few walks and a few doubles. Not a bad player, but nothing that’s going to rocket the Phillies or Indians into the playoffs.

Jeff’s Non-Committal Projections

Iwamura will enter the ’07 season as a 28-year-old, so it seems safe to expect he’ll continue to perform at the same level—whatever that level turns out to be in America. Using the various systems described above, here are projections of Iwamura’s 2007 performance, based on a simple 3/2/1 weighting of his last three years, with no age adjustment and no regression. The first line is Iwamura’s projection if he stays in Japan. The Albright projection was adjusted so that playing time was equivalent with other projections, and I included an average of the four translation methods.

METHOD  AB      H       2B      3B      HR      BB      K       AVG     OBP     SLG
NPB (act545     170     23      2       33      68      142     0.312   0.388   0.547
Albright545     158     31      3       20      54              0.291   0.355   0.470
IL Trans545     150     20      2       26      53      133     0.275   0.340   0.463
Hideous 545     160     21      1       12      37      96      0.295   0.340   0.402
Matsui  545     167     20      2       18      44      100     0.306   0.358   0.448
Average 545     159     23      2       19      47      82      0.292   0.348   0.446

I would love to offer more certainty, but there just isn’t that much of a precedent for a player of Iwamura’s caliber to cross the ocean. It seems certain that he’ll maintain a decent batting average and an average-or-better OBP. The big question is just how much power he’ll lose. Will he be the mid-level free agent that fills the final need on a contending team, or will he make someone wish they had opted for David Bell instead?

References & Resources
Thanks to Jim Albright for his work on Japanese Baseball, to Tom Goyne of Balls, Sticks, and Stuff (an excellent Phillies blog) for pointing me to the right place, and to the site JapaneseBaseball for their updated NPB stats.

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