Thursday, June 29, 2006

Japanese Power

Since the Yankees will be enjoying a day off before beginning the latest edition of the Subway Series (is it played out yet?), I thought I'd take the chance to do a little scouting for you on the top hitters in Japan.

There are a whole host of talented hitters playing in Japan. Japanese and foreign-born players are producing some big numbers and making highlight reel plays nightly, but they are almost anonymous for the most part in the United States. Names like Ogasawara, Zuleta, Fernandez, Woods, LaRocca, and Nioka take the field for Japanese professional ballclubs every night, and win ballgames for their teams. The style is different at times, but the game is essentially pitch, hit, run, score, celebrate. I'm going to introduce 4 players in this post, all hitters, and talk about the seasons they've had so far during the 2006 campaign. I'll allude to their past performance, but links will take care of any background information you may care to read up on yourself. I'll work on pitchers another day. Today is for the hitters. 4 guys you may wish were in your Major League organization.....

To begin, I selected the two players I consider to be the best hitters in the Pacific League. Their Central League counterparts will follow.

1. Nobuhiko Matsunaka, LF/DH - Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks

Matsunaka represented Japan in the World Baseball Classic and hit cleanup for Oh Saddaharu's team. He hit .433/.528/.567 in 8 games for Japan and posted the highest OPS of any regular Japanese player at 1.094. He is a former league MVP (2000, 2004), and one of only seven men to win the Triple Crown(2004)in Japan.

Playing most of his time in left field this season, the former 1st baseman is having perhaps the best year of any player in Japan. The Hawks are tied for 1st with the Seibu Lions in the Pacific League and for the best record in Japan. Matsunaka is the engine for this powerful ballclub and has posted the following line on the year (rank among all Japanese players in parenthesis):

.357(1)/.465(1)/.597(5)/1.062(2)

In 74 games: 47 runs, 18 2B, 14 HR, 51 RBIs, 52 BBs, 19 Ks

That's a 154 game pace of: 98 runs, 37 2B, 29 HR, 106 RBIs, 108 BBs, 40 Ks

Matsunaka recently signed a record 7 year deal with his ballclub that keeps him with Soft Bank until he's 39 years old. The team could decide to "post" him if significant financial offers are to be made from US ballclubs, but I'm guessing he's with the Hawks 'til the end. Great for Japan, but unfortunate for Americans who won't get the chance to see him play everyday.

2. Alex Cabrera, 1B/DH - Seibu Lions

The 35 year old Venezuelan, Cabrera, has been nothing short of legendary in his 5+ years in Japan. A former farmhand in the Cubs and Diamondbacks systems, Cabrera has slugged his way into the hearts of Japanese fans to the tune of 235 round trippers in 2365 ABs. That's a home run every 10 at bats. He was the 2002 MVP in the Pacific League when he tied the single-season home run mark of 55, held by Oh. It was controversial that Oh's Hawks ballclub pitched around him at the end of the year to avoid the record falling.

Cabrera is having another otherwordly season for the 1st place Lions. He and Daisuke Matsuzaka are as potent a 1-2 punch as there is in baseball anywhere. Let's take a peek at Cabrera's line so far:

.344(4)/.430(2)/.628(3)/1.058(3)

In 69 games: 43 runs, 12 2B, 20 HR, 59 RBIs, 38 BBs, 57 Ks

That's a 154 game pace of: 96 runs, 27 2B, 45 HR, 132 RBIs, 85 BBs, 127 Ks

At his advanced age, it's unlikely we'll ever see Cabrera in a Major League uniform. If it happens, I imagine it will be next season, but I bet it's more important for Cabrera to light up the record books in Japan, and make top dollar doing it, rather than share time in the US, or risk going back to the minors again.

Now, on to the Central League stars.

3. Seung Yeop Lee, 1B - Yomiuri Giants

Seung Yeop Lee, 29, is a household name in Korea. He's become a household name in Japan, and probably the rest of East Asia as well. While playing in Japan, Lee broke the single-season home run record by smashing 56 for his Samsung Lions. I guess there was no Oh to pitch around the Korean superstar. While dominating Korea, the US remained a dream for Lee. No Major League team would give him a guaranteed deal, and he refused to settle for a stint in the minors, so to Japan he went. After a couple of successful seasons playing for Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines, Lee decided he could get more money and name recognition playing for the world famous Yomiuri Giants.

It was Lee who took Korea to the brink of victory in the World Baseball Classic. In 7 games, Lee blasted 5 homers and 10 RBIs. He hit .333/.414/.958 to lead all regular players (not named Ken Griffey, Jr.) in the tournament with a 1.372 OPS!

Now batting cleanup, in Matsui's old spot, Lee is absolutely destroying Japanese pitching. In his third season in Japanese professional baseball, Lee is on his way to an MVP award. If only the Giants weren't 1-9 in their last 10 games, and 8.5 games out of 1st. That doesn't matter in the end because the US is "The Lion King's" final destination, and the numbers he's amassing for "Kyojin" should do the trick. So far, Lee has produced:

.336(5)/.397(8)/.653(1)/1.051(4)

In 72 games: 60 runs, 13 2B, 25 HR, 54 RBIs, 26 BBs, 67 Ks

That's a 154 game pace of: 135 runs, 29 2B, 56 HR, 122 RBIs, 59 BBs, 151 Ks

As you can see, The Lion King is on pace to break the single-season record for home runs. His strikeout total is enormous, but so is his power. A .397 OBP is nothing to sneeze at, but imagine if he exercised a little better eye at the plate and turned some of those Ks into BBs. Look for Seattle, Los Angeles, and Anaheim to make a serious play for this guy in the offseason.

4. Kosuke Fukudome, RF - Chunichi Dragons

Fukudome, 29, is a fearsome hitter, who has an uncanny combination of both patience and power. In the World Baseball Classic, it was a pinch hitting Fukudome who finished off Byung Hyun Kim and Korea with a 2 run shot in their 3rd and final meeting. Unlike his teammate Matsunaka, however, the Dragons slugger did not produce for Team Japan during the tournament, finishing with a disappointing .182/.240/.455 line over 8 games.

No matter though. Japan won, and now Fukudome is back to doing what he does best. Terrorizing Japan League pitching to the tune of:

.350(2)/.418(3)/.646(2)/1.064(1)

In 66 games: 56 runs, 26 2B, 15 HR, 49 RBIs, 31 BBs, 43 Ks

That's a 154 game pace of: 131 runs, 61 2B, 35 HR, 114 RBIs, 72 BBs, 100 Ks

Considering that the single-season record for doubles in Japan is 45, and that in most years anything approaching 35 is a major accomplishment, 61 doubles would absolutely shatter the records books in the way that Babe Ruth's 54 home runs in 1920 demolished the record books in the US at that time. Fukudome is a trancendent talent. Any Major League club that could pry him away from the Dragons would have a staple outfielder hitting in the middle of their lineup for several years to come. His plate discipline fits the modern US game perfectly, and he would likely become an on base machine for some lucky club. I can't say I see him heading West, but we can dream.

There. That's it for today. Next time I do this, I'll focus on pitching. If you want to know more about the otherworldly and ultra-unbeatable Daisuke Matsuzaka, check my blog at www.matsuzaka.blogspot.com

Sayonara.

5 comments:

Jamie said...

Hey Mike,
I was wondering, what were Heep Soep Choi and Kaz Matsui's stats when they were in the japanese league? Were they as good as this or better?

Mike Plugh said...

Kaz Matsui had phenomenal numbers in Japan. I never expected him to be a mega-star in the US, but I must admit that I'm surprised that he sucks this bad now.

Iguchi on the other hand had inferior stats to Matsui, but is a far better player in the Majors. Go figure. It's as simple as scouting. Something about Iguchi allows him to step up to the plate and deliver in the US, whereas Kazuo Matsui flops. Psychology? I don't know.

Hee Seop Choi played at Korea University and then was signed directly into the Cubs organization by Derek Lee's father who played in Korea. To my knowledge he never played in the KBO.

Anonymous said...

"Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball," a documentary by Kenneth Eng that opens up the world of Japanese high school baseball by following the fortunes of two high school baseball teams as they compete in regional games and then head for the 2003 Koshien tournament in Japan, will have its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, July 4th. The film is a part of the 19th season of P.O.V., the showcase for independent documentaries, on PBS

We have produced a companion website – www.pbs.org/pov/pov2006/kokoyakyu/ – that will feature interviews with filmmaker Kenneth Eng, former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, player Hideki Matsui and other baseball experts such as author Robert Whiting. Our companion website also links to other websites and resources on baseball in Japan.

We hope that you watch the P.O.V. broadcast of “Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball” on Tuesday, July 4th at 10 PM (check local listings) on most PBS stations.

Mike Plugh said...

I exchanged e-mails with the people over at Kokoyakyu a few years ago when I was planning to move to Japan. I asked about the project, as I was also thinking about writing a book about Koshien when I came across the project.

Welcome to Canyon of Heroes. I'll plug your project with a specific post, both here and at Japundit.

Good luck.

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