Thursday, December 21, 2006

Imported Arms: Made in Japan

The fact is, the sample of Japanese starters in the Major Leagues is so small, that any real generalizations are next to impossible. There are a few reasons why this is true. For the generation of players who are nearing the twilight of their Japanese careers, the Majors were a virtual impossibility. While Nomo may have broken the invisible barrier that separated both sides of the Pacific, he did so via chicanery in the eyes of the Japanese establishment and was roundly denounced. The players who grew up alongside Nomo got the message. It was only in 2001, six years after Nomo made his move, that the world took notice of Ichiro Suzuki and the fear of jumping ship for the Majors began to wane. Matsui’s departure sealed the deal. The #4 batter for the revered Tokyo Giants, and a legend of the first order, was taking his game Stateside.

That brings us to today. We are about to witness the beginning of a new era in Major League baseball. The same way that the influx of Latin players changed the game, the Japanese migration will also push the Major Leagues to evolve. With the top professionals from the NPB finally entering the Bigs, other Asian athletes will follow from Taiwan and Korea. The Taiwanese and Koreans have been ahead of the curve, as many players have accepted minor league contracts in recent years, but the Japanese professional ranks represent a talent pool unlike any other outside the US.

The biggest obstacle to a mass exodus is the mandatory 10-year service contract that young Japanese players are forced to sign upon entering the professional ranks. The union lacks teeth and a basic desire to change the system, so it is unlikely this will change anytime soon. The difference today is that financially strapped corporations who own and operate Japanese clubs see their star players as cash cows, capable of bringing in $10, $20, and $50 million a pop via the posting system. By all accounts the Japanese player is a kind of feudal vassal, subservient to his lord. The amount of cash that has come in via posting, however, also assures the Major League fan a chance to see a younger, more effective brand of ballplayer from the East.

If we look at the list of Japanese pitchers that have entered the Majors, it hovers at about a dozen. There have been 6 starters to venture into the fray. Hideo Nomo was the best talent-wise, but had a history of arm surgeries at a very young age that robbed him of his real potential. Nonetheless, he pitched 2 no-hitters, won the NL Rookie of the Year, and posted 4 seasons well above league average, with ERA+ ratings of 150, 130, 120, and 112 to his credit. The list of starters looks like this:


I left off Mac Suzuki here, because he was signed at a very young age by the Royals, but was so horrendous in Japan that his failures in the US were not only less than surprising, but also indicative of the kind of idiotic expenditures that define the Kansas City organization over the last 15-20 years.

One thing you’ll notice is that the youngest pitcher to debut on this list is Tomo Ohka. Ohka was not particularly effective in his short time with the Yokohama Bay Stars, but Major League scouts thought enough of him to give him a shot in the US. At 23, Ohka had time to develop in a Major League system and has been a very good pitcher over the years. A career 111 ERA+ over 8 seasons is nothing to sneeze at, nor is a single season 131, for that matter.

Outside Nomo and Ohka, you have three cases to observe. Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Irabu, and Masato Yoshii. Ishii’s career was marked by a lack of control that saw his K/BB ratio implode. He posted a very ordinary 2.16 K/BB over his 11 professional seasons in Japan. That kind of ratio is not a promising sign of good things to come in the Majors. With more patient hitters, and a consistently better field of players to face, a poor K/BB ratio is a recipe for failure. Hideki Irabu’s 2.30 is only slightly better, and his conditioning should have been a huge red flag. Masato Yoshii, not surprisingly, had a 2.03 K/BB in Japan and was a converted reliever to boot. Maybe you’d be surprised to hear that Nomo only produced a 2.05 K/BB in his young career in Japan. Is this a fair sample by which to judge the current crop of young aces? Maybe, maybe not.

For comparison, let’s take a quick peek at the K/BB ratios of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa, and throw in Koji Uehara for good measure. He’ll be on US soil in 2008. Matsuzaka’s career K/BB is 2.70 and has risen steadily in his prime years. 2006 saw him post an incredible 5.88 for the season. Kei Igawa has a career ratio of 2.97 and a 3.96 for the 2006 season. Uehara is the Japanese master of K/BB, and has a career mark of a scary 6.66!! That’s Curt Schilling territory. The point is, using a bunch of pitchers who posted career K/BB numbers in the low 2’s to judge players who are at 3, 4, 5, and 6 is unfair. The sample of Major League starters from Japan does not include the best of the best, and it will come as a surprise to many of the doubters that the next wave of arms to cross the Pacific will succeed, and perhaps pave the way for more top pitchers to enter the US in the not too distant future.

But wait. I’m not finished yet. There’s still the matter of the Japanese relief core in the Major Leagues to consider. After all, the Red Sox just brought in Okajima as a lefty middle reliever and there is a somewhat larger sample by which to judge his potential in Boston. Over the last decade there have been some excellent Japanese relief pitchers that either brought their specialist success from NPB, or converted from starter status once they entered the Bigs. Here’s a chart to compare their performaces:


If you look at this list, you’ll notice that Sasaki, Otsuka, and Saito have all been excellent closers in the Majors. Hasegawa was a lights out guy that could thrive in long relief as well as late inning pressure situations. Saito stepped into the Dodgers closing role last season as a 36-year-old rookie and posted a 222 ERA+. It’s hard to imagine at that age that he’d be able to sustain that kind of pace for long, but it shows that it’s possible. Shingo Takatsu entered the league at 35 and shocked the world by putting up a 213 ERA+, but was unable to duplicate that success the following year. What would he have done had he entered the league 5-10 years earlier?

In light of this, I think it’s fair to expect better things from both Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kei Igawa in 2007. I’ve written many time that I believe Matsuzaka is one of the top 5 to 10 pitchers in the world. The Red Sox are paying an average of about $17 million a season to employ Daisuke. While Matsuzaka is getting screwed in the deal if he pitches like the ace I think he is, the Red Sox are paying somewhere around fair market value for the results. The Yankees are paying an average yearly expenditure of about $9 million a season for Kei Igawa. Igawa, too, is getting the short end of the stick if he pitches like Andy Pettitte, which I’ve also written in the past. The Yankees will have absolutely robbed the field in having acquired him at that price with players like Gil Meche getting $11 million a season. Remember that Pettitte is getting $16 million for his work in 2007.

We should all be rooting for these players to succeed. A new infusion of good pitchers is something the sport needs. There are some very good players entering the Majors from the Minor Leagues now, but there is also a potentially untapped source of experienced pitching in Japan that could alter the competitive landscape of the sport for those teams who take advantage of it. As long as Japanese clubs are getting big money to export their players, the Majors will have a field day. Even better are the free agents that are set to test the waters in the next several years, headed by Koji Uehara in the winter of 2007. I’ll bring you as much as I can about these pitchers, and we’ll all be following our own Kei Igawa to build a new basis for our expectations on similar players yet to cross the US radar. I hope the days of Irabu as the measuring stick for Japanese pitchers will be over in the next several months. Time will tell.

5 comments:

Paul™ said...

Interesting perspective, Mike. Thanks for that.

Latin American players have been a mainstay in American baseball for years. The Asian players will open a whole new avenue for major league baseball and could eventually improve the overall quality of play by widening the field of available talent.

This is good for baseball overall and might even give a kickstart to American development.

Anonymous said...

I was just writing about something akin to this the other day, and since I'm not going to spam your comments with a link to my blog, I'll just quote the applicable paragraph:

"I don't see why MLB teams can't buy the release of the player with a more reasonable sum of, say, $5 million. The highest team salary in Japan in the year 2002 was $32.6 million US (Yomiuri Giants); the Seibu Lions and Hanshin Tigers (Matsuzaka's and Igawa's clubs, respectively) had significantly lower payrolls (source). So $5 million US is nothing to sneeze at for a Japanese club. In fact, it would have been 1/3 Hanshin's 2002 payroll. So the Yankees probably paid more to the Tigers than the Tigers pay their entire team. Heck, the Red Sox probably doubled the Seibu payroll. In some sense, there may be no reason for teams to not start selling off their older stars. At least at $5 million, there is a little more cause for restraint. It's nice, but not jump up and down nice."

By the way, your apostrophes always appear like a mess in Firefox.

Mike Plugh said...

I just switched to Firefox full time, from Opera, and I noticed the same thing. What's up with that? Someone tell me how to fix it....

Anonymous said...

I could hazard a few guesses. When I worked with Moveable Type, any apostrophes I wrote in WordPerfect or another word program would lead to things like "that?s" instead of "that's" when I copied, pasted and published. It's possible you're getting the same effect; see if your apostrophes go straight up and down or if they look more like this `, but going the other way.

Another guess is that you might be using some weird Asian keyboard that is screwing you up. My friend is recently in Japan, and his emails are apostrophe-free due to his inability to figure out how to make one. I'm not sure if that has any bearing.

Other than that...conspiracy?

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