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January 16, 2002

The Latest Import

Kazuhisa Ishii

by Michael Meehan

Just when you thought you had a handle on the influx of Japanese players, along comes Kazuhisa Ishii. Last week, the Dodgers won the rights to negotiate with Ishii, a 28-year-old left-hander, in the same process by which the Mariners acquired Ichiro Suzuki last season. They paid $11.26 million for the privilege, and are optimistic about having Ishii in the fold shortly.

So what kind of pitcher will he be? First, take a look at Clay Davenport's Translation for him:

Kazuhisa Ishii Throws L Age 28

Year Team Lge G GS IP H ER HR BB K ERA W L H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 KW PERA STUFF
1994 Yakult JCL 54 10 101.7 93 61 12 69 94 5.40 5 6 8.2 1.1 6.1 8.3 0.7 5.50 -2
1995 Yakult JCL 26 21 146.0 116 59 13 65 146 3.64 10 6 7.2 0.8 4.0 9.0 1.1 3.16 27
1997 Yakult JCL 18 15 112.3 75 31 5 44 112 2.48 9 3 6.0 0.4 3.5 9.0 1.3 2.36 33
1998 Yakult JCL 28 27 187.0 151 79 14 97 232 3.80 12 9 7.3 0.7 4.7 11.2 1.2 4.18 37
1999 Yakult JCL 23 21 126.7 121 71 15 69 157 5.04 6 8 8.6 1.1 4.9 11.2 1.1 5.47 30
2000 Yakult JCL 29 27 173.7 139 69 15 75 189 3.58 12 7 7.2 0.8 3.9 9.8 1.3 2.96 33
2001 Yakult JCL 27 27 172.7 141 77 20 77 146 4.01 11 8 7.3 1.0 4.0 7.6 0.9 4.33 15

Ishii is the best strikeout pitcher in Japan. He's also a bit wild, and his strikeout rate and Stuff score (a new tool to measure effectiveness, introduced in Baseball Prospectus 2002) declined quite a bit in 2001.

Pitchers from Japan have met with mixed success in the major leagues for a variety of reasons, including the adjustment to American hitters and to the American lifestyle. To get a handle on how Ishii might make the leap, let's look at the careers of the three most prominent starting-pitching imports from Japan: Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii, and Hideki Irabu.

Nomo was 27 in 1995, the year he arrived in L.A. Over five seasons with the Kintetsu Buffalos, he'd had a 3.15 ERA, averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (K/9), with a two-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.317 WHIP. In his first season with the Dodgers, Nomo actually pitched better than he had in Japan, posting a 2.54 ERA, more than 11 K/9, a better than three-to-one K/BB, and a WHIP of 1.056. In his second season, he was also an excellent pitcher. By his third season, he had slipped to above-average, and since has been a mediocre, albeit high-strikeout, pitcher.

I was actually at Yankee Stadium for Hideki Irabu's MLB debut. The place was packed, and George Steinbrenner had posted signs all over the Stadium with a 800 number fans could call to order Irabu T-shirts.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Irabu was an excellent pitcher in Japan, although he wasn't the hero that Nomo and Ichiro are because of his perceived attitude problem. Irabu was 28 when he came to the Bronx, having pitched professionally in Japan since the age of 19, with a 3.41 career ERA, 9.1 K/9, a 2.2 K/BB, and a 1.299 WHIP. Not quite Nomo's career numbers, but good enough to justify the hype. Irabu had a rough half-season in the Bronx, posting a 7.09 ERA and a 1.668 WHIP, although his 9.5 K/9 and 2.8 K/BB showed he had potential for success.

In 1998, he started 28 games with pretty good, but not great, numbers: a 4.06 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 1.7 K/BB, and a 1.295 WHIP. Unfortunately, New York was getting to him. Repeated reports that he showed up to games with hangovers (hey, it was okay for the Mick), infuriated Steinbrenner, who had given up prospect Ruben Rivera to acquire Irabu's rights from the Padres. In 1999, Irabu's performance, and his situation, deteriorated and he was unceremoniously shipped to Montreal in the offseason.

Yoshii is a different type of pitcher than the other two. He's a control expert who doesn't have a lot of giddyup on his fastball. He was already 33 by the time he came to the Mets, much older than Nomo or Irabu. In 13 Japanese League seasons, Yoshii had a career ERA of 3.43, averaged 5.6 K/9, with a 2.0 K/BB and a 1.292 WHIP. Yoshii started 29 games in both of his years with the Mets with similar results in both seasons, averaging a 4.17 ERA, 5.9 K/9, a 2/1 K/BB, and a 1.287 WHIP. After that he was banished to Colorado, and has now been converted to a middle-reliever/spot-starter in Montreal.

What does this mean for Ishii? He has a lot in common with both Nomo and Irabu. All three will have entered MLB in their mid-to-late twenties, all three with much fanfare and hype, and all three are high-strikeout pitchrs. Ishii has an ERA of 3.38 with 9.7 K/9 in his career, similar numbers to both Nomo and Irabu.

I think Ishii will be a very successful pitcher for the Dodgers, at least in 2002 and 2003. Like Nomo, he'll be making his debut in a great environment for a strikeout pitcher. Ishii has shown he can pitch as well in Japan as the pitchers who preceded him to the States did, and while we know the Japanese Leagues aren't MLB, we also know that the best players in Japan can have an impact over here. It's time to get ready for Ishiimania!

Chris Maher is editor of the Fantasy Baseball Review, an e-mail newsletter published three times a week throughout the baseball season. For more information, please visit http://creativesports.com/offers.shtml.

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