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June 8, 2011
The Asian Equation
The Futile Quest for the Next Ichiro
Thus far in the Asian Equation series, I’ve explained the early history of Japanese-American baseball traffic which lead to the posting system and the signing of Ichiro Suzuki, who is among the most idiosyncratic players in either league. As we discussed in the comments section, the success of one unique player from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) doesn’t mean that all of them can succeed, a logical fallacy that has eluded many baseball executives.
Although the feeding frenzy has declined lately, the last decade was marked by many teams gambling on the next Eastern import, hoping for another Ichiro to take them to the next level. A few players have succeeded, collecting World Series rings and postseason acclaim, but many of them have simply survived—a dream for any player, but not what the general managers were laying out serious cash for.
Some of these players arrived via the posting system, but more have made the move via free agency (available to NPB players after nine years of service). Because the posting fee effectively doubles the cost of any NPB acquisition, it’s easier for teams to find value from free agents. To measure the difference, I’m presenting each player below in descending order of value, as measured by the per-dollar WARP return. (For the purpose of comparison, Nerd Baseball calculated that teams paid $2.4M per free-agent WARP from 2007-8.) Posted players are always more expensive, so I’ll also look at some per-WARP costs without the fee to see what value the player would have brought if only signed as a free agent.
Shinjo followed Ichiro’s 2001 debut a day later, having signed with the Mets for the league minimum after ten successful years with the Hanshin Tigers where he was known as “Spaceman” and “Airhead” for his flashy rock-star lifestyle and flaky statements like, “What I want from life is to drive a really cool sports car and dress nice.”
Shinjo’s defense kept his WARP positive despite lackluster offense, and San Francisco signed him in 2002 after the Mets released him. Hoping to recapture his glovely magic, New York brought him back in 2003, but the magic was obviously gone. Only cheap contracts made him such a bargain, and his impact on the Japanese-American market was minimal, even if he was the cheapest of all the imports.
Another low-profile outfielder, Taguchi signed a three-year, $3M deal with the Cardinals before the 2002 season. A former teammate of Ichiro on the Orix Blue Wave, Taguchi hit for an average in the .270s in NPB but supplemented it with just 66 home runs in 4,165 at-bats. He spent most of 2002 and 2003 in the minors with late-season cups of coffee. His .259/.310/.519 in 59 plate appearances in late 2003 helped him stick with the big club in 2004. That season, Taguchi became the first NPB player to appear in the World Series, which the Cards lost to the Red Sox.
Taguchi signed cheap one-year deals as the Cards’ fourth outfielder for three more seasons, returning to the World Series in 2006. The Cards won this time, thanks in part to Taguchi’s go-ahead homer off Billy Wagner in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS. Taguchi became the first (and only) NPB player to win two World Series rings after winning another with the Phillies in 2008.
The Cubs signed him to a minor-league deal in 2009, supposedly to help Kosuke Fukudome in his second spring training, but Taguchi appeared in just 6 Cubs games (still impressive for a 40-year-old from any country). In many ways, Taguchi represents the perfect NPB signing: a low-cost, low-profile player able to contribute at a major-league level (and collect two championships in the process).
After the flop of Kazuo Matsui, Tad Iguchi made a much smaller splash signing with the Chicago White Sox, undoubtedly because Iguchi was also a lesser talent in Japan. He had only two .300-plus seasons and one 30 homer season, in 2001–the same year he led the Pacific League with 44 steals. Iguchi would be the first Japanese-born player to take home a World Series ring, doing so with the 2005 Chicago White Sox. He hit .278/.342/.438 that year with a .274 TAv that was 24th among second basemen, earning him fourth place in Rookie of the Year voting.
Iguchi had another very similar season with Chicago, hitting .281/.352/.422 before they traded him to the Phillies in 2007 to fill in for an injured Chase Utley. Iguchi signed a one-year deal with the Padres in 2008, but they released him in September, in time for the Phillies to sign him again for their World Series run but too late for him to make the postseason roster and win a second ring to match So Taguchi’s (coincidentally, already a Philly that season). Like Taguchi, Iguchi succeeded because of his modest price and fungibility, leading to a precisely average per-WARP cost.
Ichiro Suzuki 51.6 WARP
I covered Ichiro last month, and he’s here for comparative purposes. He’s high on the cost scale, but he delivers value in merchandising and ticket sales, and being a superstar merits higher pay. Being a posted player also drives his price up. Without the posting fee, Ichiro’s $2.5M per-WARP cost would tie him with Tad Iguchi, qualifying him as a huge bargain.
Matsui had hit cleanup for the Yomiuri Giants (NPB’s New York Yankees) for his entire career, following in the footsteps of Japanese baseball demigods like Saduharu Oh, Japan’s Home Run King. Matsui carried on the tradition admirably, never missing a game in ten seasons while hitting .304/.413/.582, mashing 332 homers, driving in 844 runs, and swiping 100 bags. He led the league in home runs and RBI three times and barely missed the 2002 Triple Crown, recording one of NPB’s best seasons ever: .334, 50 homers, and 107 RBI.
The Yankees, salivating at the thought of Matsui aiming for their short right field porch, signed him to a three-year, $21M deal. Though his power rarely suited his nickname of Godzilla—actually a cruel reference to his bad skin—Matsui amassed a 15.2 WARP in pinstripes despite two knee surgeries and a gruesome wrist injury. In his best season, 2004, he hit .298/.390/.522 with 31 homers and 108 RBI, pulling down a .315 TAv (tied for 24th overall in the league) and a career-best 5.3 WARP. In 2009, Matsui became the first DH (and first Asian player) to win a World Series MVP award, clubbing the Phillies into submission with a .615/.643/1.385, 3-home-run performance that included a game-winning home run in Game 2 and 6 RBI in the series-clinching Game 6.
Matsui did well with the 2010 Angels—only Torii Hunter and Mike Napoli delivered higher marks than his 3.0 WARP—but he has yet to do much with Oakland this season. Along with the slightly higher price tag appropriate to any Yankee, he’s delivered excellent value and has helped Ichiro prove that some NPB players can excel in MLB.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ $4.55 posting fee for Iwamura was lost amid the much larger Dice-K and Kei Igawa multimillion-dollar posting fees. His contract was also lower: just three years and $7.7M. As Tampa Bay’s starting third baseman in 2007, Aki hit .285/.359/.411, a .268 TAv that was 25th at his position, but it was a performance better suited to a middle infield spot and much lower than his .300/.366/.519 career line in NPB. When Evan Longoria took over the hot corner in 2008, Iwamura shifted to the cornerstone, where he’d never played professionally, a move that dropped his FRAA from -0.5 to -5.8. He still served as a good leadoff hitter, though, thanks to a .349 OBP that was third on the team and a 27.5 VORP that was fourth, helping the franchise reach its first World Series.
In 2009, Chris Coghlan blew out Aki’s knee while breaking up a double play, an injury that might not have occurred if Aki had protected himself with the bag the way an experienced second baseman would have. The injury seemed to be his downfall as he drifted to the Pirates and to the A’s before heading back to Japan. Aki had a short peak and distinguished himself well, but the value he delivered to MLB clubs was a bit sub-par, in part due to time (and perhaps talent) lost to that knee injury. Discounting his posting fee, Aki’s slightly above-average $2.8M per-WARP cost would have been more appropriate to his career .264 TAv.
Johjima seemed like an excellent candidate to be the first NPB catcher to play in the States, hitting .299/.360/.517 in his nine-year career. But could an NPB player become an MLB field general? Johjima had to adjust from a 12-team to a 30-team league and accept a different pitching paradigm: NPB pitchers throw mostly breaking balls, reliably filling counts before throwing 3-2 fastballs. Whether due to this discrepancy or the language and cultural barriers (always more intense between pitcher and catcher), Mariners’ pitchers performed worse when Johjima received, leading to lower K/BB ratios and a higher opponents’ OPS.
That made Johjima’s performance at the plate much less important, although even that declined the longer he was in the league, dragging his VORP down relative to fellow catchers:
The great experiment of MLB’s first imported catcher didn’t work out so well, and Johjima voided the final two years of his bloated three-year $24M contract extension in 2009 to return to Japan. Despite his first two seasons of moderate success, it’s doubtful that we’ll see another NPB-trained backstop anytime soon.
Kosuke Fukudome 8.2 WARP
His last name sounds even more like a swear word in the mouths of Cubs’ fans, but their assessment of Fukudome’s performance has a lot to do with his price tag and lofty expectations. The Cubbies paid for a full-time outfielder and solid lefty bat, but Fukudome turned out to be more of a contact platoon hitter instead.
In Japan, Fukudome hit .305/.397/.543 with 192 home runs in nine seasons, and he looked like he might be that same hitter in his first month in Chicago, hitting .327/.436/.480, including a three-hit, three-RBI debut. Unfortunately, Fukudome collapsed like a paper lantern in the season’s second half, losing 152 points off his OPS. Fatigue was suspected, but it seems more likely that Fukudome just can’t hit major-league portsiders (.247/.340/.356 against lefties and .267/.379/.419 against righties). Both splits reflect his excellent batting eye, and as Baseball Prospectus 2011 points out, this makes him a good leadoff hitter in an impatient Chicago lineup.
Fukudome’s no-trade clause will keep him in Chicago through this season, after which he’ll undoubtedly become a free agent at a much-diminished salary. His cost per WARP is close to Ichiro’s, but Fukudome isn’t anywhere near the same box-office draw—or the same player. He’s not the biggest Chicago bust in recent years, but Fukudome doesn’t bring enough value to merit this price.
Kazuo Matsui 5.4 WARP
“Little Matsui,” the first NPB infielder to play in MLB, signed a three-year contract with the Mets in 2004. Like his bigger—unrelated—countryman, Kazuo never missed a game in nine seasons, hitting .300 in seven straight, including NPB’s first 30-30-.300 season by a switch-hitter, finishing his career with 306 steals and 150 homers. He never approached this level in New York, though, hitting .272/.331/.396 in his first (and best) season, including 7 home runs, 14 steals and a .258 TAv that was 16th among shortstops. Nagging injuries that would typify his MLB career helped diminish his 2005 production to .255/.300/.352 and a .243 TAv that ranked 41st among second basemen, where he had moved to accommodate Jose Reyes.
BP called him “import[ed] junk” before 2006 when New York traded him to the Rockies for Eli Marerro, who had hit .181/.239/.413 the season before. The Rockies compounded the insult by immediately optioning Matsui to Triple-A, but Colorado’s thin air would help resurrect his career. He hit .345/.392/.504 in 126 plate appearances after returning to the majors, following this up with a .288/.342/.405 season in 2007, helping his team reach the World Series with a team-leading .417/.500/1.083 line in the NLDS.
A three-year deal with the Astros led to a series of diminishing performances when his VORP plunged from 19.3 in 2008 to -0.5 in 2009 to -8.0 in 2010 when Houston finally cut him loose. His career .267/.321/.380 and .247 TAv are among the lowest of Japanese imports, making him the priciest bust in NPB-MLB history.
We won’t be able to assess Nishioka’s value until he’s had more time in the league, and he can only hope that he recovers from his injury better than Akinori Iwamura.
Nakamura reached a deal with the Mets before the 2002 season then retracted it when the club told the press before he could inform his NPB team. The Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal two years later, hoping he’d replace Adrian Beltre. Instead, Nakamura hit .128/.171/.179 in just 41 plate appearances with the Dodgers before they sent him down to Triple-A where he hit a respectable .249/.331/.487, but they released him at the end of the year anyway. With a deal this small, it’s hard to crown him the biggest bust, but he deserves a mention here, too.
Though these players didn’t have the impact of the idiosyncratic Ichiro, there’s value to be found in NPB players, even high-dollar ones like Hideki Matsui, but there are plenty of pitfalls too. This makes it difficult to generalize about NPB talent—a foolish exercise, in any case, as one would be foolish to draw assumptions about all players in the Pacific Coast League the same as they would all shortstops from Venezuela.
One clear conclusion is that the increased cost (and risk) of the posting system may lead to its decline or replacement with a better system. This is, however, still only half the picture—far more pitchers than position players have made the move from Japan to MLB. In my next two columns, I’ll look at the starters and relievers in a similar fashion to see whether the posting system can provide any value or if teams are better off rolling the dice on older players in the free agent market.