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September 20, 2011
The Asian Equation
The Future of the NPB Import Market
In the Asian Equation series, I’ve traced the history of the current posting system that imports players from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese major leagues) and how the success of Ichiro Suzuki has affected it, from the position players who arrived in his wake to the pricey disappointments among starting pitchers and the marginally successful relievers. In this final column, I’ll take a look back to draw conclusions from this history and see what we can expect from the NPB market in the future. As with my previous columns, Patrick Newman’s advice and ideas were very helpful, as is his website, NPB Tracker.
The simplest, broadest conclusion concerns the players themselves, where we must draw an important distinction between talent and skills. As Craig Brown wrote in the comments section of his article on Tsuyoshi Nishioka, “. . . comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Japan is like comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Delaware.” Just because they’re from Japan doesn’t mean we can draw specific conclusions about individual ballplayers, their talents, or their ability to succeed in Major League Baseball. This goes double for Ichiro, whose skills are idiosyncratic on either side of the Pacific. Throwing money at Japanese players expecting them to be slap hitters with weird batting stances and an uncanny ability to find defensive holes is as foolish as thinking every Venezuelan shortstop will field (and endure) like Omar Vizquel. We can’t expect specific players to have certain inherent talents just because they were born in Japan.
Though it’s foolish to assume there is a typical Japanese ballplayer talent, we can draw conclusions about how they’re trained to play the game, which shapes their skills. As I touched on in the first column of this series, the Japanese attitude towards strategy and player development springs from their culture, just as MLB’s approach reflects America’s independent, self-reliant culture. Writers like Robert Whiting (The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, You’ve Gotta Have Wa) and Robert K. Fitts (Wally Yonamine, Remembering Japanese Baseball) describe the way that baseball appeals to Japan’s samurai ethos, the bushido code that’s similar to (but much stricter than) the Western chivalric code. Sacrifice, the team spirit of defense, and the showdown between batter and pitcher seem to come straight from classic bushido texts. Baseball is, indeed, quite Zen.
This samurai spirit has given Japanese players and managers a different outlook on game strategy and conditioning. Following the samurai honor code, the game remains much less rough-and-tumble than MLB, even after the revolution Wally Yonamine brought. NPB pitchers traditionally tip their caps when they hit a batter, and you’ll never see a pitcher retaliate for a hit batsman. As you can see from this long compilation of NPB brawls and other bloopers—many of them rather old—most of the fights are started by (or involve) Western players. (You’ll also see that the spirit of honor doesn’t extend to players’ treatment of umpires).
Japan’s martial perspective affects player development too, which begins at a young age—just as samurai training did. To make them tough soldiers unafraid of death, samurai children were deprived of food, left exposed in extreme weather, or sent on long, impossible errands to terrifying places. Today, Japanese players of any age can expect long, regimented, and punishing practice sessions, the infamous “1,000-fungo” drill, or prolonged abuse on pitchers’ arms. Training regimens are shifting—the 1,000-fungo drill is used as more of a threat these days—but the outlook persists, producing players who are fundamentally sound but may break down earlier than their American counterparts.
This physically demanding regimen combines with an incredible passion for youth baseball to terrible effect. Japan’s two-week summer high-school Koshien tournament drew 844,000 fans last season; by contrast, the ten-day 2010 Little League World Series drew 261,745. This puts pressure on coaches to push players, especially pitchers. The most famous example of Koshien abuse, Daisuke Matsuzaka, threw more than 500 pitches in 38 innings over a four-day stretch.
These factors undoubtedly lead to Japanese pitchers’ injury problems, and the emphasis on overall conditioning over strength training might also explain the absence of Japanese power hitters in MLB. Along with conditioning, the more popular traditional sport of sumo wrestling attracts the bigger, more powerful athletes who might otherwise turn into muscle-bound home-run hitters.
Although Saduharu Oh and his 868 homers are idolized in Japan, and his single-season record is protected from being broken by a gaijin, fans don’t dig the longball in Japan the way they do in America. Japanese and samurai culture emphasize teamwork and downplay individualism, and the home run—the ultimate expression of individualism—is simply not as venerated in Japan as in America.
Lastly, NPB players transitioning to MLB face many psychological challenges. On and off the field, they must adjust to a different culture and language, affecting everything from getting dinner after a game to communicating on a pitcher’s mound with coaches, catchers, and position players. NPB imports must learn new hitters and pitchers—almost three times as many, since NPB has just 12 teams—along with new pitching and defensive strategies, new stadiums, and new coaches.
Even though NPB players view MLB as the ultimate challenge, their fans and the press often portray them as traitors for leaving their native country. The pressure to succeed can thus be overwhelming and, when players arrive with mental makeup problems ranging from rebelliousness (like Kaz Ishii) to deeper psychosis (like Hideki Irabu), the result can be devastating both on and off the field.
These differences, along with many smaller factors too numerous to recount here, can help us understand why success in NPB doesn’t immediately translate to success in MLB. At the same time, players from any country need the same skills to succeed in MLB, so we can assess NPB imports with the same metrics as we would any other player, something I’ll do briefly below to see what kind of players NPB produces and how they find Stateside success.
Their walk rates show that they are not a patient bunch. Major leaguers averaged 8.5 BB% last season, and five of these hitters fell well below that mark. On the other hand, all exhibit fine contact skills. The 2011 major league average for K% was 18.5 percent—a mark that only Aki Iwamura and Tad Iguchi exceed, and both do so by less than half a percent.
Their elevated BABIPs shows some ability to make hard contact and place their hits well; only two players fall below either 2010 league average BABIP of .295. Hideki Matsui, the only power-hitter in the bunch, is also the only one to exceed last year’s league average ISO of .143, though most beat the .398 SLG. Since both of these numbers are lower than they’ve been in years, however, most of these hitters were even farther below average during the time they played.
Generally speaking then, a player from NPB is likely to be a low-power, high-contact hitter, a touch impatient but able to spray line drives, place hits well, or use their speed to generate hits. None of these are particularly valuable commodities in and of themselves, which explains why many of these imports—though fungible—haven’t been bargains, and several have been big-time busts. We don’t need to look to Japan for a player with these skills, a realization that will hold down the price of the next position players to cross the Pacific. This deflation has already been experienced by Aki Iwamura and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, both of whose total price (posting fee plus contract) were well below the free-agent contracts of position players Hideki and Kazuo Matsui.
This has led to a conversion problem when coming to MLB, where a good fastball is a virtual necessity. The most successful MLB starters—Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, and (in 2008) Dice-K—have had dominant fastballs, though they also complemented them with great off-speed pitches (sliders for Kuroda and Dice-K, splitter for Nomo). The same can be said for the most dominant NPB relievers; Kaz Sasaki, Takashi Saito, Akinori Otsuka, and Koji Uehara all had great fastballs.
The relievers also had out-pitches—Uehara and Sasaki’s splitters and Saito and Otsuka’s sliders. Only Hideki Okajima leveraged just one dominant off-speed offering—his changeup—to enjoy early success, but its effectiveness clearly faded the longer he was in the league. Shigetoshi Hasegawa—the longest-tenured NPB import—constantly refined and changed his repertoire to enjoy long-term success, though he was never consistently dominant.
This, too, isn’t rocket science. Successful relievers from any country need two complementary pitches, and fastball-splitter or fastball-slider are common combinations. Junkballers can succeed as starters without dominant fastballs, but they require pinpoint control, something that no NPB import without a good heater has been able to demonstrate.
Looking at a table of starting pitchers sorted by career WARP, it’s clear that the best pitchers need either a good fastball (like Nomo or Dice-K) or great control (like Hiroki Kuroda, who also has an excellent fastball). Ohka sits so high on this list mostly due to longevity: only four of his ten seasons had a WARP over 1.0, and two had a WARP over 2.0.
Even though quite a few pitchers broke the 6.0 K/9 benchmark, only three of these NPB imports stayed below the 3.0 BB/9 walk threshold. This is unsurprising, due to the NPB pitching tendencies I discussed in this column. Essentially, NPB pitchers tend to fill counts against batters, their managers disregard pitch counts, and umpires are even more subjective towards star pitchers than their MLB counterparts. This leads to the control problems that seem to typify Japanese imports, something that only the most dominant of strikeout artists can overcome.
We see similar trends in the ratios of NPB relievers as we did with starters, although strikeout ratios are stronger overall, something that’s generally true with relievers. Like Ohka among the starters, Hasegawa’s success came over a long stretch (nine years), which explains his mediocre ratios; only he and Murakami (who pitched in an era of lower strikeout rates) succeeded despite a whiff rate below the 6.0 benchmark. Even the best relievers show some control problems, but they are of a much milder nature than their starting counterparts—again, this is also generally true of relievers.
And so, if we’re sketching a broad portrait of an NPB pitching import, he may have control problems and is unlikely to be a dominant strikeout force unless he’s an elite reliever. As with position players, this isn’t a skill set worth paying top dollar for, and NPB pitchers encounter the same challenges as any pitcher. Starters must possess a dominant fastball to succeed, while relievers must have both a good fastball and a great “out” pitch.
Simply put, there’s no magic (or magical pitch) that pitchers acquire in Japan to make them an invaluable commodity. The best must show the same skills that any major-leaguer requires, and the arm abuse they many have endured is likely to make them even shorter-lived than their Western-born equivalents. Executives would do well to keep this in mind when they send their scouts Eastward and when they decide whether—and how much—to pay the next golden-armed import.
As an example, look at Hisashi Iwakuma, whose posting rights small-market Oakland won with a reported $19.1 million bid in the 2010-11 offseason. The two sides couldn’t come to terms on a deal, being reportedly too far apart, with Iwakuma demanding $12 million per year and Oakland willing to offer only $3-5 million. Iwakuma’s posting fee was the lowest fee paid for a pitcher since Tampa Bay paid $750,000 for Shinji Mori’s rights in 2005, and this was the first time in the history of the posting system that a team couldn’t come to terms with a player they’d bid on.
The market has declined sharply thanks to the high-priced flops of Dice-K and Kei Igawa, but Iwakuma will test the market again this offseason—this time without any posting fee as he has achieved NPB free agency. Oakland cited its posting fee as a reason for their lower contract offer, so it remains to be seen if Iwakuma (now with a new agent) will get his earlier contract demands or if the market has softened even further.
At the opposite end of Iwakuma on the excitement scale—but no less a test for the posting system—is Yu Darvish, whose name has dominated NPB import discussions for the past several seasons. As Patrick has reported on NPB Tracker, Darvish has gone from denying any desire to play in MLB to a “no comment” this year. Most recently, one source says his parent club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, is ready to post him. Darvish, who features a fastball in the mid-nineties to complement his broad arsenal of off-speed stuff typical of typical NPB pitchers, looks even tastier than Dice-K. The test for him—and for the NPB market—will be how high his posting fee rises, and whether anyone is willing to shell out $100 million for a Japanese import again.
The market for Darvish (and, to a lesser extent, Iwakuma) will be viewed as a bellwether for future postings and signings, and I expect the market to drift away from posted players like Darvish towards lower-priced, lower-profile free agent signings. That would leave NPB clubs without any compensation for losing their superstar free agents, something they’d also lose if the player merely went to another NPB team. Increased focus on NPB free agents could lead to a change in the posting policy, although it’s doubtful that we’ll see a truly international draft anytime soon given NPB’s harsh reaction to Junichi Tazawa’s defection from the 2009 NPB draft. Patrick has two interesting discussions on this topic (with an outlooks that’s a bit more hopeful than mine), but I doubt that NPB would yield given its historical focus on the teams and owners and not its players.
Until the economics of the transpacific market changes or NPB becomes even more like MLB (like adopting a more MLB-like ball, as they did this season), I think we’ll see far more free-agent signings (here’s Patrick’s list of 2011 NPB free-agency candidates) than high-cost posting-fee players. Given the higher expenditures involved, the uncertain return, and the lower ceiling achieved by all but the best NPB imports, the Japanese market is likely to be dominated by low-cost relievers and utility players—at least until the next Ichiro or Nomo comes over and shatters the paradigm or the Japanese and American leagues grow closer together strategically, culturally, and economically.