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January 18, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

The Hawk and the Dragon

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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On November 12th, 2011, as Major League Baseball recovers from one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory, Nippon Professional Baseball begins its own best-of-seven championship: the Japan Series.

Much like MLB, Japanese professional baseball has two leagues—the Central and the Pacific—and much like MLB, the champions of those respective leagues play each other to determine a final champion for the entire season. As NPB has only 12 teams compared to to MLB's 30, however, the playoffs are structured a bit differently; with only six teams per league, NPB does not bother with divisions or Wild Cards—the best three teams in each league make the playoffs, with the league's top seed getting a first-round bye. The second and third seeds play a best-of-three series, and the winner faces the first seed in a best-of-five “Climax Series” that's roughly analogous to MLB's League Championship Series. The winning club from each league's Climax Series is that league's champion and advances to the best-of-seven Japan Series to determine which is the best club in NPB. The Climax Series format was implemented first by the Pacific League in 2004 and then adopted by the Central League three years later. Previously, there had been no real postseason in NPB: the team with the best season record from the Central would play the team with the best season record from the Pacific in the Japan Series, and that was that.

In 2011, the top seed in the Central League are the Chunichi Dragons, who play in the city of Nagoya in Japan's Chubu region. They were the Central's representative in the Japan Series the very first year the current format was put in place; the Dragons finished second in the Central, swept the third-seeded Hanshin Tigers in the preliminary round, swept the top-seeded (and heavily-favored) Yomiuri Giants in the championship round, and then dropped the first game of the 2007 Japan Series to the Hokaiddo Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League before winning the next four in a row to claim victory—an exact reversal of the Japan Series the year before, when the Dragons had taken a 1-0 series lead over the Fighters before dropping the following four matches. Since 2007, no team has represented the Central in the Japan Series except for the Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants, who are the NPB's rough approximation of the New York Yankees.

Chunichi's ace and Game 1 starter is 26-year-old Wei-Yin Chen, a six-foot left-hander from Taiwan with a fastball that usually sits around 91-93 mph, a good slider and two-seamer, and a few other pitches that are more inconsistent; he pitched to an ERA of 2.68 in 164.2 regular-season innings, striking out 94 and walking 31. There is some concern that the new baseball that NPB adopted during the 2010 offseason hurt his ability to miss bats; the previous year, in 188 innings, he struck out 153 batters. However, he also walked 49 in 2010, so while the strikeouts are down, the walks are too.

The home team and champion of NPB's Pacific League is the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, based in the city and prefecture bearing the same name. Fukuoka began its franchise history in 1936 as the Nankai Hawks and, after some name changes in the WWII era, resumed play as such in 1947. It was one of the most successful franchises in the Pacific in the ’50s and ’60s, but the company that ran it fell on hard times in the ’80s and sold the franchise to Daiei Corporation in 1988. This is perhaps the biggest stylistic difference between NPB and MLB baseball: professional clubs in Japan are generally owned and operated by corporations whose real business is found elsewhere in the economy, as opposed to being their own entertainment industry juggernauts like they are in the States. Daiei sold the team to SoftBank in 2004, giving the Hawks their current name. Since the sale to Daiei, they've been fairly competitive, winning the Japan Series in 1999 and 2003, and have been in the mix most of the years between 2003 and the present. This is, however, their first return to the Japan Series since their last title; the Pacific League's representation has been dominated recently by the Fighters and the Chiba Lotte Marines.

The Hawks send 30-year-old right-hander Tsuyoshi Wada to the mound to face the Dragons. Wada pitched 184.2 innings in the regular season with an ERA of just 1.51, striking out 168 and walking only 40. It should be noted that run production in general was massively down across the entirety of NPB in 2011; the most commonly named culprit is the new baseball the Japanese leagues switched, which gives pitchers more bite on their breaking pitches. Over the previous four seasons, working backwards, Wada's ERAs were 3.14 (169.1 IP), 4.06 (84.1 IP), 3.61 (162 IP), and 2.82 (182 IP). The peripherals have been fairly consistent across all of his 782.1 NPB innings, however; he’s struck out 8.2 batters per nine and walked 2.3 for his career, and he struck out 8.2 batters per nine and walked 1.9 in 2011.

The Dragons take Game 1 in 10 innings, winning 2-1 on a home run by left fielder Masaaki Koike off of reliever Takahiro Mahara. (Thanks to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker for his excellent game notes). Both Chen and Wada last eight innings and face 29 batters; Chen strikes out 11 to Wada's 8, and both walk two. Chen blinks first, surrendering a run in the fourth off a hit by Fukuoka centerfielder Yuya Hasegawa, who also walks twice. Hasegawa has the best night of any Hawk at the plate; the only other who comes particularly close is Fukuoka shortstop and leadoff hitter Munenori Kawasaki, who singles in his first two at-bats but strikes out in his last two. According to Newman's recap, Chen sacrifices some velocity to gain control, turning his slider into more of a changeup-type pitch, and the Hawks are never able to adjust.

Wada, meanwhile, takes a no-hitter into the seventh inning, only to have it broken up when Chunichi third baseman Kazuhiro Wada (no relation) turns on a pitch, sending it into the stands to even the score at 1-1. Both men leave after finishing the eighth, putting the game in the hands of their bullpens, and though the series goes the full seven games, with the Hawks eventually clinching with a 3-0 shutout, Wada and Chen will not face each other again. Chen will have a bad outing in Game 5, responsible for all five runs of a 5-0 Fukuoka shutout, and two nights later, Wada will start Game 6 for the Hawks, who will again lose 2-1.

In fact, it may be quite some time before the two Japan Series aces pitch against each other again, unless intra-squad games count; they will pitch in Major League Baseball next year as teammates, two of the most intriguing offseason acquisitions made so far by the Baltimore Orioles.

***

Of course, Chen and Wada are also just about the only two offseason acquisitions the Orioles have made.

Baltimore, whose gravest weakness both organizationally and at the major-league level is starting pitching, has sat quiet as C.J. Wilson signed with the Los Angeles Angels, Yu Darvish of NPB was posted and claimed by the Texas Rangers, Mat Latos, Michael Pineda, and Gio Gonzalez were traded to the Cinncinati Reds, New York Yankees, and Washington Nationals, respectively, and are not currently players in the trade talks for Chicago Cub pitcher Matt Garza. If they're talking with Scott Boras about free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson, word has been kept quiet. No, besides trading for Dana Eveland, who might not even make the team out of Spring Training if he’s honestly assessed, the signings of Chen and Wada (and ongoing conversations with other pitchers in NPB and the Korean professional leagues) represent the main thrust of Baltimore's efforts to address its woeful pitching problems.

Last season, the Orioles had a team ERA of 4.92. Their FRA, which corrects for pesky things like defense and takes into consideration the sequence in which the many hits, walks, and runs the Orioles surrendered occurred (punctuated as they were by the occasional out), was 5.18. The next-worse team was Minnesota, with a team ERA of 4.60 and a FRA of 4.87. Taken together, the team's pitchers had a WARP of 2.5. That's not a typo. In 2011, the combined value of every pitch thrown by Baltimore Orioles pitchers in 1446 innings (880.1 by starters, 565.2 by relievers) was about equal to what the Arizona Diamondbacks got from 154.1 innings of Josh Collmenter. Part of the reason for this is that of the 27 men to throw pitches for the Orioles last year, an astounding 16 of them were worth zero WARP or less—and two of them, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, were supposed to be the new, young anchors of the rotation moving forward. Arrieta's 2011 ended with surgery to remove bone spurs in the elbow of his throwing arm, the same sort of injury that derailed Hayden Penn's pitching career, and Matusz's 2011 has the dubious honor of being the worst-ever pitching performance by a pitcher with over 10 starts in a single season. When a pitcher is as bad as Matusz was last year, generally he's demoted before he can reach that threshold; but the Orioles had no one else, so they kept putting him out there, and he kept giving up runs. He finished the season with an ERA of 10.69 in 49.2 IP.

It’s easy to see why the Orioles might look for help in non-traditional places this offseason, considering they and their fans just bore witness to four well-regarded pitching prospects (Matusz, Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton) all busting simultaneously in the most spectacular fashion. Of the four, Britton stands the best chance of turning it around, simply because he's younger; Tillman lost velocity and may never throw another pitch in the majors, at least in the rotation. It doesn't bode well for Tillman that the man who acquired him, Andy MacPhail, left Baltimore after the 2011 season; his replacement, Dan Duquette, has no particular attachment to any of the four young arms beyond what they can do for him on the field.

When he was hired, Duquette pledged to be much more active in the international free agent market; generally, what that has meant in years past is that the team will increase its visibility and funding in Latin America, ratchet up the number of scouts it has on the ground and the quality of its scouting departments there, build a baseball academy, and set aside a larger chunk of the budget for signing bonuses for raw, toolsy 16-19 year olds. Texas and the New York Yankees both have very involved Latin American operations that function much in this way; Miami's has hit of a bit of a rough patch recently, but they're active down there, too. So is Toronto. In fact, just about every team was active in Latin America over the last decade or so, except the Orioles. First, the Orioles were involved but just didn't seem all that interested (perhaps the Daniel Cabrera saga put them off it; the hulking, inconsistent right-hander was signed out of the Dominican Republic by Baltimore in 2004 and at last sighting was kicking around the Arizona farm system), and then when Andy MacPhail took over, the team actually reduced its presence in Latin America because the Orioles front office had supposedly done internal studies that showed it was a poor investment of money.

While Duquette has certainly committed to expanding operations in Central and South America, and the Orioles remain competitive for super-prospects Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler, it seems that when Duquette said "international free agency," he meant that the Orioles would also follow MacPhail's lead in acquiring NPB closer Koji Uehara and take a long, hard look at free agents from the Asian professional baseball leagues as well; in addition to Chen and Wada, the team offered a contract to Korean reliever Tae-Hyon Chong, which he eventually declined in order to remain in South Korea, and gave Ryohei Tanaka, formerly of NPB's Chiba Lotte Marines, a minor-league deal following a tryout.

Why such interest in the Asian professional market? In part, Duquette is reacting appropriately to the provisions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed upon last November. Massive changes were made to the amateur draft and international free agency rules, specifically changes to how much money teams could spend on talent. With a “bonus pool” established to nearly force hard-slotting in the Rule 4 draft and a hard cap on bonuses allowed for amateur players coming to MLB organizations from other countries, just about the only places left uncapped in any real fashion are the professional free agents markets—both here and in Japan. Here, even marginal pitchers who’ve hit free agency can cost significant amounts of money; Joe Blanton, for instance, pitched just under 200 innings of just over 4.00-ERA ball in 2009, and he was rewarded with a three-year deal worth $24 million dollars. With that sort of inflated market and the Orioles’ urgent need for MLB-caliber arms now, why not go after the aces of the NPB and see what they can do? So Duquette did.

In fact, just about the only Japanese pitcher they weren't publically in on was young phenom Yu Darvish, who will likely end up costing the Rangers somewhere between $80 and 100 million when all is said and done. The posting system, which Darvish qualified for but which Chen and Wada did not, is such that the Orioles were never going to land Darvish because no one except perhaps the Blue Jays was going to be willing to front the cash to beat Texas's bid, which was in excess of $50 million. Chen, who is still relatively young, was probably the second-best starting pitcher from NPB available, and the Orioles retained his services for $11.3 million over 3 years, with the signing coming a month after the Orioles acquired Wada for $8.15 million over 2 years. That's about $8 million a year over the next two years for both, which, if they do well, will be a fantastic deal for Baltimore. The question is whether that's something the Orioles can reasonably expect.

Trying to project MLB numbers from NPB statistics is hardly a new art; as one might expect, sabermetrically-inclined fans have been trying to figure out what they should expect from Darvish next season, should he sign with the Rangers. One such attempt at the Steal of Home blog was particularly illuminating: Chris St. John found that when comparing 30 pitchers whose careers began in NPB and continued in MLB, K/BB had the best positive statistical correlation; that is, a pitcher was more likely to maintain his ratio of strikeouts to walks allowed than any other stat, including just strikeouts per nine or just walks per nine.

That does not mean that pitchers maintain their NPB K/BB when they come to America; there is a regression. However, it's a regression that St. Johns was able to map. Applying his formula, Wei-Yin Chen, who has a career 3.36 K/BB in NPB, would be looking at somewhere around a 2.99 K/BB in MLB play, while Wada's 3.44 K/BB in NPB translates to something along the lines of a 3.07 K/BB in MLB. That puts both of them in the ballpark of this group of 2011 starters: Tommy Hanson (3.09), Colby Lewis (3.02), Mat Latos (2.98), Brandon Morrow (2.94), and John Danks (2.93). Generally speaking, that's a very nice place for a pitcher to be if you're paying him $4 million a year; Latos will be anchoring the Reds’ rotation next year, and the other four are front-of-the-rotation starters for their respective teams.

There are a couple things for which this rosy outlook does not account, but foremost among them is this: When the NPB pitcher isn't striking out or walking an MLB hitter, how often is he allowing hits? Specifically, how deep can the starter get into games? How many times through the lineup until the manager has to go to the bullpen? The answers to these kinds of questions sent Koji Uehara, who signed with the Orioles in 2009 because they promised him the opportunity to start, back into the bullpen. It's the sort of territory best covered not by statistical analysis, but by scouting.

As previously noted, Chen is a young right-hander with a low-90s fastball, a two-seamer, a slider, and an inconsistent forkball that he probably shouldn't use too often in MLB play. That's enough for a pitcher to get by as a starter in the majors if the fastball moves enough, the slider slides enough, and he's able to put the ball where he wants it; of course, for both men, there's the additional complication of transitioning to a new kind of baseball for the second time in two years.

Wada, on the other hand, has some red flags. For one, his fastball is 87-88 MPH at best, which is soft for MLB in general but especially so considering the parks and lineups he'll be facing in the American League East. He will have to be extremely precise in order to make it through the lineup more than once. Catcher Matt Wieters has shown that his work framing the strike zone won't cost his team any runs, but it rarely gains any either; if Wada's breaking stuff and location don't translate to North America as well as the Orioles hope, he won’t have a big fastball to fall back on. He's a left-hander, which Baltimore manager Buck Showalter will like, but that doesn't really mean much besides improving the likelihood that he might be converted into a useful LOOGY should he falter as a starter.

His two breaking pitches are a slider and a changeup, with Wada favoring the former heavily over the latter. Even though Wada has the better NPB ERA and K/BB, he's by far the more likely of the two to hit a wall when he comes to MLB. Wada was on the team in time to make the cut for Dan Szymborski's 2012 ZiPS Projections for the Orioles; ZiPS envisions Wada as a 4.01 ERA, 118 K, 39 BB, 21 HR, 106 ERA+ pitcher in 139 innings, which I think is around the best possible outcome for him this year: good rate stats and decent numbers in much fewer innings than one might expect. I expect that like Uehara before him, he'll have a lot of fifth- or sixth-inning exits with runners on that will drive fans crazy, but unlike Uehara, I don't think he has the pure stuff to make a great relief pitcher.

Another thing to note about those 2012 ZiPS projections for the Orioles: Tsuyoshi Wada is projected to be the best starter on the staff, and the gap between him and next-best starter, Jeremy Guthrie, isn't particularly close.

***

Less than a year removed from facing each other on the biggest stage in Japanese professional sports, this April both Wada and Chen will find themselves laboring together in obscurity on a last-place team struggling to keep its head above the water, playing home games in a stadium that is either empty or full of opposing fans. It is unlikely that they will seriously contend for any awards, even Rookie of the Year; it is unlikely that either will throw a pitch in a game that means anything in their entire careers as Baltimore Orioles. The harsh truth is that Dan Duquette did not bring either man to Baltimore to win games or even to make the team competitive. They do not represent the last couple pieces necessary for a contender, like Hiroki Kuroda does to New York, and they do not represent long-term, major-money acquisitions with an eye towards the future, like Yu Darvish does to the Rangers.

What Chen and Wada represent is the exact opposite of what a 16-year-old fireballer from Curacao represents; they are low-ceiling, high-floor pickups whose acquisition is a test case for how to close the most serious organizational chest wound in baseball: the lack of even five replacement-level starting pitchers. Without the aces from the Dragons and the Hawks, the candidates for the 2012 Orioles rotation would be Guthrie, Eveland, Britton, Matusz, Arrieta, Tillman, Tommy Hunter, and Brad Bergesen. Jim Johnson, heir apparant to the closer role, might also get an extended look as a starter during Spring Training—he certainly should— but the quantity of candidates for the rotation will probably persuade Showalter to keep him in relief. It's quite likely, of course, that none of those eight pitchers listed will be able to provide league-average starting pitching in 2012, but by leaving it up to the manager, the Orioles organization is essentially leaving Johnson in the pen. No manager will willingly part with a solid ninth-inning option; it has to be taken from him.

Of that handful of men, two need to become frontline starters, and at least one needs to establish himself as a three-four WARP pitcher, for the team even to think about competing. This is something that is simply not going to happen. The usual caveats apply—half those guys are young pitchers who were well-regarded at some point recently, and something could magically click— but even if Zach Britton turns into 2006-7 Chien-Ming Wang with more strikeouts, the team is still going to finish at or near the bottom of the East. More likely, the rotation will be something like Arrieta-Britton-Chen-Hunter by the All-Star Break, with Guthrie dealt before the deadline and the team frantically switching guys in and out of the fifth-starter slot trying to find something that works. That's the sort of situation they've walked into.

The silver lining is that if they pitch well in this environment, in front of all the empty seats and staring up at first place, Dan Duquette would likely be more than happy to move them to a contender; $4 million a year is a pretty good deal for even a league-average starter, assuming he can put in the innings.

But that's the best-case scenario. Chen and Wada are not coming to Baltimore to win, or even to fix what ails the team; they're coming to stop the bleeding.

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