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April 10, 2007

Impact Talent in Japan

Give Us Your Best, Yearning to Be Enriched

by Mike Plugh

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Since we began coverage of Japanese baseball with my previews of the Pacific League and the Central League, the most common kind of e-mail I've gotten in my inbox since asks the question, "Who's Next?"

Why the sudden interest in who's next? It wasn't all that many years ago that people scoffed at the idea of a Japanese player making an impact in the major leagues. There were a lot of reasons given for the lack of interest, but I believe the lack of high-profile Asian athletes on the American sports scene perpetuated some old ideas about the size, strength, and durability of East Asian players. Misconceptions remain until someone gives us a reason to change our minds.

In the year 2000 I was living and working in New York. That was when the name "Ichiro" began to make the rounds, as the Orix Blue Wave was getting ready to send the outfielder to the Mariners. Many people I spoke with at the time rolled their eyes at the move. The big money the M's were spending on a little slap hitter from Japan was widely questioned. I vividly recall my shock at the rationale behind these journalists' opinions. "Japanese players are too small, lack power, and won't stand up to the grueling Major League routine. Major Leaguers are much bigger, stronger, and likely to dominate the average Japanese position player. They don't throw as hard as we do. The parks are smaller. How can we expect to believe in the quality of Japanese baseball when minor league wash outs go over there and succeed?"

I've just gone through a second round of defending the Japanese athlete with the Matsuzaka Watch I've been engaged in for more than a year. It was all about Hideki Irabu for doubters. Many people, then and now, fail to understand that we've never seen Japan's best pitching on American soil. The list of Japanese pitchers who have tried to make the jump to the major leagues is very short; it's hardly a representative sample worthy of accurate prediction. With every start that Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa make this season, I expect more people will come around. Neither of them will always be lights-out, but each will turn in enough strong performances to bury the name of Hideki Irabu when it comes to discussing expectations about Japanese pitching. If Matsuzaka is half as good as I think he is, fans from all corners of America will be knocking down doors trying to find the next Dice-K. If Igawa can balance his clunkers with some strong outings, you'll find your middle ground starter.

Every new Japanese player in the Majors has already made his debut in 2007, and it's worth noting why people have suddenly come around to the idea of getting in on the Japanese market.

Daisuke Matsuzaka   Kei Igawa    Hideki Okajima

7 IP                5 IP         4 IP
6 H                 8 H          2 H
1 BB                3 BB         1 BB
1 ER                7 ER         1 ER
10 K                2 K          2 K
1.29 ERA            12.60 ERA    2.25 ERA
1.00 WHIP           2.20 WHIP    0.750 WHIP

With Akinori Iwamura jumping out to a .529/.619/.765 line, you can add that to the established success of hitters like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, as well as the solid contributions of Tadahito Iguchi, Kenji Johjima, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito, and others. There you have your answer to the reason for the curiosity about who's next. We now have a sample ranging from "World Class" to "League Average" to go by when assessing the potential of Japanese player impact on the Majors. Yes, there are some flops, but it's now easier to put those flops into context with the failed Americans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and other international let-downs. Just because it happens doesn't make it endemic to an entire nation of people.

An interesting developing story is the resurgence of Kaz Matsui. It's worth noting that this player, universally regarded as one of those Japanese flops, went to the Rockies organization, he went back down to Triple-A, then made it back to the majors and has produced. Last season, in 32 games and 113 at-bats, Matsui produced a batting line of .345/.392/.504, and he's continued to hit coming out of the gate in 2007. He might be benefiting from the thin air in Denver, but he would certainly deserve consideration for Comeback Player of the Year if he keeps it up.

The Free Agents

So, to move on to the question of who's next, these are players that are true free agents and have expressed their desire to move to the Major Leagues in 2007, at one time or another.

Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chunichi Dragons
Height: 6'0" Weight: 187 Bats: Left Throws: Right Age: 30

Fukudome is tailor-made for the Major Leagues. People who have seen the current crop of Japanese players know that many use a batting style like Ichiro's, where they lean back, slap at the ball, and try to get an early jump out of the box to first. Fukudome also does this on occasion, but looks a bit more like Hideki Matsui in the box than Ichiro. He has patience as well as power to the gaps, a recipe for success, especially if he chooses to play in a ballpark with a spacious outfield. I wouldn't look for more that 20 home runs from Fukudome, but 50 doubles is not out of the question. The selling point of Fukudome, when compared to his peers, is his habitual .400+ OBP. He won't beat himself at the plate often, and he'll make you make your pitch. If you miss, he hits it hard. His rifle arm in the outfield will also be a blessing for the lucky team to acquire his services as teams around the league will learn not to run on him very early on in the season. There is almost no downside to adding this player.

Koji Uehara, RHP, Yomiuri Giants
Height: 6'1" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 32

Uehara is Japan's favorite number one pitcher. Since his university days, he's fronted the Japanese rotation in international competition; even when wunderkind Daisuke Matsuzaka has been on the team, Uehara's seniority and steadiness in a big spot made him an automatic choice. He has declined a bit in recent years, and is not the young impact pitcher that ideally you'd like to add coming from Japan. He's established himself over the years as a world class K/BB man, posting a devilish ratio of 6.66, and I liken him to a Brad Radke -type starter. He won't be your #1 guy, but he will keep you in every ballgame and will not hurt himself with walks. His fastball is fair, but his repertoire of offspeed pitches and control make him very tough. He was the man that Japan asked to face the United States in the WBC, and he was the winner of the semi-final rematch with Korea. Only recent nagging injuries would prevent him from being one of the top pitching acquisitions of the 2007 offseason, as he's toiled with minor bumps and strains a lot over the last year or so.

Naoyuki Shimizu RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines
Height: 5'11" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 31

Shimizu has asked to be posted in the past, but has always been refused. He is a free agent after this season, and a sure bet to head stateside. His credentials in Japan are not very impressive, with a career ERA of 3.90, a mediocre K/BB ratio at 2.53, and 6.4 K/9. In the World Baseball Classic, Shimizu worked out of the bullpen and earned a save. If anyone bites on him as a free agent, he may start out in the rotation if he's on a less competitive ballclub, but my bet is that he'll be a reliever in the mold of Shigetoshi Hasegawa. That wouldn't be all that bad actually, as Hasegawa was a solid member of some competitive Mariners teams.

The Posting Candidates

These are players whose teams would benefit from selling them while their value is at a premium. That said, there has been no word about likely posting of these players, one way or the other, and each name is merely an educated guess.

Kazumi Saito, RHP, SoftBank Hawks
Height: 6'4" Weight: 217 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 29

There is no indication that SoftBank is going to post Kazumi Saito; they are the team to beat in the NPB this year and have spent their money wisely on a strong lineup of players and pitchers. Saito is the front man for their rotation, and they would be worse off for the future for losing him. The issue here is that Japanese team owners know that the posting system as it exists today might go away soon. There is $40-50 million of posting revenue out there for a pitcher like this, and perhaps one last chance to take it.

Saito is a very good pitcher with great size and the ability to pitch down in the zone with great control. He is the Pacific League's only two-time winner of the Sawamura Award. I've never been a huge fan, as I think his fastball is a bit straight and slow at 88-90 mph, although he can dial it up to the mid-90s when he needs to. He works that fastball on the lower part of the plate to go along with a truly devastating forkball, a good slider, and a nice curve. He knows how to pitch, and he has very good command of his arsenal. If he gets the ball up, he struggles, but that's rare. His mound presence is interesting. He pitches like he has a giant chip on his shoulder, and sits in the dugout with a bitter scowl on his face. It can be intimidating.

Yu Darvish, RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters
Height: 6'5" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 20

Darvish is a 20-year-old stick of dynamite. Born to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, he has achieved a kind of matinee idol status in Japan for his good looks and big-game ability. Like many Japanese pitchers, he was thrown into the mix at the age of 18, and was asked to start winning right away. His first half-season was an up and down affair, with some very tough moments interspersed by flashes of brilliance.

Last season, still only 19 years old, Darvish became Nippon Ham's ace, winning his final 10 decisions with an ERA in the low twos. He began to control his breaking pitches, and also developed a real mound presence. His performances in the Japan Series and the Asian Games, where the Fighters took both titles, were dominating, and he's poised to take over as the top pitcher in the Japanese game in 2007. He's opened the season with three powerful performances, including back-to-back 14 K games. Manager Trey Hillman has been quoted as saying that Darvish could one day be better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, and is already more advanced at 20 than Daisuke was at that time in his career. I suppose we'll have to wait and see about that, but he's off to a good start. It's highly doubtful that Nippon Ham will post Darvish anytime soon, and Darvish has never been quoted as having any interest in crossing the Pacific to play. Instead, there have been some rumors floated that he actually doesn't want to move to the US. Still, he is so good that you have to keep him on your radar.

Norichika Aoki, OF, Yakult Swallows
Height: 5'9" Weight: 170 Bats: Left Throws: Right Age: 25

Aoki is the darling of the Japanese baseball media. His name is found everywhere when discussing the future of the Japanese sport, but also as someone who might be among the next group of possible postings. He's an outfielder who gets mentioned in the same breath as Ichiro Suzuki, but I may be in the minority that believes it's way too early to know whether he's actually that good. Having the tools to be successful is different than actually being successful. Aoki does everything well, but has shown little power to this point. His career batting line is .330/.390/.425, so you can understand the buzz, but he is now 25 years old and needs to show a little more pop before I'm sold on the Ichiro thing. Last season he stole 41 of 53 bases (a 77 percent success rate), so that's a dimension to his game that makes up for the mediocre slugging. While he may never be Ichiro, any MLB club would be lucky to grab a 26-year-old center fielder with a good eye and speed on the basepaths. If he retains any of his batting average in the major leagues and builds on it with a good stolen base percentage, he'll be valuable. Again, Yakult would be foolish to post him--he's one of the most popular players with kids in Japan, and losing him would mean potentially disenchanting a young generation of fans.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP, Hanshin Tigers
Height: 6'0" Weight: 183 Bats: Left Throws: Right Age: 26

To be honest, the only reason I've included Fujikawa on this list is because I read his name in a blurb in the Toronto Globe and Mail on April 2nd, including his name with those of Uehara and Fukudome as names to watch. Prior to that, I hadn't heard much about a prospective posting of the fireballing closer.

All you need to know about Hanshin's sandman is that the last two seasons have seen him post K rates approaching 14 per nine innings and opponent's batting averages in the .170s. If he is posted, he settle into a role as a setup man with a major leage club to start off, but you shouldn't be surprised if Fujikawa is seen closing out games before his rookie season is over.

The Future

These next few are young players, guys who don't yet have a professional contract of any sort. The MLB clubs and the Japanese professional leagues have observed a kind of gentleman's agreement over the years about staying away from high school players, but that could change very soon with more young Japanese dreaming of being the next Ichiro, Matsui, or Matsuzaka.

Yuki Saito, RHP, Waseda University
Height: 5'9" Weight: 160 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 18

Saito is the latest "Heaven-Sent Child of Koshien," having pitched his high school to the championship last summer with a series of Matsuzaka-like performances, including nearly 300 pitches in less than 24 hours in an extended championship that ended in a tie after the first try, and was replayed the following day. He was dubbed the "Handkerchief Prince" for using a blue handkerchief to dab the sweat from his brow on the mound, and more than a few middle-aged ladies and swooning high school girls have fallen for him. He's replaced the handkerchief with a standard-issue towel as the freshman ace of Waseda University, and has generated so much excitement that the Tokyo Big Six University League games will be televised nationally for the first time in the history of "Japan's Ivy League." He has a great fastball with movement, a slider to match Daisuke at the same age, and an ability to focus on the mound that belies his tender age. His dream is to pitch in the Major Leagues, and a lot of speculation has swirled that his decision to forgo the amateur draft, where he would most assuredly have been the #1 pick, was a way to avoid the lengthy service contract and posting system. He may jump from college to MLB in four years. Watch him.

Sho Nakata, OF, Osaka Toin High School
Height: 6'0" Weight: 207 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 18

This is a force of nature. Sho Nakata's idol is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but his days as a pitcher are numbered. I've seen him pitch and it's impressive, but he's no professional. It's his power with the bat that is truly monstrous, and he's only 18. As a 15-year-old, Nakata played in the 15-year-old World Series in the United States and was named MVP. His power was so impressive at that age that a number of Major League teams, including the Mets, Twins, and Cubs have subsequently been following his high school career with great interest. He has some holes in his swing, and he needs to learn a bit more plate discipline, but his ceiling is not visible from where you're sitting. In the Spring Koshien tournament, Nakata hit home runs in back-to-back at-bats, a feat not accomplished since Hideki Matsui did it many years ago. Nakata has that kind of potential, and then some. If MLB teams skirt the "gentleman's agreement" that exists about signing high school players in Japan, and if Nakata is a willing accomplice, you would definitely see him in a minor league camp next year.

Atori Ota, RHP, Teikyo High School
Height: 6'1" Weight: 200 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 18

There are dozens of Japanese pitching prospects that have the public talking. I've seen the majority of them, and most are not ready for prime time. A few may develop over the next few years and build enough ability to be good pitchers in the NPB. A few more may grow to the point that they can test the waters for a jump to the major leagues at some point down the road. Atori Ota is the best of those pitchers. Good size, excellent command, and a power arm have enabled him to endure a few games here and there where he's had a bad inning or two; there's still a lot to learn about being a pitcher at the age of 17 or 18. That said, his combination of size, power, and calm on the mound are not attributes that you can teach. The tools are already there, and all that remains is seasoning. He'll probably get that seasoning in the NPB next year, and he'll have some kind of service contract as a result. If there's any way for major league teams to acquire him in three or four years, I think he'll be ready.

The Situation Entering 2007

Speaking of service time, one of the difficulties in predicting the next wave of Japanese players to come across is the Japanese contract system. By now, we've all had a look at the posting system and the big money that is available to Japanese teams who are willing to bite the bullet and send their best players overseas. It's basically a take-the-money-and-run situation that makes a few people rich, floats a floundering company or two, and robs the Japanese game of its brightest stars. Japanese players leaving for the major leagues is not good for the Japanese game or the Japanese fans in many ways. That much is obvious.

What's not quite as obvious is that while mass defections to the US are not likely, the threat of them would certainly help to reform a sport desperately in need of an infusion of new thinking. The old guard of Japanese owners has run things as a good old boys' network for as long as the organized leagues have been around. The recent scandal surrounding illicit payments by the Seibu Lions to amateur players around the country has threatened to tear apart the entire league, especially given the revelation that hundreds of players received money from multiple teams. The draft is a sham. The union is as weak as it gets. Players are subjected to contractual language that allows owners to reduce their pay for a drop in performance. With all that, why wouldn't players want to come to America?

In the US, players have more freedom, more money, more perks, and a strong union. The fans have absolutely fallen over themselves to welcome players like Ichiro, Matsui, and Matsuzaka. The league is strong, the seats are full, and there is no worry that a stingy owner is going to shortchange you if you strike out a few less batters in a given year, or lose 10 points on your average. The collective mentality that persists in Japanese culture keeps some players loyal to their teams, fans, and tradition, but with each player that crosses to the US, a greater sense grows that there are no longer barriers to a dream.

The major leagues may be working on an international draft to even the playing field in the competition for help from abroad, and/or the posting system may be done away with. The draft in Japan is in line for reform, and the contracts that players are asked to sign may go from 10 years of mandatory service to five. So things are changing, but in the meantime, we can only guess at the names to next make the move to the Majors. Take theses lists with a grain of salt, but don't doubt the ability of these players to help your favorite club.

Finally, since I started writing for BP, I've been receiving a lot of e-mail from readers who are genuinely interested in learning more about Japanese baseball. It's gratifying to be a part of BP's coverage of the sport, and it's also a great pleasure to receive your kind words and interesting questions. Keep your questions coming.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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