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March 2, 2011
Getting to Know Tsuyoshi Nishioka
Tsuyoshi Nishioka enjoyed a career year as a 25-year-old in 2010, leading the Pacific League in runs, base hits and total bases. The switch-hitting shortstop posted career bests across the board with an impressive slash line of .346/.423/.482. The .346 batting average was also tops in the Pacific League and Nishioka paced the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Japan League title.
It was a bit of a surprise last November when the Marines posted him for sale, three years before he was eligible to move as a free agent—perhaps they were looking to sell high. Whatever the reason, the Minnesota Twins submitted the winning bid (of $5.29 million) and inked the middle infielder to a three year deal (with an option for a fourth) valued at $9.25 million.
It is folly trying to project how someone will adapt to jumping leagues (and oceans) so let’s just focus on what we know about the young middle infielder. It always helps to get a look at a hitter and YouTube has a number of videos featuring Nishioka, including this compilation featuring swings from both sides of the plate, a little defense and some base running thrown in to highlight the complete package:
If you watch the video, you will undoubtedly draw comparisons between Nishioka and another well known import from the Japan League. While that’s understandable, Nishioka doesn’t project to be as prolific a hitter as his compatriot Ichiro. He will certainly turn on a pitch, but his quick wrists allow him to wait and drive it the opposite way. It appears Nishioka has solid plate coverage, as he’s clearly adept at inside-outing a pitch on the outer half of the dish or he can go down and hit one off his shoe tops. Quite simply, he’s an above average contact hitter. The contact has yielded several seasons where he’s posted strong batting averages. Nishioka has hovered around the .300 mark for most of his career, although he dipped to a career worst .260 in 2009. That year, he was hampered by leg injuries, got off to a slow start and never recovered. Perhaps the leg injuries were a reason his batting average on balls in play was also at a career low of .286.
Nishioka is the rare player in that, as a natural left-handed hitter, he became a switch-hitter following his struggles in his first professional season. That year, he hit just .216 playing for the Marine organization in the minors. His swing has developed over time and he posted back to back .300 seasons in ’07 and ’08. While Nishioka struggled in ’09, his contact rate remained high and his OBP was a still solid .360. The difference between 2009 and 2010 when Nishioka led the league in batting average was a lofty .399 BABIP. From the following table, you can easily discern how he maintained his on base percentage in 2009 while he was struggling with his batting average - behold, the power of the walk.
As recently as 2008, Nishioka wasn’t going to get cheated at the plate… And his walk rate reflected it. He walked just six percent of the time in his rookie year and followed that up with a seven percent walk rate the next season. It wasn’t until the 2009 season when he struggled with his batting average (after experiencing a couple successful campaigns) that Nishioka decided to give selectivity a try. He was off a bit from his best rate last year, but it was still nice to see him reach double figures, percentage wise.
Not to compare, but to provide perspective, Nishioka’s best ISO years would rank him outside the top 200 for a power hitting season by middle infielders over the last decade (although he did find a bit of a home run stroke in the Pacific League over the last three seasons). After hitting 17 home runs combined from 2004 to 2007, he came close to matching that total with 13 in 2008. He topped that and powered 14 home runs in ’09, then followed up with 11 last season. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t have “light tower power” like Charlie Sheen, but he was able to square his pitch and drive it out of the yard on occasion.
If you have your eye on Nishioka, beware the injury bug. The 2010 season was the first time in his career he was healthy enough to play a full complement of games. It’s not as though he’s had chronic issues in one particular area… He’s missed games due to a variety of issues, including but not limited to, wrist, knee, foot and neck injuries. It’s the knee injury that understandably seems to have robbed him of some of his speed. After attempting 50 steals in 2006, he dropped to 40 attempts in ’07. Even though he was healthy last year for the first time to play the full 144 game schedule, Nishioka attempted only 33 steals and was safe in just 22 of those attempts—a 67 percent success rate. That’s really a number that should send up a red flag as that’s his career rate since 2006. While he does possess above average speed, he’s just not what you would call a savvy base runner.
And it’s not like Ron Gardenhire will throw up the stop sign just because he has a guy with plus wheels who gets thrown out on the bases. The Twins haven’t been running as much over the last couple of seasons because they haven’t had the players. Denard Span led the Twins last year with 26 stolen bases and Orlando Hudson was the only other Twin to reach double figures and he had 10. Nishioka will get a chance to run.
Defensively, Nishioka has the range to play shortstop, but the prevailing wisdom is his arm is better suited for duty at second base. He played both positions in Japan, but was primarily the shortstop for the Marines. It looks as though the Twins will shift Nishioka to second, which means Alexi Casilla will hold the shortstop position. That’s more of a move to accommodate Casilla than Nishioka. Gardenhire likes how Casilla is more engaged when plays short, claiming his middle infielder was complacent at times at second base last summer.
Nishioka had a solid defensive reputation in Japan, winning the NPB Golden Glove a total of three times—once at second base and twice at shortstop. We all know the biases associated with that award, which is just as subjective in Japan as it is in the States. Still, it’s worth noting he won the award in a season where he split time between second and short. And as a 20-year-old.
What will be worth watching is Nishioka’s transition to playing on Field Turf to grass. In the Pacific League, the majority of the games are on turf as only one team plays its games on natural grass. If anything, the real stuff should help the reduce some of the long term wear and tear he will experience over a longer slate of games.
Nishioka’s ability to make contact and his plate discipline should play in the majors. Do not, however, buy into his successful 2010 campaign as a measuring stick of his true talent. The spike in performance was so sudden—and undoubtedly fueled by his sky high BABIP—that there is no way it could continue, no matter which continent he decided to play on in 2011. His walk rate, while improved, is still low, so it’s doubtful the Twins will place him in the leadoff spot. It’s more likely he’ll bat second, which is just fine if you’re in a league where runs count. He won’t touch double figures in home runs. As for steals, he’ll run, but don’t set unrealistic expectations. The worry will be his health and how he holds up to the rigors of a 162 game schedule. There’s also the learning curve associated with a new league and how he adapts to the fastballs of the American League.
In his rankings of shortstop, Marc Normandin rated Nishioka at the bottom of the three star rung and PECOTA projects a .284 BA with 10 home runs and 19 steals. I’m good with the average and steals, but as I mentioned, I don’t think he’ll hit double digits in home runs. I would probably bump him to the top of the pile of the second tier. Still, Nishioka should be a solid, regular player. He's certainly worth a mid-round pick to fill out your team up the middle.